Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The problem with animals and pets in novels...

I've just finished reading Hollowland by Amanda Hocking. I felt I owed it to such a successful indie, a self-made millionaire by the age of twenty-eight, to check out a novel of hers. And this one is free.

Though I'm not the target reader, I rather enjoyed it, as the heroine is level-headed and ruthless on occasion and the story though episodic moves along briskly. It's the first zombie novel I've ever read. It ended when I wasn't expecting, but a) it's the first in a series and b) I was misled by the percentage read indicator - the Kindle edition included another book's extract at the end.

My major criticism was the lioness that the heroine, Remy, acquires along the way. She sees the animal trapped in a truck, releases her and calls her Ripley. Ripley turns out to be friendly towards humans, but eats zombies. And I took Ripley altogether too seriously. I worried a lot about her.

She has a chain attached to a collar round her neck. It bothered me that she has to drag this around for most of the book. It must have got in her way when tackling zombies. I fretted when she went for a swim - wouldn't the chain drag her under? One of the first things Remy does for the lioness is give her a drink. It's the only drink Ripley gets in the book, poor thing. She fends for herself whenever Remy's little group are away doing something, then magically reappears and jumps in their truck when they are off somewhere new. She's very convenient, no trouble at all.

Had I included a pet lion in a novel, I'd have reread Born Free and tried to make it as realistic as possible, because ideally an animal in a novel should be as convincing as the human characters. Just like a real pet, it is not to be undertaken lightly. For starters, you have to account for the darned thing the whole time. If you forget, your reader may fret. Instead of being gripped by your plot, she will be concerned the dog hasn't been taken for a walk in days, the parrot must be lonely, or what is that dragon living on?

Perhaps I'm too literal minded. Amanda's fans all think Ripley's cool, just the way she's written.


  1. Writers of screenplays, television scripts and even novels have a tendency to treat both animals and children in a rather cavalier fashion. They are introduced when it is convenient, set aside when inconvenient, and generally regarded as non-perishable props, safe to set aside for extended periods of time until they are needed for either set decoration or plot advancing.

    Congrats on having read an entire book by Ms. Hocking. I tried, once, and couldn't take it. She is to be admired for what is apparently a terrific work ethic, and she obviously is in sync with what a large audience desires, but her appeal escapes me.

  2. That's so true, Alan, about children too. I never noticed until I had a child, but after that...

    Has Andy Hamilton's TV comedy series Outnumbered made it to your shores? Funny and accurate.

  3. The lioness with a chain around its neck?!?! No, no, no, no, no!! A tame lioness to boot too!??! Arrrrrgh.

    I am already going off this author. I think if we are to have wild animals in our stories we owe them a little respect. They ain't there for us. Well I think so anyway. Ok off I go to my nightly animal lib meeting...!

    Take care

  4. Charlie the Invisible (at times) Cat wouldn't think much of having a chain round his neck, I feel sure.

    How would he be with zombies?

  5. Ha, this is funny. The lioness in this particular book didn't bother me, but I usually do have big issues with stuff like this. I especially hate when authors introduce an animal simply to manipulate reader emotions--usually by hurting or killing the animal later on. It's cheap! Cheap, I say!

  6. I've occasionally had a similar problem reading novels in which the action seems to continue nonstop for days and yet the characters never slow down even to sleep or grab a bite. Authors can become so caught up in what happens next that they forget there has to be a rhythm. It's unavoidable in life, and on the page the reader needs it as well.

  7. Good points about animals in novels.

    I use cats, dogs and horses in some of my stories, and I always make them as realistic as possible. There's a lot of comic relief to be found in animals.

  8. Adriana, what about Black Beauty? I remember crying buckets when Ginger died, but the book was written to draw attention to the plight of some horses - I suppose manipulating readers with good intent.

    Stephen, there's nothing like mayhem not taking a toll on the characters to make them come across as cardboard.

    K.A., I like reading on FB about your real life animals - I bet your fictional ones are brilliant.

  9. Hollowland is the Amanda Hocking book I've read (when asked to review one of her books for Words With Jam) and I have to confess I loved it - I think her eye for a story and her pacing are cracking. I do take your point about continuity though - and also about animals. I think too often we introduce something/one because it seems like a good idea and can then spend the rest of the novel getting tied in knots over the continuity implications. I've only ever had one pet in my novels - a cat called Camus who lives in a vineyard house, which didn't involve any continuity difficulty - I had him showing up for mealtimes but as a cat in a rual setting he could be out and about most of the time.

  10. Hi Dan!

    Michele (Banana the Poet) put it very well over on Goodreads:

    "...we are the age to be in charge of pets and kids and making sure everything gets fed and watered as well as managing everything else. Most teenagers and young adults have someone like us in their lives doing exactly that. They don't worry about who feeds the dog, or walks it or even how their own laundry gets washed in many cases. They are all things that happen by magic while they are doing more interesting things. We are the magicians and so we do the worrying for them."

  11. It is true that readers fret over unfed animals. I have immediately been over to the right hand side of this blog and scrolled down to check Whom the Hamster is still alive and kicking and fed him. Or her?

    It's not easy for a writer to remember all the threads of a story being written; very much like a juggler keeping all the balls in the air.

  12. Anna, I can promise you will never find Whom in a corner of his cage, little legs in the air, an ex-virtual hamster. It's not in his programming.

    (And he's a bit miffed you couldn't tell he's a he.)

  13. True - though I'm fairly sure Amanda has pets and runs her own house, so maybe it's simply that style of lickety-split narration that seems sloppy but doesn't let believability get in the way of a story - the key being if you keep going quick enough people won't spot the cracks.
    I have to say it would drive me nuts knowing there was something continuity-ish I hadn't dealt with like that.

  14. Which may go to explain why we are not super-prolific author millionaires, Dan...

  15. A bit off the subject of animals (and the sub-species children), but it is also a fact that characters in novels seldom go to the bathroom. I suppose they hold it until The End, and then all make a mad dash for the facilities.

  16. I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this post, Lexi. I'm so glad that you cared about the lion. I'm sure the person who pointed out that kids & teenagers don't think about looking after pets was right. For them pets are just THERE. If they feel like having a romp with them they do, but in between whiles the animal just evaporates and suddenly materialises when they want to play with them again. That's why mum always ends up mucking out the rabbit or taking the dog for a walk. So the thinking pet's dilemma is whether to have a charming young owner who adores them but leaves them to starve, or a boring old mumsy type who doesn't dream up exciting zombie games to play but dishes up the dinner.

  17. Alan, not sure I want to accompany characters to the bathroom...

    Cassie, I guess the ideal solution is to live with a family that has a nice mixture of reliable and fun humans.

  18. Agreed. But how often do they even duck offstage to clear the decks, as it were? "Ah! That's better! Now, where were we, hmm?"

  19. Perhaps because it's just too mundane, so only mentioned for a reason. That's what I do, anyway. I don't want to clutter the book, or bore the reader with something they take for granted.

  20. There seems to be a fashion on T.V. or in films which, in my opinion, has lasted too long. There's frequently a scene showing men in the communal loo having a chat. Perhaps the director is trying to include what some readers feel is missing - people going to the loo. I hope the fashion fades soon. Much of life is mundane though essential, and if we read for enjoyment, we don't really need the boring or distracting bits - which is what Lexi said succinctly above.

    What we do need is for characters to be 'in character', i.e. large pet owners being aware of their pets because if they aren't, the pet has a tendency to make them aware.

  21. At least the scope for doing that with female characters is limited. Not sure how realistic those scenes are anyway...

    Check out this view on men's lavatories from one of my favourite bloggers:

  22. Check out this view on men's lavatories from one of my favourite bloggers

    Isn't this lowering the tone a little! LOL

    Someone once said that you should never work on stage with a child or an animal. They invariably steal the audience. For example, last Christmas at a panto they had a real horse on stage and ... you guessed it .... it pooped in public so that Cinders was delayed on the way to the ball. The kids loved it but a little improvisation was needed and the horse earned the most applause!

    A book is in a way a stage so perhaps the same rule applies. Unless the animal/child is intended to be a main character, then perhaps they are best avoided.

  23. Animals are in some ways easier to write than humans, since readers generally know many more people than animals so are less likely to notice improbabilities. (Similarly, as a wax modeller, I can tell you an animal face is WAY easier to model convincingly than a human one.)

    I can't agree that it's a sensible idea for an author to avoid animals and children - Dog, Freddie and Gemma are three of my favourite characters...

  24. Lexi, If animals and children are main/favourite characters then the tendency to dominate the show works with you.

    I was suggesting that having them as minor characters may be problematic as the tendency to dominate can distract readers from your main message.

    Of course a great writer can make anything work! LOL

  25. On reflection, Q, I think Snowy is my favourite fictional dog. Brilliant drawings and funny. Least favourite - hmm, maybe the canary in The Mayor of Casterbridge, created just to have a dismal death. But there must be others...

  26. It's nearly Christmas and Snowy the dog sounds wonderful Lexi.

    I've learned not to argue with a Lady .... especially a Lady Author! *smile*

  27. Especially in this season of goodwill and anxious shopping :o)

  28. Diana Wynne Jones has a great description in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland of the literary treatment of horses. She's talking specifically of fantasy, but it's not confined to that genre (nor is it confined to horses!)

    The whole piece is well worth reading, but here are a few snippets:

    "Horses are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water."

    "...horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are."

    " is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals."

    In (I think) The Crown of Dalemark she has a character grumble about someone treating a horse like a bicycle, a nice in-joke.

    I write about dairy farmers, and have to work with the logistics of those twice-daily milkings. But then so do the characters. :)

  29. So true about fictional horses. I must look up that book - it sounds interesting.

    Mark you, even a bicycle benefits from a little care and attention now and then...