Hurting Animals (In Fiction!)

Marian Perera is here today to talk about a topic that I’ve never seen before on a writing blog. You’re probably cringing already, just reading the title. What if your story does call for an animal being harmed at some point? How do you handle it? Is it worth the possible backlash? Talk amongst yourselves…

Warning up front. If you hurt a cute animal or a pet in your book, no matter what the reason, there’s a small subset of readers who will hate the book, never read anything else you write, and maybe hate you too.

I know this because, inspired by a cat going overboard in my third manuscript, I started a thread on a forum to discuss the topic. There was a reason for the cat’s fate and there were no details at all, gory or otherwise. The cat simply went overboard and was never seen again.

Some readers made it clear this was an absolute no-no for them. One said that if he read a book that featured an animal, he went to the end to check if the animal was alive and safe. If the animal didn’t appear, the book was dropped. Another reader said that if the hero rode a horse into battle, she would want the hero to die for endangering the horse. “Boycott the author” and “blacklist” featured in a few of the replies.

It reminded me of a certain novel where the heroine survives a shipwreck. After she washes up on an island, she finds the ship’s cat clinging to some wreckage and climbing ashore. The cat makes occasional appearances throughout the book, doing nothing other than giving her a purry pet to cuddle. It makes me wonder if the author wanted a cute animal in the story but either couldn’t bear to let it go down with the crew or was worried about potential backlash if the cat didn’t reappear, completely unharmed.

I’m not in favor of gratuitous cruelty to animals, but I’m not keen on cute animals wearing a mantle of authorial protection either. If the protagonist’s family is burned alive in their house in an act of revenge but her fuzzy kitten escapes without scorching a paw, the author’s preferences will be only too clear. Though if Fluffy dies too, the heroine mourning her children and her pet in the same breath might be unrealistic (yes, I’ve seen that happen).

It also matters why the animal is harmed. If your villain tortures a puppy to show us how evil he is, that’s likely to come off as gratuitous. If your villain, during a home invasion, shoots a trained guard dog, that still hurts and some readers will still hate you, but at least it won’t seem as though you’re just going for the shock factor. In some stories, endangering an animal is unavoidable. If you’re writing an epic fantasy where the heroes go to battle à la the Ride of the Rohirrim, only they walk so their horses won’t be hurt… well, I won’t buy this. Literally.

Genre definitely plays a role; readers of horror or suspense might be more prepared for this kind of thing. Stephen King’s novels are great examples, and in one of Dean Koontz’s books, the lovable dog doesn’t survive to the end. The time period should be taken into consideration, too. My novel takes place in the early days of the Age of Steam; if my characters had too much of a modern, Western perspective on animal welfare, that would be unrealistic. I mention whaling in my novels without condemning the practice because during this time, when the characters are fighting a war, marine conservation is going to be the last thing on their minds, even though this is very important to me.

Overall, I’m in favor of being true to the story no matter what. My novel The Deepest Ocean could not have been written without a shark fighting a killer whale and both being injured, though few readers get upset over what happens to sharks. Which is sad, because these are beautiful apex predators…but that’s a digression for another day.

Either way, it’s good to know what will be a deal breaker to some of your readers, and I’m glad I was warned beforehand. Though interestingly, my editor didn’t ask for the cat detail to be changed.

I’d love to hear from more readers on this topic. What are your experiences or thoughts on animals being hurt in fiction?



Bio : Marian Perera was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in the United States, and lives in Canada. For now. Her sharkpunk romance The Deepest Ocean was recently released by Samhain Publishing, and two sequels have been signed. You can learn more about her and her books at her website, her blog and Twitter (@MDPerera).


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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73 Responses to Hurting Animals (In Fiction!)

  1. anon says:

    Sorry, but if a pet is harmed in any work of fiction, I personally put that work down and never pick it up again. Personal preference, you know.

  2. Miss E says:

    For me I guess it depends. If it’s a natural death, i.e. from old age, I can handle it even if I’m sad. That’s life, and in a way it’s a good thing because it means the animal lived out it’s full life and likely was very happy up until the end. Animals being killed, hurt, or neglected is very hard for me to stand. I get especially upset about cats being killed or hurt, especially if it’s not treated as important (I’ve sadly seen this one in movies sometimes). Basically, if an animal’s death or injury is treated as sad or disturbing, it will be hard and depending on how personally upsetting or graphic it is, I can get through it most times. (It is easier with horror because you kind of expect it). Still won’t stop me from feeling overprotective of real and fictional cats, though. I think it would be very hard to write an animal death for me. If I ever did it, I think I’d be very upset writing the scene unless it was an animal with a very minor role in the story or something like a fish that is less likely to be something the reader will be attached to. (Then again, having betta fish has made me realize you can get attached to a fish, which surprises me.)

    P.S. What’s the name of the book where the cat survives the shipwreck and becomes the heroine’s companion on the island? It sounds cute, and I feel like the author and I may be kindred souls when it comes to cats.

  3. Nina Falkestav says:

    I too am having trouble with this… My book is for ages somewhere between 8-15 (wide range I know, but it depends on the person I guess, I’m 33 and still love Movies and books with talking animals, which is what my book features as well.) In my book there is a bunch of cats in a setting similar to old egypt, so what do do when they need to eat? They should obviously hunt, but how do I handle that in a book for kids?

    • :Donna Marie says:

      It just now crossed my mind—remember Disney’s “Bambi”? Huge classic. Animals die. I think it is all how you do it, not that you shouldn’t do it.

      • Pupplez says:

        I’m writing a story for that age group too; about dogs that climb trees. Kinda weird, but I am teaching my own dog how to climb and he’s pretty good, despite weighing only 9 pounds! Anyway, I usually just go into as few details as possible, like: “…grabbing the animal and cleanly snapping it’s neck.” (from the book I’m writing). You should also read some other books about animals like the ‘Survivors’ or ‘Warriors’ series, both by Erin Hunter.

  4. You know…that makes me want to write something and hurt an animal.

  5. Tara Maya says:

    I’m nervous over an upcoming book because the villain forces the heroine to kill a kitten in exchange for giving her the information she needs from him. I’m afraid readers won’t read past that scene! (If they read to the end, they’d discover I’m pretty squeamish myself, so….) The power of the scene comes from the villain knowing that she is too gentle to hurt an animal, but she has no choice if she is going to do what she has to do.

  6. Ella Rite says:

    I’m a big fan of horror and don’t mind if Fluffy dies a horrible death. But I do tend to balk at an entire scene dedicated to the skinning, burning and ultimate hanging of Fluffy. When this happens, I feel that the author is going for full out shock factor to manipulate my emotions. I’ll resent that author.

    Now, if a family goes outside and Fluffy is nailed to the tree house, I’m curious as to the villain that would do something so heinous. I wouldn’t think of the author at all.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Agreed. Before going into detail about the skinning and burning, the writer should ask himself/herself, what does that accomplish? Probably in the splatterpunk subgenre, shock value would work, but outside it, what do the details provide that Fluffy’s death alone did not?

      That’s one reason the dog’s death in Dean Koontz’s The Servants of Twilight worked for me. Because the cultists killed the little boy’s dog (believing the boy to have evil powers), the hero took the boy to the pound and got him another dog – which turned out to be spookily identical to the first one. Later, the hero couldn’t find the corpse of the first one where it was supposed to be buried. Very nice touch.

  7. I just had a little blurb in a story where a girl bounced her cat off the bed. I couldn’t believe the scolding I got over it. I’m still weeping over Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Yes, for those of us who treat animal characters just like human characters, that reaction comes as a surprise. If you had a good reason for the cat-bouncing and if it was in character for the girl, it wouldn’t have bothered me.

    • :Donna Marie says:

      Oh, I loved WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS! When my son was in 4th Grade, I was the class mother and his teacher, knowing I was writing for children, was always suggesting books for me to read. That was one of them. I sobbed! That book really stuck with me.

  8. MaryWitzl says:

    I grew up loving Old Yeller and Savage Sam, and remember rewriting them in my mind so that the dogs didn’t die. But in the real world, animals die and are mistreated all the time, and although I agree that gratuitous violence against animals is wrong, it’s nonsense to expect writers to give them a free pass. One thing I like to see though: if somebody hurts or kills an animal in a story, it gives me a certain satisfaction to see them get repaid. I’ll even suspend disbelief for that.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Hi Mary, thanks for commenting!

      Come to think of it, I’ve only read one book where someone was responsible for needlessly killing/hurting an animal and got away with it. That would be The Plague Dogs, where the head researcher carries out experiments like sealing a monkey into a sensory-deprivation chamber (if you Google “Harlow’s pit of despair”, you’ll see similar real-life experiments intended to simulate clinical depression in monkeys).

      With that one exception, author-guided karma gets everyone who harms an animal, though in A Song of Ice and Fire, it took five books. And will hopefully continue for a few more.

  9. Kit Dunsmore says:

    In one of my books (which is on a back-burner because I got stuck), animals play a major role because the main character can talk to them. I adore each of these animals (mouse, crow, cat, dog). There’s a big fight scene at the climax of the book where all the animals lend a hand and I have always intended some to get hurt and one to die, although I haven’t figured out who or how. It just doesn’t seem right to me for them all to come out of it unscathed, although maybe no one has to die. Not sure.

    I do not think I’ll let other people tell me, though, whether or not to let the animals be hurt or killed. I think I’ll let the story tell me what it needs. Because, face it, an author has to be willing to hurt the ones she loves, or there is nothing interesting to read. I like the stories I read to feel real, even the most fantastical of them, and I want my own writing to live up to this standard. Maybe I won’t hurt any of the animals in the end. It will depend on how the bad guy in that story reacts to them more than anything else. But if they jump into a battle, it doesn’t make sense that no one gets hurt. Otherwise “battle” isn’t an accurate term.

    • Marian Perera says:

      I admit to being very curious about what kind of help a mouse can provide in a battle. 🙂

      And you’re quite right. A battle where none of the good guys get hurt, where none of the characters we like has to sacrifice anything, is likely to be flat and predictable. If animals go into such a situation and come back out without a scratch, I want to know how this is happening – especially if the human characters are treated realistically and get hurt.

  10. Get Fit Becs says:

    Great article! I’ve probably just lost half my potential readers! In my debut novel I have fish, a rabbit and wild boar being killed. But then again the story is set in medieval times and if you didn’t kill an animal you didn’t eat!

    Personally I have no problem with it. I mean how many books have we read with a human being bumped off. I think if it’s staying true to the story as writers we should just go for it and not write with the worry it may offend someone. After all someone is always bound to get offended by something!

    • Marian Perera says:

      For that matter, in my WIP the characters wear furs and sealskins. Partly because it’s very cold where they are, and partly because I lived for nearly a year in the High Arctic, where if I’d told the Inuit not to hunt seals, they’d look at me like, “what do you expect us to eat, then?”

      So if I were writing about an Inuit character living in Grise Fjord, he might well hunt a seal or a bowhead whale. Not because I want to offend readers, but because that’s what people do in that place, under those circumstances. And it would be much more realistic than the character going to the local McDonalds (because there isn’t one).

    • Kit Dunsmore says:

      I would hope readers would be less upset by the death of random or anonymous animals that are not actually “characters” in the story. But then I’m astonished to learn there are people who stop reading if a pet gets hurt. I guess we all have our hot button issues.

  11. You know, this very topic is one that bugs the bejesus out of me in real life, too. For example, I recently saw a video on Facebook about a dog that was shot to death by a cop. It was pretty horrible, but the people’s comments on there were absolutely revolting. One comment said the cop should be castrated. Um, overreact much? When I pointed out that was rather extreme, everyone turned their vitriol to me, saying things like I was just as bad, or I was a sociopath, etc. Later on, I posted a news article with the headline, “Iraq to Legalize Child Marriage,” and the caption “WTF? How can this be allowed?!” I got no responses…

    So, I’m not surprised by the responses you got on that message board. For me, like Stephen King, no one and nothing gets a pass in my writing. In one of my stories, the hero watches a video of a supposed Indian ritual where a dog is harnessed to a tree branch, and then wound up. It is then let go, to unwind. The speed is pretty intense, and it literally scares the crap out of the dog. The distance the excrement is supposed to indicate how good that year’s harvest is supposed to be. The MC falls out of his chair laughing. Later on, he’s going to torture a pedophile to death after he catches him.

    Thing is, I’m pretty certain I’m going to lose readers over all three events, even though only one will be “seen.” Kind of makes you wonder what is wrong with people, eh?

    • Ann says:

      Animals are pure innocence – humans are not. Children can be cruel – children grow up to be killers, sociopaths etc. if you ever had a pet – then u know that the love they give u is unconditional – so the idea of hurting them is repulsive – finally – humans are the only animal that will torture, kill, destroy another living being – for fun.

  12. karla says:

    wow. I’ve never thought about this. I guess I just haven’t read anything with animal violence in it. Though a turn off in certain scenarios, I do think as writers we can’t limit ourselves simply because others will get offended. It makes me think of a Nicki Minaj interview where someone asked her how she handles her raps knowing she has 4-yr old fans. She said that wasn’t her problem. The parents are the ones who should monitor their children. Why should she as an artist hold back because people get offended. She started off underground cursing and whatnot, why should she change now? We don’t ask 50 Cent to tone it down. Nicki is being true to herself, just like you Marian are being true to the story no matter what. Obviously there are those who will read it and those who won’t.
    I don’t know if my Nicki comparison to anyone else, but it makes sense to me. XD
    Obvious barb here lol.
    Also, yes, it matters why the animal is harmed. The writer writes things for a reason.

    • Marian Perera says:

      “as writers we can’t limit ourselves simply because others will get offended” – Exactly, Karla. To me, it matters why they’re offended too. If it’s because I’ve written something unrealistic and offensive towards a group of people, that warrants more consideration, for me, than “I won’t read any book where a pet is hurt.”

  13. C. Lee McKenzie says:

    I know all about people hating you for hurting animals. My CP’s jumped up and down when I had a cat disappear. “But it’s coming back in a few chapters,” I cried. “I won’t hurt it and it’s central to the story.” They grudgingly allowed me to continue.

    I never hurt animals. I couldn’t begin to write something like that.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Wow. I’m glad you were able to resolve the situation with your critique partners, but speaking just for myself… I wouldn’t want to be “grudgingly allowed” to continue. If I had a critique partner who would only let me continue a story once I assured him/her of X never happening, what if I got an idea that involved X? I might think now that I’d never write about X, but who’s to say what could happen in the future? Maybe I’d be affected by X in some way, which would give me new awareness of it and new thoughts for my writing.

      Still, that’s just my way of doing things, and other writers have their own methods. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  14. Heidi says:

    I picked up a Harlequin Inspirational a few years ago. In the first 4 pages, kids were tossing a puppy in the air back and forth like a baseball. Now, in the end, the puppy wasn’t hurt, but the scene right at the beginning, offended me so much, I could not read the book.

    Now Kristan Higgins in Catch of the Day (Spoiler) had an animal death – not through cruelty but it was a death towards the end of the book when I was fully vested in the dog. I sobbed like a little baby. And I had trouble moving on but not because she did it but because it was a natural progression of life and hurt the character too. I still don’t like it but i understood it and accepted it.

    To me, cruelty of any sort to an animal is very difficult to read. Even in movies, I stop watching immediately. I know where the author is going with it but I would say tread very lightly.

    • :Donna Marie says:

      But I would think that in a book like that, in which you become that invested in a character—whether it’s an animal, a person or a fantastical being—that as a reader, we are MEANT to feel deeply and sob when they are harmed or killed. That’s very skillful writing, in my opinion. Whether or not we like it, is another issue. I can tell you, in the Harry Potter series, I (along with millions of others) became invested in those characters as if they were real. When a particular character (won’t spoil it here, but it was not a human) died in Hallows, I sobbed–HEAVILY–for the entire few pages of the scene and it took a bit more reading to barely recover. I WANT to be moved when I read.

      • Marian Perera says:

        Agreed. Any controversial material (speaking figuratively) should be handled carefully, whether it’s an animal’s death or a child’s or BDSM or religious fundamentalism. I don’t think any one of these should be off-limits for writers – unless that writer is aiming for a specific market, of course.

        And as you said, sometimes we as writers want those strong reactions. It’s the result of evocative writing and unpredictable plots – if I can see the animal’s or person’s death coming from a mile away, I’m not going to be as shocked and saddened. A Song of Ice and Fire is a great example of this.

        • :Donna Marie says:

          And, you know, there’s also the point that if you’re wanting to write a specific type story in a specific genre geared toward a specific audience, if the story is good enough for a publisher to want to publish it and there was an issue with something being questionable, the editor would be discussing it with the author anyway. So, really, it all comes down to what kind of book you’re looking to publish and to whom. If you want the broadest kind of readership (which is not easy to accomplish), you have to consider even more what is or isn’t appropriate.

          My taste as a reader (not just a writer) is what it is, and it doesn’t include many genres or types of writing. That’s my choice. Many writers won’t be read by someone like me. Simple. But I’m not the reader they’re looking for anyway.

          I agree with Robert Foster about the ridiculousness of many people’s thinking. I will never get it. I also tend to think more conservatively, and I prefer to spend my time reading books that won’t disgust me. Of course, what disgusts me often doesn’t disgust the next person, but I don’t object to difficult subject matter. I just prefer it being handled in a certain way. That’s how I choose what to read and whose writing I enjoy. Isn’t that what it’s all about? You have a hit series with FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY. I have absolutely NO interest in reading that kind of material, but obviously there are plenty of people who do. It depends on what a writer is shooting for.

    • Marian Perera says:

      A Harlequin Inspirational???

      And I thought I was difficult to shock. Realistically, the puppy would have been hurt after that, IMO, so the author should either have treated the scene with realism all along or taken it out unless it served a purpose.

  15. This is a fantastic question, and it’s made me analyze my works. My debut novel is about a Peace Officer for a humane society who goes after the hero as the main suspect in a sudden cruelty case. Yes, I make the first deaths tragic, but they are from the hero’s point of view, intended to make the reader feel immediate sympathy for him, while my heroine is convinced that the hero did this crime for money. Both characters are driven to protect animals, and my goal was to make the reader really want the antagonist to pay for this crime.

    While I have always had animals in any story I’ve written, for me it’s more of a knee-jerk reaction; I’ve had animals my entire life, so the very notion of my characters being pet-free is an alien concept to me.

    As a writer, I tend to lean more toward using animals as a way to express the burden of emotions that the character refuses to face. For example, in my second novel, the heroine was adamant about not getting involved with the hero, so her dog drags his clothes onto her bed. In one that’s not yet published, my hero has never had to look out for anyone but himself, but when a fire breaks out, he risks his life to save the heroine’s cat, still hiding in the house. These are but two examples of how I aim to manipulate my characters.

    I have to chuckle when I think of Stephen King’s reply to an angry reader: The dog wasn’t real. The villain punishing the dog wasn’t real.

    So I guess the only thing real about fiction is our response to it.

    Thank you for addressing this!

    • Marian Perera says:

      Dorothy, that was one of my favorite responses when I originally asked the question. After the debate got pretty heated, someone said, “I think we’re all losing sight of the fact that whether you kill an animal or a person in fiction, no one is actually being hurt.”

      It helped put things into perspective, that was for sure.

      Thank you for commenting!

  16. I’ve never seen this subject written about either – although it’s clearly time someone did, judging from what I’ve learned from this post.

    I’ll be straight-up honest here; I don’t understand it. Even if you are the biggest, soppiest, fluffy-hearted-est animal-lover in the whole wide universe… IT’S FICTION, fer crying out loud. The animals in question didn’t REALLY get hurt/killed – heck, the majority of the time they’re not even REAL ANIMALS. And just because a writer writes about an animal getting hurt or killed doesn’t mean they went out and practised on fluffy kittens beforehand! Is it only writers who get that?

    I’ve personally never written about animals getting harmed – so far. But that’s only because the stories I’ve written haven’t called for it – and that’s about to change, because at the very least rats are going to get some tough treatment in my latest w-i-p. It’s never occurred to me to shy away from this in a story until reading this post, so this has been a real education. Thanks for the heads-up!

    Still don’t get it though. There are people who won’t read a story where a soldier rides a horse into battle because they’re worried about the HORSE getting hurt? And a PRETEND horse, at that? That’s some strange priorities…

    …Or maybe I’m just a cold-hearted monster – who knows..?

    • :Donna Marie says:

      Wendy, I’m totally with you on this!

    • Marian Perera says:

      Hi Wendy,

      Not just a reader who won’t read the story, but who wanted the hero to die for taking his horse into a situation where it might be hurt. Even if he was doing so to save thousands of (people’s) lives.

      I don’t get that either. Take the Battle of Helm’s Deep… should Gandalf and Eomer have come walking up, maybe days after the Orcs had stormed the fortress, to explain to any survivors that they didn’t ride to the battle because they didn’t want Shadowfax and the other horses to be hurt? That’s just skewed priorities to me, I’m afraid. It may make a small subset of readers happy, but it wouldn’t speak well for the heroes.

      I didn’t understand this viewpoint either, but one thing I took away from the discussion was that for this small subset of readers, it’s an emotional reaction. There’s no debating with emotion. Once someone told me that she never read paranormal romances with demon heroes, because in every religious tradition, demons are evil. I said, “What about vampire romance?” She said, “Oh, that’s different. Vampires aren’t real.”

      No way to discuss that rationally, is there? 🙂 Best to just move on and keep writing.

      Thanks for commenting!

  17. LD Masterson says:

    I avoid killing animals in my writing because it disturbs me when I find it in a story I’m reading. Since I read a lot of murder mystery and suspense where people get bumped off left and right, I know this is totally illogical but it’s something I can’t seem to get past. Not sure why.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Different readers/writers have different comfort zones and lines they can’t cross. Like I said in another comment, my own Do Not Want is heroines called Bernadette. For reasons of my own, that name does not work for me at all.

      What I will never do, though, is tell other writers that I’m going to burn their books or boycott them for using this name.

  18. Great post, and very true. I was first introduced to this problem at Clarion West, when one of my fellow writers coined the rule “Never kill the dog.” As illogical as it might seem to many of us, for a lot of readers it appears to be true.

    I’ve killed lots of horses in my Arthurian fiction, which tends towards the realistic end of fantasy, and since I see no way to avoid it, I can only hope that the horses lovers find my fiction too gritty to start with and never get that far. 🙂

    • Marian Perera says:

      Thanks, Ruth!

      Yes, for a lot of readers, it’s “Never kill the dog or the child”. But hey, there are few absolutes in writing fiction. 🙂

  19. P.S. Joshi says:

    I found this a most interesting blog and pinned it on Pinterest as was suggested. I love animals, but if people die in stories and novels, why not animals. I don’t understand that reasoning. Everyone and everything has to die sooner or later. It’s unreasonable to not accept that fact even in fiction. I’m writing a memoir where I mention the animals in my my parent’s home, their pets. I included the death of each one because it was part of each of their lives. You need a beginning, a middle, and an ending to a story in most cases.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Thanks for spreading the word!

      One interesting reason given for why people wouldn’t want to read about animals’ deaths is because it shatters the illusion of a just world, an illusion that a lot of books do provide. If bad things happen to bad people – or at least to people who make bad decisions and poor choices – then while reading, we can feel at least somewhat safe. But when an animal is hurt, that’s different. Especially if it’s a cute animal and didn’t deserve what happened. For some readers, that’s too uncomfortably close to reality.

      In fiction, I think the death of an animal is like the death of a child. It can be a very powerful event (in that it evokes strong feelings), so it does need to be handled carefully. But that’s different from never handling it at all so as not to upset readers.

  20. :Donna Marie says:

    As long as it’s not gratuitous or unnecessarily graphic (I’d imagine in “horror,” those readers WANT graphic), I have no problem with animals being hurt or killed if it serves the story. I’ve never understood people feeling more strongly about animal deaths over humans. Decades ago, I had (had is the operative word here) a friend who once told me if there were a dog lying in the street, and a human baby lying in the street, she’d save the dog first. Why? Because the dog was more helpless! I pointed out that a human baby is much more helpless than a baby animal. I found her statement and thinking ignorant, to say the least.

    To each his own, of course, but if someone feels that strongly about it and doesn’t want to read your writing because of it, do you want them as a reader? We all would like to be published and widely read, but there’s no way to satisfy everyone.

    Great post, ladies! 😀

    • Marian Perera says:

      Thanks, Donna!

      One of the readers who expressed a “killing baby OK, killing cat bad” viewpoint said that to her, a baby was less aware of what was happening to it than a cat was. So she wouldn’t mind reading about a baby being thrown overboard, but a cat would realize it was drowning, therefore she didn’t want to read that.

      I don’t know, maybe I’m a speciesist.

      And I agree with you that the graphic is better reserved for horror (will never forget that scene in It where King describes what Patrick Hockstetter does with an abandoned fridge and a puppy).

      • :Donna Marie says:

        I have to say, obviously, whether it’s an animal or a human—unless it’s evil—death is a sad thing. The average person doesn’t want to see suffering or injustice or death, but to believe that a human life is the same or less valuable than an animal’s life has never made sense to me. I also don’t understand how anyone can assess or compare the experience of a human baby being “less aware” of the process of dying a horrific death than an animal. They are both gasping for air, or feeling pain or whatever it is that has to do with clinging to life.

        Anyway, I will never get that. Since I plan to have certain people die or be killed (haven’t considered animals yet, but probably will at some point during plotting) in my novel series, it’s good to keep in mind, but it won’t keep me from doing what I need to for the story.

  21. Mary Jo C says:

    We are conditioned from childhood to accept all sorts of harrowing experiences for animals and people–remember the wolf and grandma? How about Bambi, Old Yeller and Charlotte of the Web?

    Each of us has our own moral sense. Me, I don’t want to critique a story that includes child abuse, let alone willingly read a book that includes such events. On the other hand, I did make it through “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, the story of the World War II man who survived a Japanese prison camp. That book is the best war novel I’ve ever read.

    In the end, we make personal decisions on books, wading through, heart stopping or pounding loudly, where intuition says the journey is worth it for readers.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Hi Mary Jo, thanks for commenting!

      Oh yes, the list of books where animals die is a long one. Felix Salten wrote Fifteen Rabbits as well, and IIRC, one wild rabbit is captured and kept in a hutch, where he dies slowly of loneliness. There’s The Fox and the Hound – not the cute Disney version, but the one where the fox sires two litters of kits, both of which are killed. AndTarka the Otter, which I could never read again.

      The death of animals isn’t an isolated thing only occurring in horror novels. It happens in other genres from romance to MG, which is why – as you said – we all have to make personal decisions on books, according to our own standards. And hopefully not judge authors who do the same.

  22. Rosi says:

    Absolutely fascinating discussion. I pretty much was finished with Stephen King after reading Pet Semetary because he turned little children and sweet pets into monsters. That was it for me.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Hi Rosi,

      Speaking of horror, one thing I find interesting about Dean Koontz’s early work – as opposed to his later novels – is that the children he wrote about at that time could be monstrous too. His first published story includes a little girl watching her father drown her kittens, and what the girl does afterwards is even more shocking.

      I do miss the old Dean Koontz.

  23. This is such an interesting topic, Marian. And I honestly don’t know quite where I fall. I once wrote a scene including an episode of animal husbandry that one of my critiquers found incredibly offensive, to the point of her not wanting to finish the rest of the story. I kept this scene because it was historically accurate, fit the storyline of my book, and wasn’t graphic in the slightest.

    On the other hand, one of the villains in another of my books is a sociopath who’s obsessed with internal organs. Like many serial killers, he starts with animals. To me, this is a realistic aspect of his personality. It’s not gratuitous. And while I’m definitely not a proponent of graphic violence, I want to write the scene (there’s only one) realistically. One of the things I love about Stephen King is his willingness to not hold back. He goes all the way, without fear of what people will think or who might take offense. This equates to a realism and immediacy in his stories that makes his villains über scary and ups the reader’s empathy for the hero.

    As authors, we each have a moral line that we won’t cross. But the placement of that line is different for everyone. Some readers will be completely turned off by how I choose to write my scene. Some won’t be fazed in the least. Readers (myself included) are notoriously subjective. No story is going to please all of them. So I think, for me, it will all come down to avoiding gratuitous elements, and being true to myself and my story.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Well, Becca, if you avoid being gratuitous and stay true to the story, then I’d say that’s exactly where you fall. 🙂 You’re right, we each have a moral line we won’t cross, and it’s different for everyone in so many respects that IMO it’s generally not worth worrying how our lines match up with those our readers will draw.

      One of my requirements in the romances I write, for instance, is that if/when the heroine says “stop”, the hero backs the hell off. But I’ve read authors who will have him continue anyway, and I know at least one reviewer who sighs over this and wishes there were more dark and nearly irredeemable heroes. Doesn’t mean I’m going to change my standard.

      Stephen King’s books, as you said, are realistic and horrifying because no one has a Get Out Of Jail Free card in them – not pets, not children, not attractive women (I’ve seen one writer state on a message board that in his work, he “preserves the pretties”). The book has a more or less happy ending, but we see the price paid to achieve it.

  24. Marian Perera says:

    Traci – I agree, I’d find it difficult to identify with a character who equated a child’s death with a cat’s death, or who was more bothered by the cat’s death.

    Angela – Exactly, cruelty and the necessity of the death makes a difference. Not as many readers will be upset over, say, a farmer butchering a pig for Christmas.

    When I’m reading stories set on farms or in the wilderness, where it’s a matter of having to kill an animal for meat, I actually do like to get the details of how it’s done, because then I feel like I’m learning something—plus, here it’s not like the author’s trying to shock me or going for the gore factor. If the animal is being hurt for another reason, that would be different. I really would not want to read about cosmetic testing on rabbits’ eyes. Watership Down is my favorite fantasy novel, but the author’s other book, The Plague Dogs, is a very disturbing read, IMO.

    • I completely agree with you about Richard Adams’ books. I adored Watership Down (have read it multiple times) but I couldn’t finish The Plague Dogs. Very disturbing.

      • Marian Perera says:

        I should write a review of The Plague Dogs some day. Another reason it didn’t work for me was because it felt too much like a message about experimentation on animals (always evil, evil, evil!). Though the poetry in it was amazing – those songs Snitter keeps hearing? I loved them.

  25. Gwynneth White says:

    This post is very timely for me because in my WIP the bad guy kills wild animals as part of a shaman ritual. Based on your thoughts and all the comments here, will definitely avoid anything explicit. Thanks for the post, but then I always find something interesting on Becca and Angela’s blog.

    • Marian Perera says:

      Hi Gwynneth, thanks for commenting!

      I think one or two striking details could get the point across more effectively than too much description of blood and entrails. It will also help that the killings are required for a specific ritual – i.e. you’re not throwing them in there because he’s a villain and therefore he has o kick a dog every now and then. Good luck!

  26. Mart Ramirez says:

    This is so true!! As so is the Pet the Cat additions. It can really make a character more endearing. Agreed!

  27. Marian Perera says:

    John – agreed. Sometimes readers have a knee-jerk reaction, whether it’s to an event in a novel or to the title of a post, and there’s not much, as authors, we can do about this.

    Hopefully someone who doesn’t want any animal to be hurt for any reason will avoid medieval fantasy, especially if the book is on the more realistic side. I don’t think it’s possible to go about daily life there, let alone be in a battle, without animals being used in one way or another.

    Devon – I agree. I’m not going to write a book where wolves eat tofu, unless it’s a parody. It makes sense in my books for nature to be red in tooth and claw—and for some characters to be the same way—so that’s what I do.

    Marcia – It’s been twenty years since I read My Friend Flicka, but I still remember how awful I felt when the palomino filly got caught in a barbed wire fence. Not awful as in, I’ll never read this author again, but awful as in, wincing with sympathy and hurting on her behalf. The description was raw and realistic, rather than being depicted in a soft-focus way. That’s the kind of writing which works for me.

    As you said, if we worried about losing readers, why even write? If I wanted to please the readers who disapproved of any animal being hurt, I would have to cancel the contracts for two of my novels. That I was definitely not prepared to do.

  28. Deaths happen in life, why not fiction? Animals get old, they die, sometimes accidents happen, or they’re sick. It’s not something that can be avoided. This reminds me of shielding children from death. When they get older and it happens or a loved one dies, it’s tougher on them for not having that opportunity to LOVE a pet until the end. Not that death is ever easy, it’s messy in life. If we’re trying to show real life in our stories, to lie and say death doesn’t happen is just not realistic. I, personally, have a problem that these same people DIDN’T have a problem with a child’s death. That’s just callus. Pets and people should be mourned equally, imo.

  29. Marian Perera says:

    Kessie, that’s a good question. The way I see it…

    1. Stephen King doesn’t put disclaimers into his books saying, “Warning: the cute kid dies in chapter 23” or “A dog is killed in the prologue”. Granted, that’s horror, but even in other genres it applies. Jacqueline Wilson didn’t have a little note at the start of her MG novel Cookie to say, “The heroine’s baby rabbit escapes and is found killed after a mean person leaves the hutch door open”.

    Of course, these are very well-known authors, but still. I think a lot of suspense is lost if the author warns about an animal being hurt up front.

    2. If I picked up an adult novel and found the author warning me about an animal being hurt, it wouldn’t make me feel happy that the author was trying to protect me. It would make me wonder if the author thought I needed such protection. I’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire, Watership Down, The Call of the Wild, any number of books where animals die. I don’t need content advisory warnings.

    Then again, that’s me—someone who can take an animal being hurt or killed when the story calls for it. There are some readers who will be upset and furious if they read this. So the author has to decide which group of readers to offend. 🙂

    3. If the author needs to warn readers that an animal is hurt, what about other controversial issues? Murder, the protagonist taking drugs, a reference to rape? I used a certain four-letter-word once in my first novel, but some readers don’t like those either. Where to stop?

    4. Yes, there are some readers who will hate you for the dog’s leg being broken. Then again, there are some readers who will hate you for having a dog in the first place, or having vampires, or for something you’ve never anticipated and can’t control.

    Here’s my irrational pet peeve: the name Bernadette. I had a horrible, long-drawn-out experience with someone by that name once, and as a result, I could not stomach a heroine with that name, under any circumstances. You could have written the next Gone with the Wind with a heroine called the B-word, and I would not want to pick it up.

    Sometimes it will be impossible to please readers without completely changing your story. And in those cases, it’s a judgment call.

  30. Thank you so much for bringing this topic to our blog, Marian. 🙂 I think a lot depends on how the reader perceives the animal. If it has been cast in a villain role in some way (a predator for example) people are more forgiving, as long as the death is for a reason. What they really get upset about is cruelty. So the challenge is that if a writer needs to kill the animal, then to make it have meaning, and to consider the audience. Most times I think implying death is a better option than showing it.

  31. Marian Perera says:

    Amanda – I feel the same way. Heck, I cried at the end of “Marley and Me”, but on the other hand, that story wouldn’t have been as powerful if it had ended before the dog’s death (I suppose I’ve spoilered it anyway by mentioning it here).

    Laura – That was something I didn’t understand in a few of the responses when I first asked this question. A couple of readers said they were fine with reading about babies being murdered, but not pets being hurt. Everyone has their own tastes and preferences, of course, but this isn’t one I share. Oh well. At least it won’t surprise me in the future.

    Bish – Hope you find a solution to that issue. It’s a matter of being true to the story, of course, but sometimes there’s also a particular audience to consider.

    Roland – Thanks for commenting. Yes, if it’s realistic for a horse to be injured, then… well, I doubt “Black Beauty” would have made an impact if the horses frolicked in a meadow and ate clover all day.

    Sharkpunk (steampunk plus sharks) isn’t a combination that’s been a done a lot, that’s for sure, so it’s even more fun to play with!

    Zequeatta – My thoughts exactly. The story comes first.

  32. Kessie says:

    Ah, this is a question I’ve been asking myself. I’m so glad to see it addressed! In my WIP, my heroine has a dog who attacks a vampire to save her. The vampire kicks the dog and breaks her leg, leaving her in a cast for the rest of the book. I guess there are people who will hate me for that? What do you do? Put a disclaimer in the preface or something?

  33. Devon says:

    Fascinating. Especially since I just wrote a scene yesterday where an animal attacks the hero, then kills another animal and eats it. I have to say, though, while it’s interesting to me that some may not read the book for something like that, I am adamant that scenes like this are often just, well, TRUE in the fiction sense of the word. It makes sense in my book. It might even be a metaphor. And besides, animals do kill animals, animals get hurt, animals die. Ditto for humans. In fact, using a reader’s sense of animal justice can be a tool for creating emotion, mood, metaphor, and even a sense of man’s distinction from other animals, or the specialness of animals and animal relationships.

  34. Marcia says:

    I’m a vegan. Not because I don’t condone the killing of animals, or such, it’s just become a way of eating for me. I wasn’t always a vegan, yes, I have eaten meat in my lifetime. Animals have been killed since the beginning of time, and I know we’re talking pets here, but animals, nonetheless. It’s always going to be a fact of life. I hate seeing any animal hurt…heck, I even open the screen and shoo the flies out! My WIP will include a horse getting mauled or caught in a fence. I haven’t decided which. It won’t die, but how do I make the happening any prettier so as not to offend? If I started worrying about losing readership before I even start my book, why write? Nuff said.

  35. Amanda says:

    In “the knife of never letting go” (I think. That series anyway) the pet dog is killed. I was very sad,I understood why, in the scheme of the book, he needed to die. If a pet is one of the characters of the book, then it’s like a human dying. If I love the character I’m sad because I don’t want ANY characters I love to die, but it’s no worse if it’s a pet than a human.

    • I was just about to comment about The Knife of Never Letting Go! It’s one of my favorite books, even though Manchee dies. I couldn’t believe that he had died–I kept hoping for him to come back in the rest of the series. But I think it really helped the theme of the book in this way: throughout the book, Todd Hewitt is distrusting of women because he can’t hear their Noise and wonders how you can know a person if you can’t know their thoughts. He can hear Manchee’s noise, however, but when the time comes to choose between a girl, Viola, and the dog, he chooses Viola. It was a huge turning point in the book and I appreciated it.

  36. Laura Selinsky says:

    I had the experience of getting negative reactions simply for putting a shapeshifter that appeared to be a cat in danger in a manuscript. Several members of my critique group were so worried that I had to reassure them that eventually readers would learn that the cat was okay, and that it wasn’t really a cat at all, but a human appearing as a cat. We rarely allow spoilers in our critiquing, as we feel that gives us knowledge the reader wouldn’t have and makes the critiques less legitimate. Ironically, my critique partners were undisturbed by the death of a small child in the same scene- several noted that the boy’s death was too discreet and more obvious blood was needed. Weird.

  37. Bish Denham says:

    An intriguing subject and, like many I suppose, one I hadn’t given much thought to until recently. I have a lower MG story in with the antagonist is a feral cat that is causing the death and destruction of all kinds of goodly creatures. I’ve had only one beta reader cringe at the end. Though the cat’s demise happens “off screen” the reader knows it’s dead. Even so, I have been thinking about changing the ending to indicate the cat has not been killed but chased far away.

    I’m still not sure what to do.

  38. Thanks for the valuable observations, Marian.

    Have had to face this potential criticism as my first novel, Spiral of Hooves, had to be realistic in that horses do get injured. Avoided killing any of them but it was essential to the plot for a stallion to lose his potent parts.

    Steampunk sounds interesting. Working on a solarpunk set in Bhārata but no sharks… yet.

  39. Stay true to your story. Always.

  40. Marian Perera says:

    Thank you for hosting me, Becca and Angela! I’m looking forward to hearing what readers have to say about this. 🙂

  41. John Yeoman says:

    Yes, this is a dangerous topic! A lot of folk never get beyond the title of a story or article. When I ran a post on my own blog titled ‘Why men don’t like women authors, and vice versa’ several people unsubscribed from my list, saying the title was sexist. They hadn’t read the article. It was just a thoughtful examination of sexism in literature but I could see a lot of Pavlov’s dogs salivating furiously!

    The good news is that such folk will never buy or read our work anyway. And do we really want them to?

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