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).