Since Lassie Come Home and Black Beauty animals have been characters in fiction, but this topic is about using them in stories from the human viewpoint, not the animal's viewpoint. Can animals be characters or are they just part of the plot or setting?
I love animals of all ilk, even spiders...when they're outdoors with other nefarious insects, not in the house, please. That goes for mice, rats, snakes, and other pests considered vermin indoors. But I'm not talking about those types of animals, and yes, they have their place and purpose and may appear in stories for similar reasons. Nothing is worse than being hunted in the dark by an animal with night vision, enhanced hearing and scent detection that has lost its fear of humankind. And remember, it was a flood of rats covered with fleas that wiped out a third of the human population with bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. So an animal's presence in a story isn't always a warm, cuddly, or fun feature, but I love encountering them in stories.
Characters carry out the plotline in stories. That's stating the obvious, I know. Named characters are important ones, unnamed ones are usually part of the setting or placeholders referred to by their profession, sex, or species: policeman, nurse, doctor, saleswoman, doorman, woman, man, dog or Siamese cat. Even in English grammar it explains if an animal is named, its pronoun becomes he or she (a character), if unnamed, it is called it (a placeholder).
|B&W BB is watching you, and she is as fast as her name.|
Often pets in family situation stories become part of the family, so become characters, and often perform important functions in the story. Characters who have become isolated for one reason or another, might have animals as companions that become more important to them than any human, which happens in my story Acceptance. The protagonists, Kissre, is estranged from her human family. As a mercenary in a Renaissance type setting, her horse and her dog are her family. Both animals have important functions within the plot, too.
I use animals as characters because if you own pets, you know they already are characters. Each one’s personality is slightly different from the other. Pets can be great secondary characters, both for good and evil purposes. Dogs and cats, even horses, can make a person laugh, sigh in comfort, feel compassion, or fear for personal safety. They are entertaining, encouraging, loyal and non-judgmental. They usually are not inherently evil unless misused by humans, a situation that can cause intense tension in a story, so pets are good at showing the best and sometimes the worst in their human counterparts.
In reality, dogs and cats are often used for their mental healing capabilities, reaching people sunk into their own minds because of trauma or age, people tuned out on worldly matters. A pet animal can sometimes return these lost souls to themselves even if only temporarily. Maybe physically, too. Recent investigative studies shows that the resonate waves of a cat’s purr can heal bones and muscles—as reported in Scientific American. Wouldn’t that make an interesting character in a science fiction or fantasy story?
This article is just an animal lover's opinion on animals in fiction, but science is proving animals are not the purely unthinking instinct driven disposable-if-humans-so-desire creatures. Studies are showing they are more intelligent than many people want to believe. Besides, instinct still drives humans as well...so no condescending name calling about stupid animals, hear?
The following authors are also covering this topic on their blogs. Please check out what each author has to say.