Why Use Non-Human Characters in Your Writing?

I’ve mentioned before that I’ll be doing a conference session at this year’s Colorado Gold with Rita Award winning author Robin Owens. We’ll talk about the good, bad & ugly of non-human characters.  There are several great reasons to add non-human characters to your writing.  Here are a few:

Picture of Labra-Doodle, Henry1. Audience Interest in Non-Humans

The pet industry alone in the United States is a $60 BILLION industry. Can you imagine? I sure wouldn’t mind having one one-hundredth of one of those billions.  Do you think I’m cute and fuzzy enough to do that?

We adopt pets for fees large and small, and then we feed, bed, play, and otherwise engage with our “children” for many years.  All that care adds up financially, but it also shows that our hearts are fully engaged.

From the beginning of story telling through today’s blockbuster movies, animals, ghosts, monsters and other non-humans have captured our interest. Do you remember when Jaws came out?  Perhaps you learned Aesop’s Fables as a child.  Did you see the movie, War Horse? And who hasn’t experienced some version of Frankenstein, vampires, or ghosts? Every writer would do well to study non-humans and bring that knowledge forward into his or her writing.  There is definitely an audience for non-human writing.

2. Non-Humans Layer Your Writing

A little spice

A little spice

As part of a critique group, I see a lot of great stories that are just missing a little “something.”  There are exciting plots and great protagonists, even some good narrative. But the story doesn’t sparkle.  It’s missing a little–spice.

Animals can add that spice to your work.  Think about the people you know.  Who’s allergic to cats?  Who’s afraid of dogs?  Ever seen someone literally climb on a chair when they see a mouse? For $5 you can come to my house this winter.  Point is, we humans have a wide array of reactions to animals.  When you add in ghosts or monsters, we become even richer in our existences.

If you can challenge yourself to write about non-humans, you’ll automatically enrich your human characters around them.

3. Non-Humans Help Explore Bigger Issues

Trash in Rome

We’re all a part of climate change.

Just as in the days of Aesop, non-human characters can provide a mirror into our own human conditions.  I’m thinking about vampires who never die, but steal life away from others.  They show us just how evil it is to use others for gaining a false sense of richness in our own lives.

Or how about when a regretful ghost haunts us into re-examining our own lives as only Jacob Marley could do for Ebenezer Scrooge?

In Jaws, the island residents of Amity experience the terror of evil invasion, and threatening to destroy their very way of life.  Good people, not superheroes, need to collect their courage in the face of this threat and protect their homes and lives.

Now, It’s Your Turn

Your world is full of “monsters,” animals, and other non-humans (perhaps robots?).  How ’bout using your writing session today to develop a non-human character who shows how you feel about climate change, politics, or equal rights?  Create a story where this non-human may be significant, but the story is from a human perspective.  Then try the story again from the non-human perspective and see what you discover about the issue and about yourself.

Enjoy a deeper, richer, imaginary week, my friend.

Does This Make a Good Speaking Topic?

Even though the annual Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Conference is still several months away, many writers in the group are preparing and proposing speaking topics.  I’ve often tried to propose a topic that would work well and be accepted by the conference board.  The reward is a free conference attendance, and, to me, that is a lot of savings on a terrific event.  Unfortunately, none of my topics have, as of yet, been accepted.

This year, one of the proposals I’ll submit will be with a well-established writing colleague, Robin D. Owens.  Have you read her paranormal romance books?  Lots of good reading there.

Anyway, both Robin and I are interested in secondary characters that happen to be animals.  She focuses a lot on cats, and you know my heart has gone to the dogs.  We’re thinking of doing a presentation on animals and other non-humans as secondary characters.  I’d really appreciate your thoughts on this subject.  Here are some of my challenges, as I think through the proposal:


Dog with reindeer antlers

Okay. Couldn’t resist. This is Trigger. What’s his story?

Much more than half our population has a pet of some sort.  According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, our country has over 43 million households with dogs and 36 million homes with cats.  That’s a lot of anecdotal expertise out there.  How can two writers bring something new to the conversation?

I have had three large dogs in my adult life.  With each dog, I believe I’ve added skills and interest.  But then, so have many who will be in my audience.  My knee-jerk reaction to this thought is that I could put together interesting statistics, but I’m not sure how those stats would help people write better about animals as secondary characters.  Perhaps, I can re-read my books on “Why does the dog do that?”


Close up of cat face

Nalla on mouse alert.

As pet owners, we all engage with personification of our pets, at least to some extent.  How can a writer step so completely outside the human experience to write about a world from a dog or cat’s perspective?  And is this necessary?  With human side-kicks, we only need to sketch a few impressions and our readers (being human themselves) fill in the gaps.

Or perhaps I’m making too much of our differences?  Perhaps the animal psyche is similar to the human psyche and all we need to do is remind readers of Rex’s furry legs, or habit of chewing old shoes and we’ll be okay.


One thing that bugs me, is the now cliché use of an inexperienced dog walker facing that dreaded poo-pick up for the first time.  This potty joke is a cheap laugh at best, and is growing more boring all the time.

How can I put animals in a story in a perspective that’s appropriate, yet still give them the distinction of a personality all their own?


Colorado Wolves at Western Welcome Week

Spooky (front), Rocky and Yukon with owner Cody on Main Street, Littleton. Wolves at Western Welcome Week, Littleton, CO

Above everything else, a speaking topic needs to be relevant to the audience.  Do you think writers would be interested in listening about and discussing “non-humans as secondary characters” in writing a book?  Need we, as authors, even need be concerned about stereotyping pets and other animals?  Or should we use the stereotypes that already exist (German shepherds are brave, loyal and bright–cats are aloof–fish are boring) and solidify the beliefs that the majority of our readers hold dear?

If you have any thoughts on this topic, I’d appreciate hearing from you.  Hoping you have a bright and perhaps a little furry, scale-riddled or feathered day.