First, thank you to spell check for helping me spell unnecessary.
Second, in writing novels, we need to check for unnecessary characters. An unnecessary character is one who doesn’t advance the plot. A good test is how difficult it would be to remove that character. If the character can be removed easily, with no change to the plot, and no ripple-effect coursing through the story, that character is probably unnecessary. The more characters a book has, the less the reader will latch onto the important ones.
So what about pets? I’m a die-hard animal lover and relate to characters who like animals, but unfortunately, sometimes pets meet all the criteria of an unnecessary character. Pets can contribute more than a few purrs or wagging tails in both fantasy and contemporary novels, whether the pet is acting intentionally or not. Here are a few examples of necessary pets that have an active role in the plot.
Daisy in R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. Daisy is the family dog throughout the book, offering comfort when needed, but her heartbreaking one-way trip to the vet occurs right when the story needs it. While we see Daisy getting sick in the background, siblings Auggie and Via are fighting. The tension in their relationship has been gradually building, until it explodes over Via not wanting Auggie to come to her school play. Auggie yells, “You just don’t want your brand-new fancy high school friends to know your brother’s a freak!” (pg. 218), then storms off to his room, expecting his mother to come check on him and Via to feel terribly guilty. When Via finally comes to his room, she is upset because Daisy’s condition has taken a turn for the worse, but Auggie doesn’t know this yet. Auggie fires, “I’m not apologizing!” (pg. 220) Via retorts, “Not everything in the world is about you, Auggie!” Then Auggie realizes it’s about Daisy, and all their negative feelings toward each other are washed away and replaced with concern over their beloved Daisy. The chapter ends with Auggie apologizing to his mother and Via hugging Auggie “very, very tight while we both cried a million tears.” (pg. 222) Daisy causes Auggie and Via to say what they need to get off their chest and also brings them back together in their mutual grief. Daisy can’t be removed without leaving a gaping hole in an important scene. She would have to be replaced with some other catalyst to bring that fight to its maximum and to an end. Daisy is a necessary character.
While You Were Sleeping is one of my mom’s favorite movies. When Sandra Bullock’s character Lucy saves a man from being run over by a train, the man is left in a coma and she is mistaken by hospital staff to be his fiancée. For perfectly-interwoven complex reasons, she continues to pretend to be his fiancée, even to his family. What I like about this example is that the cat is necessary in a very unique way. It seems like making pets necessary in romance should be easy. All they have to do is meet while walking their dogs. In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy discovers a can of cat food among the rescued Peter’s belongings. When she goes to his apartment to feed the cat, she encounters Peter’s brother Jack, who doubts Lucy’s supposed relationship with his brother. Jack says Peter doesn’t have a cat. Sure enough, a cat appears (that Peter was watching for someone else), and Jack is convinced that Lucy really does know his brother better than he does. With only a few seconds of screen time, the cat causes a major shift in Lucy and Jack’s relationship.
My most recent read, Sofiya Pasternack’s Anya And The Dragon, contains a lot of animals. They create a farm setting, but they also do more than that. Right at the beginning, Anya’s favorite-goat-and-best-friend Zvezda helps her defeat a snake. Later, the other goats, controlled by her grandfather’s magic, help threaten an antagonist. The dragon is a major character, and since he can talk to birds, the birds and chickens are used to send messages to Anya. Every animal serves a purpose in the story, whether major or minor.
Writing this post with a 48-pound dog snuggled up beside (or rather, half on top of) me, I’m not advocating less pets in novels. It’s natural to want our protagonists to have parents, siblings, friends, and pets, even if they don’t all contribute to the main plot. However, your story will be stronger if the pet and any other family members have an important role to fill.