As an avid reader and an author, you’ve studied the craft of using pets in novels as an extension of a character’s personality. Care to share what you’ve learned?
As a veterinarian and an author, I started wondering: what does the kind of pet you own tell you about your character (or about the characters in a novel)? I did some research, trolling through the psychology literature. Pet-owner profiling is still a burgeoning science, but making progress. There are several good studies which suggest pets are an extension of their owners—in looks and in behavior. People tend to chose pets that look like them, much like they choose a human life-partner. Take a look at Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and Jake Gyllenhaal with their dogs. It’s hard to miss the physical similarities.
Pet owners also tend to choose pets with personality traits like their own. Turns out you can learn a lot about a person just by knowing what kind of pet they own. Here’s what the seminal research by Kidd and Kidd (1980) tells us about pet-owner personality traits:
Cat lovers are high in autonomy and low in do
minance and nurturing.
Dog-loving men are high in dominance and aggression. Dog-loving women are high in dominance, too, but low in aggression.
Horse lovers in general are assertive, introspective, and self-concerned, but limited in cooperativeness, nurturing, and warm human relationships. Male horse-lovers are aggressive, dominant, and less expressive in general. Female horse-lovers avoided aggression and are easy going.
Turtle lovers are hard-working, reliable, goal-oriented, and see the world as lawful.
Snake lovers are unconventional, informal, novelty seeking, and unpredictable.
Bird lovers are contented, courteous, expressive, social, and altruistic.
Pet owners in general are considered to be more nurturing and low in autonomy, no matter what kind of pet they own. I’ve noticed dog and cat-loving characters enrich a fair number of romance novels (for an early example, think of Georgette Heyer’s Ulysses in Arabella) and the personality of a male horse-owner certainly has the makings of a historical romance hero—think cowboys, knights, and men who were rich enough to fox hunt. Dominant men. Aggressive, alpha males who had trouble expressing themselves (until they met the heroine, of course).
I keep thinking about Rex, the hamster in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. Rex embodies the character of a bounty-hunting woman who keeps a hamster for a pet. She’s high in autonomy and notespecially nurturing. Neither is Rex. Both make me laugh.
I’ve not seen many romances where a character owns a nontraditional pet (fish, lizards, or pocket pets like Rex), but they are out there.
There are also some interesting reads on the pathological condition known as pet hoarding. Profiles of hoarders suggest the condition is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder and affected people usually come from chaotic, unstable homes. Just google pet hoarding and you’ll turn up a fair number of psych reviews on the topic.
If you’d like to dig deeper into pet-owner profiling, check out Why We Love the Dogs We Do: How to Find the Dog That Matches Your Personality by Stanley Coren (Simon and Schuster; ISBN 978-0684855028). There are some interesting chapters in there about dogs (breeds) for introverts and extroverts, dominant people, not-so-dominant people, trusting, or controlling people, and an in-depth examination of the dogs owned by various leaders and famous personalities--what their dog-ownership reveals about their non-public personality.
I love an author who can weave a pet into a story and enrich my understanding of the owner’s character. Do you have a memorable pet you think is/was an extension of yourself? As a reader, can you recall outstanding pets in a novel and could you relate better to the owner’s character because of that?