I admit it. I’m an animal person. I love them all but am partial to dogs and have had many and still do. I’ve read many “animal” books and find them endearing. Today’s blog, though, is not about writing animal stories, but about integrating animals into your novels to give your humans depth, compassion and vulnerability.
Comic relief is one reason writers insert animals into their stories. I recently watched (again) Lonesome Dove on television and laughed (again) at the scenes of the two pigs following the wagon out of Lonesome Dove to embark on a journey north. The journey would be fraught with drama and trauma, and the pigs added a light aspect to ease the tension. But they actually did more than that.
These two sweet little pink creatures gave us insight into one of the main characters of Lonesome Dove, Augustus McCrae. Sure, he hollered at them, kicked dirt at them, spit at them, but he also smiled at them, enjoyed their antics and encouraged them to join the entourage to Montana. What did that say about Gus, a former Texas Ranger who would hang an old friend for breaking the law? He had a definite soft side.
Characters that have a seriously dark job, like a cop or detective, need to have a way to show their human side. Relationships with the opposite sex, kids and family, even friends and colleagues can work. But so can animals. Take my NYC homicide detective, Frank Mead, in The Triangle Murders. In a dialogue, with his sergeant, Mead explains how he came to own a blue and gold, extremely noisy killer macaw named Dexter.
“What’s with the bird?” Jefferies said.
“Dumb move.” Frank sighed.
“Brought my car into a garage out in Canarsie. The bird was in the back of the shop squawking up a storm. Real nasty place, they didn’t give a shit about him. He was covered in grease. So I took him. Fifty bucks. They sold him just like that. I figured I’d clean him up and give him away, to some good home or something.” His face reddened.
“Kinda got used to the company. He’s incredibly smart, talks and, well, never mind. Stupid ass bird.”
Mead, a hard-boiled homicide cop, has a gruesome murder to solve, a dead wife always on his mind, an estranged daughter he feels guilty about. And yet he saves this kooky parrot. Would you have expected that of him? Or are you surprised?
Animals have played similar roles in mysteries for decades. Think Raymond Chandler’s The Thin Man. I can never forget the first movie and my introduction to Myrna Loy as the character, Nora Charles. Picture the scene: Nick Charles is in a nightclub bar being asked by a young woman to take a case, when Nora bursts in carrying Christmas packages and trying to hold onto Asta, her mischievous terrier, by the lead. Asta barrels into the room and Nora winds up face down on the floor, packages strewn everywhere. Unfazed, she gets up, brushes herself off and carries on.
Her dog was the perfect device to show us Nora’s personality. And it was dead-on. Nora is generally unfazed by embarrassing moments like these. But how would you know that without tedious narrative? By using Asta.
Other well-known authors use animals in similar ways. In Robert Parker’s Spenser books, you meet his dog, Pearl, and can picture her lying on the floor on her back with four feet in the air. How many of us are familiar with that pose? She’s entirely comfortable, not fearful or concerned in this position about any danger. What does that say about Spenser and his relationship with Pearl and the environment he provides for her? Safe, sheltered and most probably well-loved.
Elizabeth George, another dog person, has inserted a Longhaired Dachshund, Peach, into her stories. How does she integrate Peach with her characters to give them depth and breadth of human qualities. Yes, this is a quiz.
I know I will personally continue to use animals in my books. I encourage you to consider doing the same. They can add a sympathetic, sensitive and loving element to your humans . . . in ways other humans simply can’t.