22 October 2008

Pets in Plots: Help or Hindrance?

KATHRYNN DENNIS is the author of Dark Rider and Shadow Rider. The Romance Times Reviews recently awarded Shadow Rider 4 Stars! and writes: "The color, vibrancy, and excitement of the Middle Ages allows Dennis to create a memorable tale of two people whose destiny is tied to a mystical colt. Dennis tells her story with passion, drama, and a love of animals that will enthrall readers."

Horses take center stage in her stories. I asked her if pets are a hinderance or a help to plotting? (naturally!)

Pets and animals have a lot to contribute to plot—I’m not talking about Old Yeller, or Black Beauty, where the animal is the plot, but rather books where the animal plays a role, though not so prominantly. Animals can be developed as stand alone characters that take action and thus move the plot in a particular direction, or they can add a layer of character to their owner’s personality. How, exactly, do they do that, you ask? The literature is rich with information on the human-animal bond and why people choose the pets they do. It’s called pet-owner profiling. Pets and animals in the story help the reader get into the head of the human characters. There are good studies which suggest pets are an extension of their owners—in looks and in behavior. People tend to chose pets that look like them, much like they choose a human life-partner. Take a look at Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and Jake Gyllenhaal with their dogs. It’s hard to miss the physical similarities. Pet owners also tend to choose pets with personality traits like their own. Turns out you can learn a lot about a person’s character just by knowing what kind of pet they own. Here’s what the seminal research by Kidd and Kidd (1980) tells us about pet-owner personality traits:

• Cat lovers are high in autonomy and low in dominance and nurturing.

• Dog-loving men are high in dominance and aggression. Dog-loving women are high in dominance, too, but low in aggression.

• Horse lovers in general are assertive, introspective, and self-concerned, but limited in cooperativeness, nurturing, and warm human relationships. Male horse-lovers are aggressive, dominant, and less expressive in general. Female horse-lovers avoided aggression and are easy going.

• Turtle lovers are hard-working, reliable, goal-oriented, and see the world as lawful.

• Snake lovers are unconventional, informal, novelty seeking, and unpredictable.

• Bird lovers are contented, courteous, expressive, social, and altruistic.

Pet owners in general are considered to be more nurturing and low in autonomy, no matter what kind of pet they own. I’ve noticed dog and cat-loving characters enrich a fair number of romance novels (for an early example, think of Georgette Heyer’s Ulysses in Arabella) and the personality of a male horse-owner certainly has the makings of a historical romance hero—think cowboys, knights, and men who were rich enough to fox hunt. Dominant men. Aggressive, alpha males who had trouble expressing themselves (until they met the heroine, of course).
I keep thinking about Rex, the hamster in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. Rex embodies the character of a bounty-hunting woman who keeps a hamster for a pet. She’s high in autonomy and not especially nurturing. Neither is Rex. Both make me laugh.
I’ve not seen many romances where a character owns a nontraditional pet (fish, lizards, or pocket pets like Rex), but I’m sure they are out there.

There are also some interesting reads on the pathological condition known as pet hoarding. Profiles of hoarders suggest the condition is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder and affected people usually come from chaotic, unstable homes. Just google pet hoarding and you’ll turn up a fair number of psych reviews on the topic.

If you’d like to dig deeper into pet-owner profiling, check out Why We Love the Dogs We Do: How to Find the Dog That Matches Your Personality by Stanley Coren (Simon and Schuster; ISBN 978-0684855028). There are some interesting chapters in there about dogs (breeds) for introverts and extroverts, dominant people, not-so-dominant people, trusting, or controlling people, and an in-depth examination of the dogs owned by various leaders and famous personalities--what their dog-ownership reveals about their non-public personality.

If you understand your character, the character will drive the plot. Not the other way around (a pitfall for writers). So pets can enrich the plot, especially if they are used as character enhancers. They are only a hindrance if they serve no purpose. I love an author who can weave a pet into a plotline or incorporate a pet or an animal to enlighten my understanding of the owner’s character. As a reader, can you recall pets that helped move a story along, or helped you better understand the character of their owner?

I’ll give a free copy of SHADOW RIDER to a randomly chosen commenter!

Thank you, Martha, for inviting me to blog!

For more about Kathrynn Dennis, please visit for a plot interview where we asked Kathrynn about her writing process, with an emphasis on plot.

(NOTE: I had the great honor of working with Kathryn on her book's early development.)