Essays, Misc

Thoughts on Creating Memorable Non-Human Characters

We all know that characters and settings are essential aspects of writing, particularly when it comes to world building. When done right, they add texture and a sense of believability to a landscape that could otherwise feel flat. I’ve looked at characters and world building in past posts, but today I’d like to look at something specific: developing memorable non-human characters.

In this case, I’m looking at a character from my books, The Purple Morrow, and its sequel, Wolf’s Bane. For those who’ve read them, you’ll know a certain heavy-set, shaggy, fiercely loyal and lovable canine enters the story in chapter 8 of Morrow. His name is Samson and you can read a little about him here (scroll down). The reason I want to look at him is because he’s the first nonhuman character I tried to make feel and behave as more than just an instrumental presence in a story. I’ve been lucky to have people say they really enjoyed reading about Samson. This especially pleased me since I worked hard to make him part of the made up world of Marathana as well as to give him his own personality while still allowing him to be what he is: a dog.

The goal of this post is to thank those who showed appreciation for Samson’s character as well as share a little about how he came to be. This isn’t a how-to post but more of a musing on the process towards developing such characters.

Why a dog?

Well, it’s a known fact that Men have used dogs for ages because they are loyal, strong and very helpful. They are smart and versatile creatures and make great companions. It only made sense that the people groups in Marathana should have dogs. You see them helping fisherman, in war, as protectors, and in Samson’s case, as shepherds.

Why give Samson more than an instrumental presence?

In many of the books I’ve read containing animals that do not speak, they often have little more than an instrumental purpose. You may hear them in the background barking on the porch, they may serve to alert characters of danger, or follow the main character around so that he is placed to leap in at the last minute to save the heroes life, often dying in the process. And that’s fine! I’m not complaining about any of that. I think for Morrow, though, the desire to make Samson a little special worked its way into the story because, before I knew it, he became a true character in his own right. Though he doesn’t speak, he shows he has his own mind, personality, judgement and will which may differentiate him from others. Jeru (the main character) and Samson are destined for great things so it made sense to take time to carefully render the character that would be constantly by his side, even if it was a humble dog.

It’s all about relationship

sparkySee the beast in the photo? This was my German shepherd/lab mix named Sparky at four months. 3 years ago, that brat came into my life and totally turned it upside down. I’d never had a dog before, and what started as this beautiful dream of a puppy becoming part of our family quickly turned into a decent into Hell. Seriously. Anyone who has raised a puppy for the very first time knows what I mean! Luckily, the story didn’t end there. With hard work and even tears, Sparky and I developed a great relationship, one that is based on respect, understanding verbal and non-verbal cues and, underlying it all, love. Really, theses are the basis of any meaningful relationship. Because the relationship between Samson and Jeru was to be based on friendship and loyalty, it made sense that I infuse it with what I developed with my own dog.

That’s the feeling part, the aspect that creates the emotional connection between the characters as well as with the reader. A large part of that is due to the fact that Samson is shown to be capable of exhibiting and receiving what we normally consider human traits and emotions. Every dog (pet) owner who feels connected to their animal can relate, I think. A different spin on that below…

Characterization is also another important part of creating a realistic character, whether they are human or not. In this case, mannerisms and behaviour are essential and, luckily, dogs are very expressive creatures. There’s debate about whether they have facial expressions or not, but I’m convinced they do, or they at least behave in a manner which communicates what they feel or think. Also, like any creature, they have behaviours which are easily identifiable as Dog. Ever watch one outside? What does he do? Trot about, sniff, scratch, wags their tails, dig, pee on stuff and bark. Sparky sneezes when he gets excited and perks his ears up when he’s interested in something. Adding these familiar details can make cardboard canines come alive off the page.

One of the biggest pleasures for me as a writer is developing strong, unique and believable characters. It was a great challenge to try that with Samson. Thanks to you all who have found a place for him in your hearts. 🙂

So, as promised, nothing magic or mind-bending here, just a little writing what I know and weaving it into a story. Anyone have thoughts or comments to share?

15 thoughts on “Thoughts on Creating Memorable Non-Human Characters

  1. Nice article, Dy. One thing I’d be really interested in reading about as a follow up article would be how to write a believable non-human character from that non-human character’s POV. Very different animal…so to speak :P.


    1. ha ha. I suppose I’d have to try it first before being able to offer anything useful. I’d likely start with characterization/mannerisms and finding a Voice (inner dialogue flow) that fits the creature. A slew of ideas come to mind but since I have no idea how you’ve written the character I have no idea what’s relevant. But if you can find one trait or event that shapes your character you can build him from there.


  2. Interesting insight and ideas that most dog owners will recognize. I took it a step further when I infused tow characters (non-human) the personalities of my two mutts knew I had succeeded when my mother, who was beta reading asked, “is Venn really Winston?” I said maybe. “Well, I know Twig is Tasha.” Okay, she got me, and I knew I it had captured the spirit of the two canine souls that share my life.
    Dogs have an extra special level of character. Why not include that in your world building?


  3. Oh, what a great post Dyane! I’ve always wondered how stories like Stuart Little and Wind in the Willows were so great even though the main characters were all based on animals. I think you really hit it here with making the characters what they are- characters!

    Also, I’m obsessed with my dogs!


    1. Glad you liked it, Katie. 🙂 It’s something I’d been thinking of writing for a while so it’s great that others can relate to the post too.


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