While it’s not covered in the books I’ve used throughout this series, I think it’s important to discuss Pets & Animals in relation to a story’s protagonist.  Not all stories utilize these “characters,” but they can help the audience relate to and even sympathize with your main character if they have undesirable qualities.

In stories, the presence of an animal who adores the protagonist, even if the protagonist isn’t particularly fond of other people, can significantly enhance our affinity for the main character. This is because if a dog or cat is drawn to them, it suggests there must be something admirable about the hero that the animal perceives.

In my latest novel, The Sexual Misadventures of Alicia Williams, Alpha Female, early drafts made the title character seem mean and unlikable.  I added a dog character, Zeus, who warms up to her and he to him, showing her caring and compassionate side.

Movies like BeethovenTurner & HoochLassieBecause of Winn-Dixie, and Dog Days connect the protagonist with canine counterparts that help elevate the hero’s likability. Even in the case of Beethoven, where the dad doesn’t like the titular St. Bernard at first, he eventually warms to him, while Beethoven liked him from the start.

What’s the best way to lose an audience?  Have the protagonist be mean to animals or have animals dislike them.  Unless, by the end, the main character has had a change of heart about animals, and it’s part of their arc, I recommend keeping the hero on the good side of the animal kingdom.  Antagonists have free reign, but the hero should at least have a tolerance for all creatures, great and small.

However, there’s more leeway with comedy, but the protagonist cannot directly harm an animal.  Clark in National Lampoon’s Vacation accidentally leaves the dog tied to the rear bumper – he’s off the hook.  In Dumb & Dumber, Harry and Lloyd didn’t kill Harry’s parakeet, Petey.  So, when Lloyd sells the dead parakeet to the blind kid in their building to raise money for his and Harry’s trip, it’s played for laughs instead of something dark.  The key here is that neither main character is directly responsible for the animal’s death.

(And if the death of a pet is used as the inciting incident for the hero to go on a killing spree – John Wick – then that works, too.  We can sympathize with the protagonist and their emotional state since most of us would feel like doing the same thing!)

Another thing to remember: If you introduce a protagonist’s pet in your story, you can’t forget about them.  The animal is now part of what makes the main character who they are.  The audience will wonder why the pet was mentioned once and never again.  The last thing you want is to distract the audience with them wondering where the dog or cat went.  Find a way to keep them somewhat relevant to the story.  They must stick around once they are a primary character in the protagonist’s life.

What movies have you seen where a pet or animal has brought out the best in the protagonist?

Is a pet something that could enhance your story’s main character?

See you next time!

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