Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Writing Animal Characters

Today,, Larry K. Collins, my husband and sometime collaborator, is my guest blogger. He tells about writing animal characters. His latest sci-fi venture, The McGregor Chronicles, features a cat, and he shares the issues he had writing this feline. 

When I was growing up, my family ran the gamut of pets. There were dogs, cats, hamsters, turtles, ducklings, chameleons, and goldfish. The latter three were acquired from various contest booths at grammar school carnivals. Remember “toss a ping-pong ball into the top of the bowl and win a fish?” The tiny goldfish came home in a water-filled plastic bag. Unfortunately, for my brother and me, none of the carnival animals lived long.

Dogs and cats were another story. The first, a cat, arrived when my mother found three-year-old me sitting on the back porch, petting a full-grown tabby. “Can we keep her?”
I named her Jezebel, not knowing she was a he. We got a clue when every kitten in the neighborhood began to resemble my cat. He would butt his head against my hand when he wished to be petted, a trait I wrote into The McGregor Chronicles series as a cat called Knucklehead. Jezebel lived with us for fifteen years.

The dog, a blonde cocker spaniel named Candy, arrived when a neighbor family moved out of state and could not take her with them. The four-footed refugee immediately bonded with my family. The dog had been quite yappy when in the neighbors’ care, often waking us at night. But when she arrived, my dad pointed to her and said, “I’ll have no barking dog living here.” Her eyes grew wide. She must have understood, because after that, the only time she ever barked was when the mailman or first-time strangers came to the door. She became guard and protector for the family.

In high school, my first job was working nights in a gas station. By then Candy was old, deaf, and nearly blind. She would abandon her bed to sleep with her back against the front door so she knew when I got home. If I was late, she would go to my parents’ bedroom to tattle, bumping the mattress as if to say, “He’s not home yet.”

After Lorna and I married, new pets entered our family.

There’s a saying, “Dogs have masters. Cats have staff.” It was certainly true of the cat we inherited from a relative, an obnoxious Siamese.

Foxy demanded attention but only on her terms. She sat just beyond arm’s length and yelled for us to pet her. Which meant we had to get up to comply. Foxy shared a fragile truce with our gray, mini poodle, Shadow. It lasted only as long as neither acknowledged the other’s existence. They passed in the hallway, each looking in opposite directions. But the cat ruled the house.

When I decided to include an animal in my Sci-Fi series, The McGregor Chronicles, I opted for a cat. The physical description of my fictitious feline, Knucklehead, came from the tabby of my own youth.

The temperament, however, was from another cat. Not just any cat. I based it on my favorite all-white feline, Pippin. He fit none of the usual cat clich├ęs.
He was regal. He sat on a shelf or the back of the couch, head held high, front paws together, and tail wrapped neatly around his paws. Unmoving, he looked like a statue. Strangers often jumped in surprise when, after five minutes, the statue next to them looked their direction. He never demanded attention, but was friendly and loving. If one of us was sad or depressed, he sensed it, and wanted to be near, preferably on a lap. His steady purr soothed my young daughter’s tears. He allowed her to dress him in doll clothes, toss him over her shoulder, and carry him around. He never complained, but I remember a pleading look entered his gold eyes as he stared back at me from Kim’s shoulder as she carted him away. I knew I’d soon have to rescue him.

Most cats don’t like riding in the car. Pippin loved it. Sitting motionless in the back window package tray, he often got surprised looks from people in nearby cars. If it was cold, he sometimes wrapped himself around my neck and shoulders, like a fur collar. From there, he could watch out the side window, startling those who drove by.

I introduced my cat character in the second book of the series, Escape From Eden, and plotted a larger role for him in the third book.

However, as I began writing the third story, Alien Invasion, I got a serious pushback from the animal. Just like a real cat, he refused to do what I wanted.

Knucklehead complained. “First, I’m not a he. I’m female. And I don’t like my name.”

This cat acted more like the obnoxious Foxy than my compliant Pippin, or even Jezebel, but “she” put a paw down, and would go no further.

Since book two had already been published, I had to modify my story to account for the new name and sex change. Knucklehead became Qittah.

Further into the story we hit another impasse. I had thought to have Qittah interact directly with the aliens. She refused. “Your stories are more science than fantasy. Keep it that way. I don’t want to talk to aliens, and I’m in no way magical. I’m just a cat.“

Again, she was right. As a normal cat, she could provide comfort to a character during a dark time in the story and bring out the softer side of other characters. Plus, her adventures with weightlessness and the other aspects of space travel added realism to the final work.

This wasn’t what I intended when I placed a cat in the story. But, I think it made the tale better, and Qittah seemed to like it.

Do you use animals in your stories? And if so, how?


  1. I, too, grew up with pets that had personalities that I talk about to this day. My real-life experiences with campgrounds also gave me the idea of campground pets at the Black Horse Campground. Renfro, Corrie's old black Lab is modeled on my old Weimaraner, Edgar. Corrie's tabby, Oliver, is modeled after my brother-in-law's cat, Toby, who used to sleep on the back of his old black dog, Padre (so named for the white spot at his throat that resembled a clerical collar.) Having pets makes characters seem more real!

    1. Do your pets ever refuse to follow your plans? how do you deal with them if they do?