Animal-Human Connection: Creating Compelling Animal Characters

Over the last twelve years, my husband and I adopted and raised three rescue dogs.

After spending more than two decades of my life in India without pets, it began to occur to me that animals could become our family, teachers and healers when we were thousands of miles from our dear ones.

My reason for writing a thesis on this topic for my MFA program at VCFA was because of my growing desire to understand their emotions and incorporate them into my own fiction.

Let’s take a look at some books that show us these things:

  1. Can animal characters in novels lead rich emotional lives?
  2. How do authors draw a line between imagination and reality?
  3. What makes readers care?

Animal stories fall into at least three different categories –

1. Where animals act just like humans like E.B. White’s Stuart           Little.




2. The second category is where animals are secondary characters and behave more like themselves like because of        Winn-Dixie.


3. The third category is where animal characters stretch                   believability, and the reader feels the inner life without               turning the character into a human like Charlotte’s Web.


In these three categories of books, the animal characters make a connection with the readers and show us their behaviors in the environment they evolve in.

Now, we will look at three contemporary middle-grade novels –


The gorilla in The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate



The pig in The Adventures of A South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz



The hound dog in The Underneath by Kathi Appelt



I will focus on some of the tools these authors use to draw the reader into the emotional core of the animal characters.

What do the three novels have in common?

  1. In many ways, they are a close reflection of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.

First, like Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, Ivan, Flora and Ranger are held captive by their human friends. Second, like Wilbur, Ivan, Flora, and Ranger have minimal or no conversations with human beings. Third, Ivan, Flora and Ranger have best friends outside their species, just like Wilbur trusts Charlotte, the spider. Fourth, all these stories have animals as main characters.

  1. These books have also gotten a strong reception from readers, reviewers, and other critics. They have been nominated for state lists and won prestigious awards, and have received starred reviews from well-acclaimed review journals in children’s literature.

Making readers fall in love with a character isn’t easy, especially if the author is avoiding turning the animal into a substitute human.

So, how do these authors make readers care?

  1. The authors put their animal characters in extreme conditions.

Ivan is forced out of his natural habitat and is kept in a strange, unfriendly enclosure with no access to nature.

Flora is displaced from the security of her barnyard to the extreme living conditions in Antarctica.

Ranger is tied and chained underneath the porch by his cruel human owner.

  1. The authors use metaphors to help the reader feel the inner life of the character.

Through various metaphors, the reader discovers how Ivan might see the world and his sensibilities through his point-of-view, the deeper emotions and struggles of Flora, and the tender emotional core of Ranger.

  1. The authors also show the characters’ feelings using real animal characteristics including these:
    1. Odors
    2. Vocalizations
    3. Body Language

Ivan uses odors to understand the humans around him. He also watches TV, draws pictures and sometimes he throws me-balls at the humans coming to see him. Ivan knuckle-walks and uses his movements, bared teeth expressions and chest-beating to communicate his intentions.

Flora uses odors to form perceptions about her environment. Flora also responds to feelings of surprise and shame with her sounds. Sniffing objects, nosing, massaging, nibbling, scampering, rubbing, stretching and yawning are her common body language signals.

Ranger’s use of smells shows us how he feels around his friends and his abuser. His vocalizations show us his suffering in isolation of living in the underneath. Ranger also exhibits feelings of love towards his kitten through the process of licking.

Applegate, Kurtz, and Appelt had three different animals to work with, and they use methods and tactics that give Ivan, Flora and Ranger their own actual stories.

Ivan’s story is one of empathy, empathy for humans and animals with hope that we can all commit to changing our world.

Flora learns to be the best at being herself. Kids struggle the most when they must be popular and liked by everyone to be successful in school, so they connect with the theme, which is being who you are while stretching for what you long for, and watching out for the help that will come along to help you on the path to your dreams.

The Underneath is also a story of empathy. It is a moving story that brings an unusual family of animals together in unity and danger, and the reader feels huge empathy for these animals and relates with them at a human level.

These novels belong to a beloved category first developed by authors like E.B. White where these craft elements provide opportunities to develop empathy, respect, sympathy, and make the readers care for the animal characters. Most importantly, they intensify the emotional pathways – between animals and humans, between the animal characters and the readers. They help writers create work that is memorable and makes a true animal-human connection. Do you have a favorite book that fits into any of the categories discussed above? Share with us in the comments below.

Suma Subramaniam on LinkedinSuma Subramaniam on Twitter
Suma Subramaniam
Suma Subramaniam is the contributing author of The Hero Next Door (Penguin Random House, July 2019). She is also the author of She Sang For India: How MS Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice For Change (Macmillan FSG, 2022) and Namaste Is A Greeting (Candlewick, 2022). She volunteers at We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI Western Washington. She hires tech professionals during the day and is a writer by night. Suma has an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
  1. Thank you, Yamile! I loved “Where the red fern grows.” Thank you for sharing the other book My Dog Skip. It’s going on my tbr.

  2. Jennifer, thank you. I’m so glad it resonated with you.

  3. “being who you are while stretching for what you long for,” yes to this. Thoughtful stuff, Suma.

  4. I love all these books, Suma! A real tear jerker and favorite of mine has always been “Where the red fern grows.” I know… But I love the connection between the boy and his dogs. Also, My Dog Skip!