Tuesday, June 16, 2009


By Sandra Elzie

With the cost of pet food today, have you ever wished your pet could get a job or at least help you out around the house to pay for his upkeep? Well, I’ve got the perfect job for your pet. Still scratching your head and wondering how Fido can help? Read on.

Most movies and books have a hero and heroine…and then there are those “others”, the characters who add spice and flavor to the story. You know the ones, the characters who are the evil villain, the scheming ex-wife, or the comic relief. But what if the “other” character isn’t human? No, I’m not talking about aliens, I’m referring to characters we know and love, but if English is the only language we speak, we can’t carry on a conversation. I’m talking about those non-human characters that take on human characteristics in order to communicate with us.

Remember R-2 D-2? He couldn’t speak English, but he showed excitement by rocking back and forth rapidly while emitting a high-pitched sound. How about the monkey in Disney’s Aladdin? When he was told to share his apple, he showed definite human characteristics. (Resentment and selfishness)

So when you put a non-human character in one of your stories, say a dog, a cat or …even a monkey, why not give it an extreme personality? Make it one that the reader will not easily forget. If it helps, picture the pet as a child and give the animal a child-like reaction to life.

Personally, I prefer to own a cat, even though my resident cat thinks he owns me. Master Jack is easier on my lap and I don’t have to let him in and out. But as much as I love my cat, when I add a pet to my stories, it’s usually a dog with enough personality to endear him to the reader. If you have a pet, observe all the non-verbal ways he communicates his different feelings, then write them down.

In one of my, as yet unpublished, stories, I have an Irish setter that wants his head, if not his entire body, in the middle of everything. When told to stay in the front seat of a car and not to join the injured woman lying on the backseat, the setter leans over the seat just as far as possible…until his nose is inches away from the woman. His eyes plead, telling the story of how much he wants to touch her. When I added a whimper, I knew the reader would understand the dog’s dilemma of obeying his master versus his almost overwhelming desires to do the forbidden.

What can you learn from writing an animal into your story? You can learn how to express thoughts and feelings without conversation or without directly being told. You can learn how to use body language and sounds to tell (or to advance) your story. When your character can’t talk, you have to reach down deep and draw up innovative ways to express their feelings. When you transfer this skill over to humans, you add another layer of depth to the hero or heroine and consequently to the story.

If your hero is larger than life, he needs a flaw or two to make him believable and if you use subtle facial expressions, posture or even sounds…grunts, groans, mumbling… this will allow the reader to glimpse the flaw, and thereby make him more human and more endearing.

In Raiders of The Lost Arc, Indiana Jones whips out a gun and kills a sword-wielding enemy, brushes tarantulas off himself and others with his whip, but is afraid of snakes. (Not that I blame him) He not only told us that he hated snakes, but his reaction to seeing one was really all I needed to know exactly how he felt about the slithering creatures. I could definitely identify with him. From that point on, if a snake showed up in a scene, I knew Indy was in trouble.

If you want your current Work In Progress to rise to a different level, consider deepening your characters…including man’s best friend…by adding body language and non-verbal sounds that express feelings to the extent that words aren’t necessary. You will grow as a writer and your story will be the better for your efforts.

So, here’s your assignment for today. Can you give us some examples of non-verbal reactions? How about some body language that portrays a page of feelings in only a few words?


Debbie Kaufman said...

Great post, Sandy! Unique perspective.

Marilyn Baron said...

I liked your post about pets. Even though my Bichon Frise died after about 18 years, she still shows up in all my books. I love when pets are featured in novels. In fact, in my current work in progress, I'm featuring a pet rabbit.


Sandy Elzie said...

Hi Debbie,
With your 3 dogs I'd think one of them, or a composite of them would show up sometime. Keep it in mind.


A pet rabbit? I love it! That's as unique as a monkey. Does he "talk" to his master or mistress, or does he just offer himself for hugs...comfort?


Linsey Lanier said...

Great post, Sandy. Some good thoughts to help bring emotions out of the human characters, too. You've given me some ideas for my wip.

Me? I'm a dog person. I like your Irish Setter. Hope that story gets published.

Opposite of you, I put a cat in one of my stories. My childless heroine watches a neighbor girl lavish affection on her cat and wishes the child would send some of those feelings her way.


Sally Kilpatrick said...

Wow, Sandy. I'm still thinking about non-verbal reactions. In the meantime (while I finish my coffee and hope the caffeine helps me along) I admit to adding an animal to one of my stories. In my Southern Fiction piece, the heroine keeps having a run-in with a chicken snake that she can't seem to keep out of the house. I could be wrong, but I think adding the snake definitely improved the story.

Thanks for such great food for thought!


Sandy Elzie said...

Linsey, From your lips to God's ear on getting that story published...I really enjoyed writing it.
BTW, I love the story idea you mentioned about the childless woman watching the child.


You brave girl! A snake? I can almost guarantee you that a snake is one thing you will never see in one of my stories unless the person is shooting at it. (g)
(sorry to all you reptile fans, but....)

CiCi Barnes said...

Great thought-provoking piece, Sandy.

Of course, I'm a dog-lover being that I'm a most avid DAWG lover. (In case, there are those who don't follow sports or doesn't live in the South, DAWG is a University of Georgia Bulldog).

I have a story simmering in my mind and have written the first three chapters. My heroine has a bulldog companiion, and thinks he's human. He's modeled after my own bulldawg, who's now in Doggy Heaven, bless his heart -- a true human in doggy hair. The only human trait he didn't possess is the ability to speak English, but he most definitely got his point across by his actions and woofs.

They say a mother can tell what her baby needs by its distinctive cries. Same goes with your pet. Different sounds mean different things in the animal kingdom.

Applying the way you get your point across with animals to humans is a great writing exercise.

Thanks, Sandy, for pointing it out.


Sandy Elzie said...


Sorry about your Dawg, but your storyline sounds great.

Yes, I've owned dogs in the past who (yes, I meant to put "who") could telll me what they wanted and if they were angry with me. One Lab was left at home when we went on two-weeks vacation and someone came over to care for him. He chewed down a huge evergreen bush...to the nub and then glared at me when we got home.
(Bless his departed heart) (g)


Maxine Davis said...

I loved your post! and it definitely gave me some good ideas!!

I'm a dog person. When my American Bulldog was a tiny puppy, I would set her on my feet or lap and 'coo' to her. Now, at 60 lbs, if she is nervous, she comes and plops her behind on my feet. And if I'm not looking, she'll jump in my lap - "oof" there goes the air out of my lungs, but I love her!

The Writers Canvas said...

Great post, and your Irish Setter sounds intriguing! I usually put my first dog ever (shetland Sheepdog, aka a Sheltie) in most of my books. It helps to offset the character and esp b/t scenes of protagonist and antagonist.

Good points!

Tami Brothers said...

Great advice, Sandy. This is definitely another keeper.

I like the idea of pets and now that you've mentioned it, I do remember having a wonderful reaction to stories I've read with them.

A body language I remember best is Marideths in the movie we watched at the Deb Dixon workshop, The Family Stones. She kept clearing her throat when she was nervous. That defitely added to that character's personality...


Susan May said...

Sandy one of my characters runs the charm on her necklace back and forth when she is nervous. That is her tell. Our outward looks and reactions are why the people on TV playing poker wear sunglasses in the building because we all have some kind of tell. Study someone long enough and their's will show up.

Sandy Elzie said...

Maxine: Yes, we had Dobermans...85lbs and 121 lbs that wanted so desperately to be lap dogs...alas, a lot of sad looks.

Elaine: Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Most of the stories I've loved had an animal...they're so loving and forgiving.


Thanks for the nice words. Don't forget that our pets are just like us...at least in our minds...so give them human traits and they'll go from a fuzzy lap warmer to memorable characters.


Sandy Elzie said...


You are so right! I've watched people before where I could pick up their silent message...their flaw, if you will. A laugh, a twich, jingling change in their pocket, etc.

My husband said he noticed that whenever he walked in a room and I looked up or turned to see him, my eyes would light up. Others have said that my eyes light up just talking about him. The eyes are the windows to the soul.


Nicki Salcedo said...

Sandy, thanks for making us think. I have a cat in my story. She does nothing but watch the drama, she is sort of a symbol of the reader. It is creepy. I love cats!

Sandy Elzie said...


I'm a cat person myself. Interesting concept...having the cat be an observer. Neat.


ECSpurlock said...

Interesting parallel, Sandy! I've had a cat and a dog and I have actually used some of their mannerisms in my characters. For example, when my cat wanted to interrupt my work for some attention, he would climb up on my worktable, put his front paws on my shoulders and touch his nose to mine. I thought it was such an endearing gesture that I had the hero in one of my stories put his hands on the heroine's shoulders and touch his nose and forehead to hers when he wanted to make her calm down and focus.

Now I have a rabbit, and I would love to find an excuse to put a pet rabbit in a story! Rabbits have such a misunderstood reputation as soft, quiet, gentle creatures that most people don't know what larger-than-life personalities they have. Go check out www.disapprovingrabbits.com for a glimpse of what life with a rabbit is really like...

Mary Marvella said...

Watching my daughter's dogs is a real study in personality the relationships. They are brothers, 2 litters apart and the big brother little brother relationship is clear, even now that the younger on is taller and a tad larger. The big brother took over immediately when e brought the baby home at barely 6 weeks. So cute!

I have a dog in a story because the big boy just arrived and said he belonged and that the heroine needed him. He'd been abused and he needed her as much as she needed him.

Another dog moved into a story as a guard dog for the heroine. He was a big old baby where the heroine and people close to her were concerned. But like my heroes, he was very protective.

Sandy Elzie said...


Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. From the above comments, you know I'm a cat person also. (Love my big, brown baby) When he wants attention and I'm writing, he jumps to my desk, stands in front of the terminal screen...then steps across the keyboard and literally climbs into my lap whether I want him to or not.

It's interesting that you were the second person today to mention a rabbit. My daughter had one as a child, but I never cared much for him...never saw much personality...maybe the problem was that I wasn't writing then and not noticing. Thanks for the website, I'll check it out.

Good to hear from you again. I know what you mean about the relationship between two animals. We had three cats once (3 kids, 3 pets...thank goodness we didn't have a baker's dozen children!)and the oldest was a male...ruled the other two with an iron paw.


Carol Burnside said...

Thought provoking post, Sandy.

I have a character who runs two fingers across one eyebrow when she's nervous. Otherwise, she seems calm. She does it unconsciously, but others pick up on her 'tell' because her fingers have a slight tremble.