I have notebooks full of material on each of my characters. I love creating their stories, starting with when and where they were born. I’ve read everything I can find on how to develop interesting characters, and I’ve studied books by writers thought by their critics and their peers to be especially good at creating characters, both major and minor. I’ve taken dialogue classes to learn how to give my characters different voices. Over the years, I’ve become comfortable with my human characters, but I’ve struggled to develop the perfect personality for Dolly, the Maltese terrier that accompanies Coleman in Restrike. Dolly has an important role, and I wanted to make her both lovable and credible. I studied animal characters in various kinds of books, seeking inspiration. Some of my favorite childhood books were about animals, including Wind in the Willows and The Jungle Book. I also liked toy animals that had lives of their own, like Winnie the Pooh. I loved Mary Poppins’s casual chats with a starling or a dog. She took it for granted they could talk, and they could.
Since I became a grownup, when children’s books of the type I like have been published, I’ve kept reading them. Among my favorites are The Chronicles of Narnia, The Once and Future King, The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books, and Eragon. I also enjoyed Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and the London play based on it.
Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, 1946, is a particular favorite, although I didn’t know when I read it that it was critically acclaimed and had won a Carnegie medal (more recently I learned it was also a J.K. Rowling favorite). In The Little White Horse , Wrolf, a large dog (possibly a lion), a little white horse (possibly a unicorn), and other wonderful creatures join the orphan Maria in her adventures. Maria’s dog, Wiggins, decidedly not one of the glorious, magical, and heroic creatures that surround Maria, is wonderfully described:
Wiggins was greedy, conceited, bad-tempered, selfish and lazy. It was the belief of Maria (and her governess) that he loved them devotedly because he always kept close to their heels, wagged his tail politely when spoken to, and even kissed them upon occasion. But all this Wiggins did not from affection but because he thought it was good policy.
Isn’t Goudge’s description terrific? Nearly everyone has met a dog like Wiggins.
Goudge also included interesting dogs in The Rosemary Tree, 1956. In the book, Baba, a poor little Pekinese mistreated by his mistress, is rescued by Winkle, the youngest child in the Wentworth family, as a present for her mother. Baba is eventually adopted by the Wentworths. But he must be accepted by Walsingham, the senior Wentworth dog, who lives with Winkle’s aunt. Winkle presents Baba to Walsingham, who isn’t certain that Baba is a dog; he thinks poor Baba is an object. But it’s Walsingham’s duty to check out the interloper, whatever it may be, and so:
[Walsingham] growled slightly, and in paroxysms of alarm the object rolled over on its back on the stones, its ridiculous forepaws clutched at its chest and its hind legs stretched out in a manner expressive of the depth of abject humility. Its chest, like his own, was white. He had a soft spot for white-chested dogs. Shirtfronts always gave an air of distinction to a gentleman… Was that a gentleman? He advanced his nose half an inch and definitely smelt good breeding. He relaxed.
Baba crept as near as he dared… They communed together. “Sir,” said Baba, “I had a bad home and now I have a good one. I have, now, a mistress who will keep faith. I adore my mistress, Sir, and have gained a refuge for my old age.”
Walsingham replied, “Sir, you may remain.” He slept and Baba did the same.
I recently reread Josephine Tey’s excellent mystery, Brat Farrar, 1950. Tey is justly famous for her characters, and in this 228-page book, includes seven major and 45 minor characters, two which are horses, Fourposter and Timber. The horses are exceptionally well-done; one of them, Timber, is unforgettable.
Still, nothing could have prepared me for Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven, 2000, another book on my top list of favorite novels. This 561-page book includes 42 human characters, six horses and Eileen, a fascinating dog. Here’s how Smiley introduces Eileen:
On the way to the kitchen, he passed the library, his office that adjoined the library, the weight room, the guest bathroom, the living room, and the dining room. In every room, his wife had laid a Persian carpet of exceptional quality—his wife had an eye for quality in all things—and it seemed like every Persian carpet in every room every morning was adorned with tiny dark, dense turds deposited there by Eileen, the Jack Russell terrier. Eileen herself was nestled up in bed with his wife, apparently sleeping, since she didn’t even raise her head when Mr. Maybrick arose, but Mr. Maybrick knew she was faking. No Jack Russell sleeps through movement of any kind except as a ruse.
…a Jack Russell was about making noise, killing small animals and dragging their carcasses into the house, attacking much larger dogs, refusing to be house-trained, and in all other ways living a primitive life.
…the trainer had been able to do only one thing with her, which was stop her from barking, and thank God for that, because if the trainer had not stopped Eileen from barking, Mr. Maybrick would have had to strangle her…
Now Eileen trotted into the room. It was clear to Mr. Maybrick that the dog was intentionally ignoring him. She clicked over to her bowl and checked it, took a drink from the water dish, circumnavigated the cooking island, and then, casually, leapt onto the granite counter and trotted toward the sink. “Get down, Eileen,” said Mr. Maybrick. It was as if he hadn’t spoken. Eileen cocked her little tan head and peered into the garbage disposal, noting that the stopper was in place. Her little stump of a tail flicked a couple of times, and she seemed to squat down. She stretched her paw toward the stopper, but her legs were too short; she couldn’t reach it. She surveyed the situation for a moment, then went behind the sink, picked up a pinecone that had been hidden there, and jumped down. Only now did she look at Mr. Maybrick. She dropped the pinecone at his slippered feet and backed up three steps, her snapping black gaze boring into his. “I don’t want to do that, Eileen,” he said. Her strategy was to take little steps backward and forward and then spin in a tight circle, gesturing at the pinecone with her nose. But she never made a sound.
‘You’re not a retriever, Eileen, you’re a terrier. Go outside and kill something.’
Indeed, Eileen was a terrier, and with terrier determination, she resolved that Mr. Maybrick would ultimately throw the pinecone. She continued dancing, every few seconds picking up the pinecone and dropping it again. She was getting cuter and cuter. That was her weapon. Mr. Maybrick considered her a very manipulative animal. He looked away from her and took another sip of his (third) cup of coffee…
With his eyes closed, [Mr. Maybrick] could hear her drop the pinecone rhythmically on the tile, chock chock chock chock, the bass, her little toenails clicking a tune around it…And then, while his eyes were still closed, dog and pinecone arrived suddenly in his lap, a hard, dense little weight but live, electric. With the shock, he nearly dropped his coffee cup, and as it was, spilled on the counter. ‘God damn it!’ he shouted. Eileen jumped down and trotted away.
(Jane Smiley, Horse Heaven, New York: Ballantine, 2001, 9, 12-13, First edition 2000. For more on Smiley and her books, see www.randomhouse.com/features/smiley/.)
Like Tey’s horse Timber, Eileen is unforgettable, and that’s just the beginning of Eileen’s story—it gets better and better. Remember, there are also those six horses—each with an individual story and personality—as well as some fascinating human beings. This is not a mystery, but a “must read”, especially for those who are trying to develop interesting animal characters.
Robert Crais’ Suspect is a wonderful book about an LAPD policeman, badly wounded both mentally and physically, and a marvelous service dog wounded in Afghanistan, whose master/companion was killed in Afghanistan, who find new lives together.