Should you avow never to work with children or animals?
This month’s blog featured my top ten books with an animal protagonist. It’s almost a given that books for young children feature talking animal protogonists, but I was interested in writing about books which are either aimed at adults, or which adults would like to read.
This got me thinking about that old acting adage, never work with children or animals, because in my experience if, in your writing, you feature children or animals – particularly animals – then you seem to have far more emotional engagement with the reader and automatically raise the stakes.
If you’re thinking about including an animal in your story, then I guess your first decision is whether they will be anthropomorphic (will they have human traits?) For comedy or romance that might work, but it is probably inappropriate or annoying in a crime thriller. It’s hard to pull off though, and isn’t always necessary, even in humour. Have a look at the Blandings novels in the aforementioned blog – the humour comes from the human reactions to the pig, who remains resolutely piglike throughout.
However even if you avoid anthropomorphism, for the animal to have any place in your novel, they should probably have agency. Animals have needs and desires, just as humans do, and they shouldn’t appear just as cyphers for the plot (or to make your story more cuddly). I guess the secret is to know the species of animal you’re writing about and to be able to take a step back so your own feelings and projections don’t get in the way.
A good move might be to read some of the books on my blog which use animals in ways you’re considering, and see how other authors tackle it.
How about children? I guess the same rules apply. Bringing children into a story will add emotional tension and up the stakes, but you need to get them right. One of the hardest things to get right is consistency of age. I’ve read books by well known authors where the child seems to vary between toddler and teen on the same page, and it’s cringemaking. It takes you right out of the story, and for me I’m thinking – well neither this author (nor her agent, publisher or copy editor) have children.
The best way to get it right is to research exactly what that age group is doing right now, what are their concerns, their interests etc, etc, and then ask someone who has children of that age to read through your manuscript specifically looking for consistency.
Another thing that is hard to get right is keeping it current. If it’s a contemporary story, then you need to know what that age group is doing right now. Facebook, for instance, is seen as something for old people. Do you know which social media platforms your character would use? Do you know whether they would be allowed to use them? Do you know what access children have to technology right now? But of course, if you include something like tiktok or snapchat, they will probably no longer be current by the time you’re published.
Well I hope that helped and didn’t just put you right off. I found an interesting blog which talks about four ways to write about animals, which gives you a different perspective. Enjoy!
How to write
Continuing with the theme of writing about animals, I offer you the classic screenwriting book, Save the Cat! Even if you have no intention of writing for screen, this classic book has a lot to offer the writer of fiction. Screenwriting is a ruthless business and attention spans are short. This book is all about creating the perfect pitch and then building a story from it, so I do feel it’s useful in at least two ways – firstly in keeping your plot anchored and tight, and secondly, in the business of selling your novel.
There is an adaptation of this book specifically for novel writers – Save the Cat Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody, and that book never leaves my side. I’ll write about it another time.
(Oh and by the way, what does the cat have to do with it? Well apparently if you have a screenplay where your protagonist is shaping up to be not that likeable, then you have him or her rescue a cat from a tree or some such event early on. Hence save the cat.)