Do I have a secret for pulling on heartstrings? You bet. It’s furry, or feathery, or scaly, and it’s often my favorite character in my story.
I give my child hero a pet.
First, a disclaimer—I’m a fan of happy pet stories. I’m still upset with Ms. Rowling for killing Hedwig. In fact, I may NEVER forgive her. She’s at the top of MY LIST of authors who’ve unnecessarily killed fictional pets I love. This is not to say that I won’t put my fictional pets into harrowing circumstances, but I do my best not to kill them, as evidenced by the opening letter in Smells Like Dog in which I promise my readers that no dogs will die in this book.
Whether or not you kill your fictional pets is up to you, of course, but just be aware that I will add you to MY LIST.
Which brings me to the first reason to give your hero a pet: Readers Care. We all love animals, and sometimes we root for them more than we root for the human characters. Animals make us feel good. Why else would we spend so much time watching kittens on Youtube? Or guinea pigs? Or baby sloths? Seriously, I’ve got a problem. But the truth is, a pet will elicit protective emotions in your child or adult reader and give them another character to care about.
I grew up in a bit of a zoo. My father kept ducks as an organic way to deal with slugs. The ducks obliged, slurping up gastropods to everyone’s delight and disgust. Then my dad went out and got a pair of piglets. “Food, not pets,” he explained, but that didn’t stop my sister and me from naming them Stinky and Pork Chops. I housed generations of gerbils in my room, building mazes for them out of books. Throughout the years, rabbits, parakeets, and frogs came to live with us. But for me, the most important creature was my cat, Bonnie, who shared my entire childhood, passing away a few weeks after I left for college. She was my confidant. My constant companion. My first best friend.
Which brings me to another reason to give your hero a pet: Unlocking Secrets.
Your fictional kid probably won’t tell her parents what’s worrying her. Or her teacher or soccer coach. The world is loud. It’s full of bullies, and pressures, and expectations. But when your hero is alone in her bedroom, she can whisper those fears to the one friend who will never break her trust. She might even share her secret dreams. Sure, a diary works too, but diaries don’t cuddle or look right into your eyes with pure love. A pet gives you, the writer, a great device for unlocking your hero’s deeper feelings.
If you need further convincing, I give you one more reason: Power.
Kids feel powerless. Kids are powerless, for the most part. But a pet gives your hero the chance to take care of something. To be unselfish. To be in charge. There’s a lot of good and bad that comes with the responsibility, and there’s always the risk of loss, which is something we all must experience. But the relationship between child and pet will definitely enrich your hero’s character arc.
In 2017, Suzanne Selfors will launch a new middle grade series with Harper Collins called, Wedgie and Gizmo, about two very special pets and the kids who love them. Please visit her at www.suzanneselfors.com
If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Suzanne’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.
Suzanne is generously giving away an audio CD of Next Top Villain: An Ever After High School Story plus a paperback collection of The Imaginary Veterinary, Books 1-6. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.
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