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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Cat in the Hat

What does your choice of pet say about you? And what can the choice of pets say about the characters in books?

We're all familiar with pets as main characters. Lassie, Come Home is a classic example, as is Black Beauty. Both plots were centered around the animal. But animals can also play a major role in books as secondary characters, propelling a plot forward without focusing on the pet itself.

Robert B. Parker's series about Jesse Stone is a prime example of the richness an animal can bring to a main character. Jesse's contemplative moments would be more one-dimensional if he didn't have the beautiful but soulful golden retriever with him.

In Lonesome Dove, Gus has pet pigs, which conjures up an entirely different image. Yet both show their tender sides by the way they treat their animals. They also show a glimpse into the type of lover or husband each might be.

When I first began my writing career, I edited manuscripts part-time. The only manuscript I could not finish was one in which the main character, someone we should be identifying with and relating to, began abusing his dogs. The scenes were graphic and heart-wrenching. And in those moments, a door slammed shut inside me and I knew that no matter what this character might do in an attempt to redeem himself, he never would in my eyes. I returned the manuscript and advised the author to rethink how he wants the main character portrayed. Years later, I learned that publishers and agents had the same response, passing on the book because they knew readers would stop reading and never pick up the book again once the animal abuse began.

After I wrote Songbirds are Free, the manuscript went to advance readers for their input. Several readers commented that they could not connect with a soldier in the story. The soldier did everything he was supposed to do, but he simply didn't come alive for them. In the rewrite, I had a dog appear in the soldier's first scene. They had just attacked an Indian village and the dog, skinny, malnourished and confused, was wandering the smoldering village alone. The soldier gave her food and took her in, and the dog became his constant companion. That one act made the character come alive, providing the compassionate impression I'd sought to portray.

I auctioned off the role of a dog in The Banker's Greed, with the proceeds going to the Robeson County (North Carolina) Humane Society. The winner was a golden retriever. The type of dog fit in perfectly with the main character. He was outdoorsy, active, intelligent and fiercely protective. Had the winner been a Pomeranian, a Rottweiler or a Black and Tan Coonhound, it would have changed the image of the main character.

Pets go beyond dogs, of course. Many an evil character owned cats, which humanized the character and made them more three-dimensional, even if their role in the book was an antagonist. What type of cat tells even more: a hairless, a Persian, or an "alley cat" all conjure up different images. And the way the cat interacts with the owner is even more telling; whether they are accustomed to long grooming sessions or they are independent and resentful of human interaction.

What does it say about a character who keeps a python? Snapping turtles, pet alligators, or piranha?

Would that character have a different image if they owned something they could cuddle? Something you could imagine loving?

Yesterday I saw a woman kiss a parrot. It would never have occurred to me to do that. And yet she did without hesitation and the parrot bobbed its head and begged for another kiss.

The way pets react toward certain characters can be telling as well. A perfectly well-behaved cat who hisses and attempts to claw the main character's new boyfriend could be providing a glimpse into a dark side that we are yet to discover. A horse that shies away from him says the same thing.

But when we meet a down-and-out bum living on the streets, filthy, perhaps alcoholic or on drugs, it can also provide a glimmer of hope by showing his tender, special relationship with a dog or cat who simply adores him.

Which books have you read that were made more memorable because of a pet? How did it add to the storyline, and what image did it help to convey about a character?