3.21.2019

Petting Zoo

Anyone who takes a walk in cold weather knows how much people love their dogs. Why else would the owners stand around freezing while the pooch sniffs a streetlight pole? The same love extends to cats, as can be witnessed in entire mystery series that have been based on those cuddly furballs. Their application in fiction goes beyond being popular with readers, though. It can also provide a fledgling author with a means of probing inside the heads of their lead characters.

One very useful trait of pets is their inability to talk. Beyond the obvious signals, such as the insistent staring to be fed, the owner must project feelings onto the pet. A dog is regarded as happy when it is smiling. A cat is regarded as content when it kneads its claws in the owner’s lap. For those authors who can only write physical descriptions—viewing their characters from the outside—such casual projections can be a boon.

Have you ever been around a pet? You probably could write down 10 characteristics of them off the top of your head. Little dogs like Jack Russell terriers bark incessantly. Persian cats are fussy eaters, among other charming traits. So you naturally assign them qualities, such as annoying and snippy. You do that because the animal can’t speak aloud and break the spell of your imaginings.

When you think about it, aren’t your characters like that? They don’t speak unless you assign a line to them. So to start, why don’t you give a character a pet and then assign qualities based on that relationship? We all know that pets’ personalities are shaped by their masters. If you have a vicious reprobate as a villain, what kind of dog does he own, and how does the dog react to other dogs? To humans? You know all this stuff. You’ve remarked on it a hundred times to a neighbor or friend. If you walk into a home and are greeted by fat monster cats who hiss at you, you know you’d better be nice to your hostess.

Then take the projection a step further. When your character stares, for instance, what is behind that? Stupefaction? A desire to intimidate? A desire to move past the idiotic thing the other character just said? Write that down as an aside in a conversation. Maybe write a few sentences explaining why the character tends to stare in those situations. It’s just like a dog: you’re giving it a human dimension, one the reader can connect with.

Exercise: Go to a dog park in your area and watch the owners interact with their pets and with other owners. Write down what you imagine is going through their minds. What do the dogs bring out in their masters? When you have filled up a few pages, take them home and read the list with your story in mind. Would any of those descriptions fit your characters?

“An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language.”
—Martin Buber

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


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