My roommate got a dog. Her name is Gypsy, and she is a super-sweet, 7 year old Golden Retriever. I know she belongs to my roommate ... and I know my roommate is moving to her new house in less than a month...and I know I'm leaving for summer camp in June...

But I LOVE this dog. We hang out all day. She mostly just lies around, while I work. She is sweet and loving and if I get up and move around, she follows me.

When I was a kid, I always had a dog - well, my parents always had a dog - and as an adult, I had on-again, off-again relationships with a few cats. But this is the first time I've spent a substantial amount of time with a dog since I was a kid. It's kind of great.

This experience has gotten me thinking about a technique used by many of the authors I admire: including an animal "sidekick" (or two or three) in every book. This is especially common for romance writers, but I also notice it in fantasy. I used to assume that these animals were included to pump up the "cuteness factor" and/or because the authors themselves were crazy animal lovers. For some authors (I'm looking at you, Jenny Crusie and Robin McKinley) including animals seems to be a motif, just like any other theme. It's almost a branding device - I know I'm reading a Crusie novel when the heroine rescues a scruffy dog; I know I'm reading McKinley when the heroine is surrounded by a bunch of animals who love her, but make other people slightly nervous.

But this past week has made me re-think my assumptions about animal characters. Or, at least, expand my thinking. After spending several days with Gypsy, I now believe there are other reasons why authors include animals in their novels. First, animals have personalities. They aren't just furniture; they are characters in their own right. Second, they give the other characters someone to talk to, even when there are no other people in the scene. That's a valuable commodity. Finally, used properly, animals can actually drive the plot forward. They find things that are meant to be hidden; they run away and force the hero to help the heroine  (or vice versa); they carry half-dead heroines to the mage who can heal her (okay, maybe that's just one novel, but still...)

I'm not saying I'm gonna force my next protagonist to have a pet, but I do understand why authors include animals in their stories. I have my good friend, Gypsy to thank for that. And by "thank" I mean "give an extra biscuit."