Writing Excuses 8.3: Pets

We called it “Pets” because it’s pithy, but what we’re really talking about here is how to give your story’s animals — horses, dogs, cats — a personality. Why is this important? Why might it be useful? What are the tropes and the common pitfalls? What is the difference between tortoise-shell, calico, and piebald?

(We don’t actually answer that last one.)

Whether you’re using animals as a sounding board, for raising the stakes, or as an early-warning system (or as all three) you’ll want to give this a listen.


Write a human interacting with an alien, and the alien has a conspicuous companion animal who is critically important to the alien’s life.

Making Money, by Terry Pratchett narrated by Stephen Briggs

17 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.3: Pets”

  1. Thank you! This was just the podcast i needed!

    Still not sure if my pet will surive the revision but this did at least give him a chance. He very much thanks you for this.


  2. I expected an entertaining but not particularly revelatory episode. What I got was insight into how the human species out-competed my alt-history fantasy races who lack historical beasts of burden. Thanks, guys!

  3. The way McMurty writes about Woodrow Call’s horse in Lonesome Dove is an excellent example. Other cowboys keep offering him huge sums of money or barter for it so you learn its beautiful and valuable, and lots of the cowhands have been bitten by it so you know its dangerous. Its an accident waiting to happen and when that accident happens it takes the book up a notch. And its value is central to the conclusion of the story.

    Great podcast this week!

  4. Nice episode and a good reminder that I need to up the personality levels of my “Little Riding Rexes” in my current project, a misnomer as they’re actually herbivores.

    We occasionally do in-house dog sitting for other people and our poor shih tzu has to deal with the newcomers. He has developed a clear, “If I ignore this dog long enough, it will go away” attitude. It’s funny to see the cool aloof attitude appear when otherwise he acts like a grumpy old man trying to tell us young human whippersnappers off. There is definitely story potential here.

  5. Folks –

    Great cast. Thank you. @Howard, enjoyed the prompt. The final tip, I thought, was quite valuable – that it’s okay for the pet owner to anthropomorphize, but not the narrator.


  6. In “Futurama” season 7 episode 4 a pet serves as part of alien’s personality (id) entangled via quantum means with the actual alien (ego). That’s probably the most ‘crucial’ alien pet I’ve ever seen.

  7. Wow, don’t they have farm animals in Utah? There’s a lot more than just beast of burden on a farm.

    While the rooster crows, the chickens scratch, the hogs root, the cows chew their cud, and so on…

    Here’s a transcript to keep the words rolling.

    Roll over, Rover.

  8. Wow, don’t they have farm animals in Utah? There’s a lot more than just beast of burden on a farm.

    While the rooster crows, the chickens scratch, the hogs root, the cows chew their cud, and so on…

    Here’s a transcript to keep the words rolling. (This time with URL!)


    Roll over, Rover.

  9. Hey, will this podcast be helpful, if I have a situation similar to Princess Mononoke? Where the lead is raised by wolves as their child, rather then a human having a pet?

  10. Yeah, I always know something bad is going to happen in the Game of Thrones books whenever one of the dire wolves starts acting up.

    As well as sensing upcoming plot developments, animals are often used to reveal a human’s character. If an animal does not like someone, there is a good chance that character is a villain eventually. For example, the Trouble with Tribbles Star Trek episode.

  11. I know it is a completely different genre and very old fashioned, too. But I still think if you want to study doing good pets in novels, there is lots to be learned from the one and only Patricia Veryan. All her pets are engaging characters on their own, each very distinctive from the other. She uses lots of horses, but also some cats and dogs, a pig and a gander. They add lots of laughter to her stories, play important but realistic roles in key scenes, and are often addressed by the heroes and heroines when there is no one else to talk to. The most important role of the pets in Veryans books is showing the characters of the people around them. For example in one of her series Roland M. is one of the bad guys. But the way he loves his horse Rump endears him to the reader and in the end he gets his own book where he turns into the hero. And when torture does not break him, his enemy has the horse shot – and because you as the reader know about their relationship this works perfectly well as the ultimate cruelty he has to suffer. One of the most lovable male characters in Veryans books is Devenish, who has a temper and is playing the tough guy because he was teased so much about his boyish, pretty looks. But through the way he acts around animals, the reader always knows that he is a softie in the best possible way.
    By the way, Veryan also does a great job writing children, without getting all gushy about them.

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