Some of my favorite secondary characters in books have been pets-not all of which are actual animals. Not every book needs pets, but they can occasionally provide great moments. A pet can provide comic relief, reflect the state of relationships going on around them, or provide great insight into a character.
You do have to be careful with pets though. I’ve heard many authors warn that your hero can do anything and be forgiven as long as he doesn’t kick the dog. Just think of the movie Alien with Sigourney Weaver. Would you have forgiven the filmmaker if he’d allowed the cat to die? Alien is also a good example of how pets can soften a character. Bestselling author Joan Johnston says if you need to build sympathy for a tough to love character, have them save a puppy early in the story. The character of Ripley was actually a pretty tough and pushy officer and the cat did give her a softer edge (whether or not, we need to soften female characters is a whole other discussion).
In Jess Granger’s Realms Beyond series, the Elite women warriors of Azra each have a ‘scout’ to fight by their side. These small fierce creatures act as an extension of the warrior characters and provide a bit of softening to contrast against their controlled personalities. Cyn, a character that runs through both books and is the hero of the second, has a miniature flying-saucer-like mechanical pet called bug. Bug is hilarious and adds a dash of the fun side of sci-fi to these novels.
C.J. Barry is another author I think is brilliant with secondary characters of all types. Her space pirate adventure, Unmasked, features a flying light orb called Nod. The name seems perfect since he occasionally powers down spontaneously as if nodding off. He also has tendency to overwrite his memory to accomplish a new task, all to great comic effect when he forgets something important as a result. The passionate way Torrie Masters defends her creation/pet says a great deal about her own character.
These are some of my favorite authors who use pets in sci-fi romance, but I’m sure there are others who do it equally well. If you’ve read any books that featured pets to good effect, I’d love to hear about them!
11 thoughts on “Do pets have a place in sci-fi storytelling?”
I always enjoyed the dog Porthos on Star Trek Enterprise — he was the captain’s beagle. Never saw him when there was a real threat.
Good one, Stephanie!
Anne McCaffrey – it’s all about the bond between dragon and rider. And then the Dolphins of Pern. I enjoy animals in stories – as long as they aren’t killed in a gratuitous manner.
I like animals in stories too and hate it when they’re hurt. I Am Legend was good up to that point and now I can’t ever read that story again, even if there was a purpose for it.
Darrell Bain’s “Bark” is all about a handicapped Dachshund who saves the world from aliens. But as a disclaimer, this story is very, very full of cussing.
I liked Nod too, and Porthos. I also liked the dog in A Boy and His Dog.
One thing I’ve noticed is that most of the pets are cats. I’ve been hard-pressed to find any SF stories with dogs, let alone any SFRs.
I never read I am Legend, but the Will Smith movie definitely made good use of the dog. I hated when the dog died. I pictured the scout in Beyond the Rain as a dog-like animal. Or maybe a ferret. I don’t think she actually specified. I know the scout in the second book in that series was based on a cat. Anne McCaffrey used cat like creatures a lot, too. Of course, Dr. Who had K-9 and The Sixth Day had that whole creepy thing about cloning your pet when it dies. I think that was a dog. So, plenty of dogs in sci-fi TV and movies, but I think you’re right, definitely more cats in SFR books.
I don’t mind pets as long as they’re not too cutesy. Too much focus on their being cutesy (especially without a good reason) pulls me out of the story.
Re: the scout in Beyond the Rain, I pictured it as a fox. Wasn’t the tail bushy or something? Maybe a squirrel, LOL?! Now that would be something.
Linnea Sinclair’s Games of Command has cat-like furzels.
In PJ Schnyder’s Hunting Kat, one of the secondary characters had a pet ferret. It was used for comedic effect but also played a role in one of the climactic scenes.
I’m thinking I read or heard about a steampunk with a clockwork pet of some kind, but now I can’t remember.
@AnnaM Good point. Where’s the love for teh pooches?
Re: “whether or not, we need to soften female characters is a whole other discussion).”
Charlie, I’d love to see your take on this, especially as it concerns SFR/strong paranormal romance heroines.
John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation features a pet dog. I’ve only read the first chapters (free online), but it looks like the dog has a prominent role in the story.
I liked the furze’s in Sinclair’s Game of Command, too and they were key to the plot. As mentioned, writers have to be careful and not hurt them, so they add a layer of risk to the story, which can be good or bad. How many times in a disaster flick does the dog run off at the wrong moment?
Great point, Pauline. Hadn’t thought of it in that light. I know in visual media (TV and movies) they are always concerned that an animal will steal the show. Any danger of that in books?
Any element can steal the show, but pets do have a special power on that line. LOL!
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