It’s easy to guess that an animal character in a novel will fall on hard times or possibly die in the end when he’s one of the main characters. For this reason, I’ve refused to read Old Yeller and a number of other classics, as well as watch movies made from them or from more contemporary animal stories. I’m just too tender-hearted when it comes to dogs—and horses. And cats and bunnies. Bears and wolves too. Also aquatic mammals like dolphins, whales, and seals. Okay, just about all warm-blooded animals.
I do understand that there are a lot of good stories in which animals die. I just can’t read them. But I admire those of you who can wipe your eyes and turn the pages at the same time.
What bothers me more is when an animal is used only as a prop. When I begin to read a novel or watch a movie in which a dog (because dogs appear more often than other animals) enters the stage, I always hope something doesn’t happen to that dog.
Take for example a movie I recently began viewing that had the cutest dog accompanying its master on a quest through the wilderness. My first clue that the dog was being used as a dispensible prop was when the human characters had a drink of water or a bite of food on occasion and nothing was offered to the dog. What does that tell you? That the screenwriter had no respect or concern for the dog as a real character with feelings and needs, or for the viewers who may have fallen in love with the dog (which I did). Soon the dog was gratuitously shot and killed with an arrow. I then abandoned the movie, as I would abandon a novel under the same circumstances.
On the other hand, I enjoyed the way the dog character was handled in Melanie Dickerson’s novel, The Healer’s Apprentice. Young Rose’s beloved dog, Wolfie, was a true companion. Rose and Wolfie respected, protected, and cared for each other as two human companions would. And Wolfie had goals, motivations, and genuine reactions. This dog was a real character, not a prop.
Stories with animal characters, even minor ones, are richer and more satisfying when the animals have believable relationships with human characters. In my novel, Bird Face, Chanceaux and her puppies are important to the plot and to Wendy and her character growth. I will likely include minor animal characters in every novel I write, and I doubt I will ever kill off any of them.
If a writer creates a story for a sensitive audience, especially pre-adult, I hope animal characters will be depicted as the sensient beings they are, with needs that (at least some of) the human characters respect or attend–not as objects or simple property. For me, there has to be a reason for an animal to be in a story, other than to show how cruel humans can be.