Saturday, May 15, 2010
Our Characters and Their Pets
Pets can liven up a scene with little dialogue or show the humanity (or lack of) in a character. Remember how we all felt looking at poor Max after the Grinch tied the horn on his head and forced him to pull that heavy sleigh?
In movies if a guy shoots his enemy's dog, we know he's the villain. That's a cheap trick, but it works. As soon as a character's cruel to an animal, we hate him.
But even a gruff bank robber who just shot the teller can gain at least a bit of our sympathy if he feeds a stray cat or dog. If the animal has an injury, like a hurt paw the robber has to wrap up, so much the better. But as I said, it's a cheap trick. In a movie, the audience will be all, "awwwww," but a novel reader will probably smirk a bit and expect a bit more to sway her toward the robber's side. But the "poor animal" is still a good tool for a novelist to keep in the old writing tool box for that added touch.
Animals can serve as symbols, props, and minor characters all at once. Let's look at Harry Potter's owl, Hedwig- (named after the patron saint of orphans, by the way).
She serves to link him to the magical world while in Privet Drive. Sometimes she carries letters to his magical friends, but most of the time she's caged- symbolizing his own entrapment. For the writer, she helps set the scene and/or mood- Harry can voice his thoughts, telling her he's sorry he can't let her out. Sometimes we're told how dirty her cage is. She'll pace on her perch. Clap her beak in annoyance like a white feathered (haired) old grandma type making *tsk tsk* noises.
In Deathly Hallows, her death seems to be part of Harry's rite of passage into adulthood. He's no longer the little orphan boy. He's leaving his aunt's house for the last time. Leaving her protection. Leaving the protection of the patron of orphans.
All of that with just a little snowy owl who doesn't even talk.
But most of our characters' pets will be your average cat or dog with the occasional bird or fish tossed in. Don't forget to feed them, give them water, and interact with them. They'll bark at the door (well, the dogs will) and they'll respond to other characters. I think the biggest mistake we can make is to stick a pet in a scene and then forget about it for the rest of the scene or the rest of the book. Don't annoy the reader with the little beast, but a doggy loving reader will remember Jane had a poodle and will wonder why little fluffy was never mentioned again after chapter one.