In this guest article, animal behaviorist and author Amy Shojai examines the peril novelists face if one of their murder victims has four legs.
I’m a dog lover (and a cat lover) and I adore reading fiction that includes unique pet characters or animal plots interwoven in a creative and believable way. But don’t you dare, kill the dog…or I’m liable to lob that book into a dumpster and cross you off my TBR list. And I’m not alone.
My perspective isn’t purely emotional, either. As a certified animal behavior consultant, I deal every day with pet owners who desperately need help understanding and solving their pet peeves. I address these issues directly in my nonfiction pet books, and in my thrillers, animal behavior remains intrinsic to the plot.
My September Day thriller series features an animal behaviorist and her service dog Shadow, a German Shepherd Dog with his own viewpoint chapters. Both September and Shadow go through hell. Shadow even has his own story arc and has such a presence, the series would die should he become a victim of the antagonist. There are other animal characters introduced peripherally, along with veterinary or animal welfare plots, and in the real world, I know all too well bad things happen.
Including pets can be lazy writing
Killing pet characters is a furry line I won’t cross, not just because it hurts my heart. It can be bad business, and too often is simply a lazy shortcut to demonstrate the antagonist’s level of “evil.” At the other extreme, writers may be advised to give their hero a pet to make the protagonist more likeable.
Honestly, I have to argue that it’s not owning the pet, but the relationship with that animal (or any other character) that makes the hero likeable or the antagonist unlikeable and unsympathetic. A pet character in a story opens an opportunity to show a relationship, and that, indeed, will broaden a character’s depth and the reader’s engagement.
But when pets are used as a prop, interjected simply as a label like “red headed killer” or “dog loving taxi driver” or the tired old ploy “serial killer starts by killing pets,” there’s no relationship. You want that relationship, so readers care, and good writers ensure that readers are vested in what happens to their story characters including the pets. Killing the pet, however, after the reader becomes emotionally invested, betrays the reader’s trust in a horrific way. Done purely for shock or as a shortcut, killing pets in novels is a cheap shot pet-loving readers rarely forgive. Here’s why.
Why killing pets backfires
Today, pets are considered to be members of the family, in some cases surrogate children. Just as many readers become offended by fiction that details “on-stage” murder/mayhem directed at children, so too, are they offended by the same directed toward pets. Continue Reading →