Pets as Characterization: If a Character Kicks a Puppy…

cute kitten on bed petsThis may be a U.S. thing (Although, judging from the lolcat mania online, it’s more widespread.), but people here are seriously obsessed with their pets.  They treat their pets like their children or even better than their children (Let’s pretend the second comment was a joke.). They also judge other people by their reactions to pets, which makes pet interaction a kind of instant characterization.

Establish Characterization with the Way a Character Treats Animals

Let’s say you’re in a hurry, and you need the audience to become attached to a character really quickly. You know, make a snap judgment that this character is a good person and someone you want to read more about. Simple solution: have that character be nice to a pet.

  • Helping someone’s cat out of a tree (Though why the cat needs help is beyond me)
  • Telling kids not to tap the glass of a fish tank (Like Harry Potter apologizing to the snake)
  • Giving a dog a treat
  • Petting/acknowledging a pet in a shop
  • Taking the time to protect an animal during a fight with the bad guy

Any sort of kindness/warmth towards an animal is a kind of instant good-guy characterization. Which means that any sort of meanness/coldness towards an animal is instant bad-guy characterization. Or at least makes the character less likable.

  • Kicking a puppy
  • Drowning a sack of baby animals (I don’t know where this imagery started, but its prevalence is fairly disturbing.)
  • Skinning/torturing animals (Peter in Ender’s Game, anyone?)
  • Ignoring an animal in need
  • Simply ignoring an animal (not petting it? How rude!)

Yeah, the last one’s pretty mild in comparison to the others. Clearly, there are all levels of behavior on either side of the scale with this characterization method. The more extreme the behavior, the more evil/good the character will appear. Although going really extreme (in either direction) also makes the character appear mentally unbalanced, as well. (Crazy cat lady, anyone?)

Establish Characterization with the Way Animals React to a Character

There’s also the flip side – how the animal(s) react to the character. Plenty of people use their pets as geiger counters for character. If the pet likes the person, the person’s probably ok (like Appa liking Zuko). If the pet doesn’t like a person, that person may not be as nice as we thought. While in reality it’s not the most scientific (or necessarily reliable) method for telling if someone is good or bad, it’s either really common among people or simply a well-established trope.

You may have read it in books as a kind of combination hindsight and foreshadowing:

            “Huh, Spot really likes you.”
            “Is that so unusual?”
            “He peed on my last boyfriend.”

It can also be a play on the way animals sense certain natural disasters before people do. When all the animals tremble and cower every time a seemingly harmless character goes by, it’s an obvious hint that that character is pretty scary/powerful (The dogs in the pound and their reaction to Stitch for instance).

Again, you can flip that. If all the animals flock to a character that looks scary and bad, then he/she must be ok. Beast covered with birds is a prime example of this, and Disney made use of that characterization to create an epiphany moment for Belle.

One of the best parts of this tactic is that it works in any genre and with most demographics. Sure, there will always be exceptions, but there are plenty of people who take how someone treats an animal as gospel proof of his/her character: good or bad.

So if you need a quick way to establish characterization, throw a pet into the mix. You may be surprised at how easily it makes people take sides.

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