Animals are Characters, Too

This Week’s Bit of String: Crying over cats

‘Miss?’ the Year Eleven boy asked me, tossing his carefully sleeked hair without looking up from the doodled serpents invading his Science BTEC exercise book. ‘Do you ever start randomly crying while you’re petting your cat, because you wish so much they could talk to you?’

I don’t think it’s ever brought me to tears, even when I was sixteen myself, but I definitely used to look in pet cats’ eyes and sense much present in them that we, their humans, missed.

The boy’s question brought to mind a passage from Muriel Barberry’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Renee refers to her ‘appreciation’ for her tenants’ cocker spaniel as: ‘that state of grace attained when one’s feelings are immediately accessible another creatures.’

Guinea pig terminally dissatisfied by food dish.
‘Here goes nothing.’

We now have only guinea pigs as pets, but their feelings are pretty darn accessible. They’re an important if timid part of our family, an affectionate interest uniting us as our son gets older. And if anyone doubts that animals are sentient, I defy them to look at a guinea pig, any guinea pig, and not be struck by the chronic consternation on their faces. It’s as if they’re constantly in dire need of food but always expecting to be disappointed.

Since animals cause us to reflect on what makes us alive, what makes us sentient (to use a rather unattractive, clinical-sounding word), and they bring us joy and unity—isn’t it right they should feature in literature?

Animal Voices

It’s easy to find animals in the fantasy genre. The dragons of Pern, the owls and thestrals of Hogwarts, the daemons of Lyra’s Oxford, the Noisy animals of New World in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series (oh, Manchee!)

So too they should be present in mainstream literature, sincewhen we write we attempt to reflect and learn from real life. Certainly animals have served as set pieces and symbols in literature since Homer told of Circe’s pigs and Polyphemus’ sheep. But in using them only as such, do we devalue their contributions to our lives?

Pictures in Warner Bros Leavesden studios paying tribute to animal actors in the Harry Potter series
Unsung heroes of the Harry Potter films.

There’s the pigeon offering occasional commentary in Pigeon English, and the freed parrot in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. The parrot gets a chapter of his own: one long, continuous sentence. His thoughts fly free as he leaves the home he knew for decades, after his owner’s death. It’s nice to get these extra, imagined perspectives, but by making animal characters simply witnesses to the humans’ folly, they remain a little flat.

A great example of using animals realistically yet appreciatively is Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans. Her novel about immigrants in the UK encompasses many points of view, including a dog. Different characters rate each other based on their respective reactions to Dog, and he leaps in to save the day at the end.

The novel also features scenes in a chicken-packing factory, which convinced me to buy only free-range products ever after. Her depiction linked callous attitudes about animals to abuse and exploitation of migrant workers. It should hardly have been surprising, but it had a somewhat revelatory effect on me.

Animal Roles
Cat posing in line with flowerpots.
Catmouflage: They see all and know all.

Although these authors have gone to great imaginary lengths to use animals as characters and assign voices to them, there are other ways to integrate our furry (or feathery or scaly) friends. Why is it so rare to encounter human characters who own pets? Allusions to a pet can serve as useful shortcuts establishing character. Are they a dog person, a cat person, a horse person, maybe something more unusual like a snake person?

In my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds, treatment of a dog catalyses the action. Pets are a central part of characters’ lives. Introducing one of the protagonists, Lydia, I described her car:

‘The cluttered Fiesta—Mabel—smelled of takeaway curry and chips, cat litter bought in bulk, and hand sanitiser.’

Beyond representing personality traits of their owners, including pets in stories gives humans opportunity for insight. Lydia is self-aware enough to know that she needs her cat, Slim Shady, more than he needs her. She recognises his purr doesn’t always convey happiness, but sometimes cloaks fear. The purr indicates to her:

‘You only get away with this because I in my benevolence allow it.’

Animals at the Beginning

In my current novel, about Eve and the (presumed) first family of humans, animals have an even bigger role. As much as Eve and Adam’s lives changed on their expulsion from Eden, think what it meant for the animals! Through no fault of their own, they had to leave paradise as well, and were thence forward seen as fair game. Literally.

Surely humans didn’t go straight from discovering wildlife wonders in Eden, to wearing animal hides and eating meat outside its walls. The sudden need to provide for themselves would change things, but it would not be a comfortable adjustment. Tension grows between Eve and Adam when he starts out eating fish:

‘What’s next, killing cows? Lions, lambs? You could roast one of the angels.’
‘Don’t speak to me like that, woman! I’m not the one who ever sought something I wasn’t supposed to take.’

The way each character relates to animals represents and colours the way they relate to others. Adam tells himself he has dominion over the animals, but in God’s curse on Eve, she’s been told her husband will have dominion over her. Does that make her equal to the animals? This is just one reason she has a keen interest in how he treats them.

Further, they have to wonder about God’s purpose in creating themselves and the animals (which, for this work, I’m imagining He did; see my previous post on working with incredible premises). If God is willing for them to dispatch with the animals so easily, what does this say about their own mortality?

It’s like Sirius Black said (somewhat ironically, given his later treatment of his own house-elf) in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ‘If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.’

Books Aren’t Babies

This Week’s Bit of String: A Boy’s Hilltop Breakdown

On an unexpectedly sunny Sunday, we climbed the Worcestershire Beacon in the Malvern hills, turning the last upward twist to find the summit already crowded. Dogs checked each other out, dads promised junior travellers ice cream once they reached the bottom again. A multigenerational family group posed for a photo at the Jubilee monument. And two women tried to corral the five overtired children between them to a bench for a rest.

Four of the kids obliged, but a wiry little boy with a flushed face refused, trying to pull his hand away, protesting in a voice so strangled with distress I couldn’t make out the words.

‘All right,’ his mother said. She had a clear, somewhat upper class accent. ‘If you want to sit here, we’ll sit here.’

Malvern Hills
The Malvern Hills. So many paths.

They all perched on the rim of the hilltop. She pointed out the view’s attractions to the other children and speculated on what wildlife might be around.

She had folded the boy into her lap, and while his feet still scrabbled at the ground as if desperate to dig himself in, his fingers clung, curled over her shoulder so tightly they whitened.

And despite her calm tone, I suspected she was clinging back. She seemed well-practised at handling this type of meltdown. Perhaps her son’s difficulties were recurring and lay somewhere on the autism spectrum.

The feeling I got from the scene, her secret wish that pervaded me, was to grasp him up here forever, long after everyone else had climbed down and found their ice creams. To keep him high above the noises of the world, where the rabbit-nibbled grass was soft and the few rocky outcroppings formed seats and benches. To let him be free of the world’s eyes that judge difference so harshly.

Isn’t it the most gut-wrenching thing, releasing our children, with their peculiarities so cherished by us, their vulnerabilities so beloved, into view of everyone else?

Create, Revise, Release, Repeat

The works we create as writers are often portrayed as our offspring. We love them and view them as extensions of ourselves, so we want to protect them. It can hurt—a lot—when the world gives them a less resounding reception than we’d like.

But I think sending work out is not so very fraught. When stories bounce back to us from an unsuccessful competition bid or magazine query, we can patch their scrapes and even perform major reconstructive surgery on them without causing anyone pain (apart from maybe ourselves).

Sure, we write about characters to give them a voice, and we want the world to listen. But the characters themselves don’t know the difference. Rejections apply solely to us, our work and maybe our voice, no one else’s. We learn to carry this burden: personally, I let loose some of my least impressive language under my breath, go off and do something else, then before long I get back to the work and make changes.

We learn a bit of ventriloquism, don’t we? To throw our voices a little and see if that does our characters more favours.

Giant spiders on a house with the words 'Face Your Fear' beside them
I mean, what are we waiting for? There are far scarier things than submitting stories.

That’s nothing compared to seeing our kids in pain. I remember my son’s agonised scream, his whole three-year-old body going rigid, when a helium party balloon slipped his clutch and drifted skyward. His grief over that balloon pierced me at least as sharply as any rejection letter ever has. Then there’s the odd bullying incident. A romantic break-up. Merely recounting these is too terrible.

We don’t want our kids to have to modify their voices excessively. We don’t want the world to perform its nips and tucks. We may change our stories to be worthier of the world, but we will toil endlessly to make the world worthier of our children.

So when we wax poetic (hyberbolic?) about the strain of sending stories out into the world, let’s remember there’s little to fear. Nothing is at stake but our own pride, and nothing is beyond reach of repair. Send your book out there! It can stand the risk.

And maybe we can use our writing, if we keep tweaking it to deeper efficacy, to influence the world and make it a gentler place for people like the boy on the hilltop and his mum.