Animals tug at people’s heartstrings in real life every day (guilty). Storytellers have used this emotional connection since stories were first told around communal fires. Even Homer used Odysseus’s dog Argos to show loyalty and the connection between people and their pets.
I have no idea how many death scenes I saw in comic books, movies, or on television. But I remember in great detail when Artax gave in to despair and drowned in the Swamp of Sadness. Humans care for animals, domesticated or wild, sometimes more than we do people.
Different people and cultures prize different animals. Americans overwhelmingly choose dogs and cats as pets, but love exotic pets and livestock, too. Charlotte’s Web resonates with children is because of the emotional connection we feel to animals of all kinds (even Templeton).
The death of an animal is often central to character development, but other outcomes are just as valid throughout fiction. Black Beauty running free is a powerful bit of symbolism. Equally moving, is Mowgli outgrowing his pack before they turned on him. Simba reclaiming Pride Rock defined the entire Lion King movie. (Disney loves animal stories.)
Animals serve other functions in literature. Aesop and the Brothers Grimm used them in fables and fairytales to show lots of human characteristics. The industrious ant, the lazy grasshopper, the scary wolf, and the cunning fox all had lessons to teach. Learning wasn’t their only function either, the Bremen Town Musicians wanted a whole new life.
In my writing, animals have provided the same kinds of emotional connections. In my debut novel, Fantastic America, animals from other worlds reveal the changing nature of reality. An animal encounter also helps convince Ashley Monahan that not all magic is inherently evil.
I’ve used a few animal motifs more than live animals. My short story, “The Quest for the Lioness” revolves around pieces of a relic from the last magical age topped by a sculpture of a roaring lioness. In that case, the ideals associated with lions were more central to the story than the actual animal itself. That’s a recurring theme around relics from the last magical age.
Animals can inform the reader of tone, character traits, or serve as emotional proxies. Dogs show loyalty, cats are aloof, rats represent filth, caterpillars show metamorphosis, lions represent courage, and snakes show treachery. Those are all real animals, fantasy is chock full of make believe animals. Dragons, unicorns, and gryphons represent human traits as well. Keep an eye out for animals in the next story you read, but beware of the feels!