Make Your Characters Roar: Character Development Using Animal Totems

April 12, 2018 | Writing Craft, Characters

Character development can be hard work. You want to create characters who ring true, but who are also interesting and unique. You also want them to be consistent. You don’t want them hopping from one feel to another and get comments from readers that your characters are unbelievable.

character development with animal totems

I like to use the Enneagram for this, but I have used other methods as well. One is animal totems or just animals.

Animals or animal totems for character development are great because they have traits with which they are easily identified. So much so that they are often used as metaphors. “What a fox.” “He’s a bear of a man.” Now, these examples show physical traits, but these animals are known for personality traits as well, and that is how I like to use them for character development.

Let’s play.

Here is a beginning list of Animal Totems and their associated character traits for you to consider.


  • Bear– Bears are big and strong, but they also basically want to be left alone. Bears like boundaries. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. If you do bother them, however, watch out. “Don’t poke the bear.”character development animal totems
  • Beaver – Beavers are busy. We all know that. They are fulfilled by their work and love working in teams. They are great problem solvers and when faced with a problem will put their head down and work through it. And while they won’t easily give up on a dream, they will work towards achieving the dream in a practical manner rather than wasting time imagining what will happen once the dream is realized.
  • Cat – Cats are independent, patient when strategic, and swift to react when warranted. Cats will take their time observing before striking. Their prey may not even know they are being stalked until it is too late. This makes them unpredictable to others and for some unnerving. You never know exactly what a cat is doing or what it may do next.
  • Deer – Deer are gentle creatures that will run away at the slightest sign of danger. They are graceful and elegant, but constantly moving to avoid threats. They have an ethereal quality that can’t survive in a structured, trapped environment.
  • Dog – Dogs are loyal and show unconditional love to those who have gained their trust. They can be protective, and even aggressive in this protection. They are a dependable friend and enjoy the company of others they trust. Being part of a pack, a small group of trusted friends, makes them feel safe. They are trustworthy and can be obedient employees and underlings.
  • Falcon – Falcons are focused and precise. They stand out from a crowd for their strength of character and perception. They are often messengers with a mission that they are determined to complete. A falcon will not be ignored or swatted aside easily.
  • Horse – Horses want to be free. They do not like being pinned down to one job or place. They want to have options. They are independent, but can also be wary and see potential danger before it strikes. The biggest danger for a horse though? Being trapped. They will run away when they see this on the horizon or maybe even strikeout.
  • Shark – Sharks move forward, always. Standing still, not advancing, is death to a shark. They enjoy power and don’t see crushing someone lower down than them as cruel. It is just natural order. They are smart, swift, and skilled and use these traits to their advantage.
  • Turtle- Turtles are calm and for the most part unflappable. They move at a slow, perhaps even plodding pace, but have an inner assurance about their choices. They will keep their heads when others are losing theirs, keep on task, keep going. They are comfortable being alone and may even prefer it because of this, if threatened directly, they will pull back and retreat into themselves.

This list is generic, but you can use specific animals too. I used my dogs when I was working on character development for my Unbound series for Harlequin (now the Nine Worlds Series). For it, I needed two types of shapeshifter heroes: hellhounds and garm (wolf shapeshifters).

My hellhounds I modeled after our Siberian husky. This husky was an undeniable alpha. His need to be alpha was simply driven by will. He was top dog and other dogs needed to recognize this.

My garm I modeled after our shepherd mix. This dog could be just as intimidating to other dogs when he felt the need. He was actually the only dog our husky would back down from, even though our husky was overall dominant. The difference, though, was motivation. He didn’t need to be top dog. He wasn’t driven by will. He was driven by a need to protect and guard.

So one driven by will and one driven by a need to protect. Both made for intimidating alpha characters to use in my books.

Now your turn. What animals or animal totems can you think of to use in your character development?


Lori Devoti is the author of paranormal romance, urban fantasy and young adult fiction. Under the name Rae Davies, she writes the USA Today Bestselling Dusty Deals Mystery series. Check out her books at and Looking for help with your writing? Lori also does developmental editing and critiques for other authors and publishers. See our Editorial Services page for contact information and pricing. Or check out Lori’s classes at the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin.