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Writing Excuses 8.3: Pets

Writing Excuses 8.3: Pets


Key Points: Animals in your fiction should be more than just distractions. They should be characters, even if they are non-sentient. They need personalities! Beware cliche, stereotype animals. Make them a sounding board, a foil. Be careful of jargon. What is the role in society of the animals? All animals are not pets! Beast of burden. Raise the stakes by putting the pet in jeopardy. Early warning system. Horses are not bicycles or motorcycles. Give them names and personalities. Beware anthropomorphizing.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode Three.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Talking about pets.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] [pause] Because you're in a hurry... Sorry.
[Dan] Woof, woof.
[Brandon] [laughter]
[Mary] I was distracted by the small dog.
[Brandon] This is Mary's suggested podcast. We call it pets because it's pithy, but really what we're going to be talking about is animals in your fiction, different ways that you use them, and how to make them characters when they're not sentient. Obviously sentient animalistic people are a completely different thing. That's aliens. We're talking about how do you make your...
[Howard] Or furries. Come on.
[Brandon] Yes. Okay. Or furries. Yeah. How do you make your horse in a fantasy novel have its own personality?
[Mary] Exactly. Actually, one example of this, although this is a sentient character, is... If you look at John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation. The difference between the way the Fuzzies are handled at the beginning when they appear to just be animals and the way they are handled later when it's clear that they are sentient is, I think, fairly instructive, because... Also, looking at the dog. Shoot. Whose name I've forgotten. Is the dog Fred? Anyone remember?
[Howard] I don't remember the name of the dog.
[Dan] Don't know.
[Howard] But he has a dog, and the dog does have a personality that is distinct from...
[Mary] Yes. A very distinct personality. And it's clearly a non-sentient character, but it is very much a character. One of the things that interested me about that was that the times that I have tried to have the animal sidekick, it's really difficult to continue to remind the reader that the character is there, because frequently they aren't adding anything to the plot.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] It's not like they can contribute exposition. You don't want the Lassie runs into the room, woof, woof. Timmy's fallen down a well?
[Howard] Trouble? Outside?
[Dan] Now I've got to change my current work in progress.
[Mary] Sorry about that.
[Brandon] No. I think that another thing to be aware of...
[Mary] Carl is the dog. Sorry. That bothered me.

[Brandon] It feels like there are clichés... There can be stereotypes of animals, and they may be even more stereotyped in fiction. Like when... If you've had a pet, those of you who've had a pet, they really do have personalities. This dog is very different from that dog. Yet I have a feeling that in fiction, looking at my own fiction and looking at other people's fiction, we tend to just make the dog, the dog. And dogs have a certain personality.
[Howard] You know what, let me...
[Dan] Yeah.
[Howard] If you've got... You've got a character who needs to have a navelgazing scene. Okay? The time that I spend with our cat is time where... I pick up the cat, and I pet the cat, and I talk to the cat, but some of that is introspective. I'm having time by myself. I don't want human company. I want to talk to the cat. If you want to do a navelgazing scene, but you don't want to do a mirror scene, have the character pick up the cat or pick up the alien fuzzwig or whatever it is, and carry on some sort of a...
[Mary] Yeah. That's actually something that Scalzi does with Carl. Actually, that is a way to have the pet help the...
[Howard] Oh, that's how he takes... The character who is all by himself all the time is able to have dialogue because he's always speaking out loud to Carl.
[Mary] Which is what you do when you're hanging out. I have dialogue with my cat... My cat is one of those chatty ones.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] I just make up responses to what I imagine he's saying, usually based on, "What do you mean this red sauce is not going to work with ham?"
[Brandon] Right. Right.
[Mary] So that's one way. Having pet as foil is a useful mechanism.

[Brandon] Yeah. I do want to get back to this concept of figure out a personality. If it's an alien creature or whatnot, kind of, you're probably best off picking an analog on earth in your head and going and spending some time around those animals. They do have personalities. Some don't. My fish never seem to have personalities.
[Mary] [laughing] Right!
[Brandon] Some people ascribe personalities to their fish. But my birds? My birds have all been very distinctive. You would think, "Oh, it's just a bird," but they're very different animals. It's amazing to me, every time I will be around a bird, how different that bird acts from my bird.
[Dan] Yeah. Spending time with the animal is important. But I caution you that it can be overdone.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] You can tell when you're reading a book that is written by someone who knows horses, for example, or who knows cats. Furthermore, you can tell when it's been written by someone who loves cats way more than I do...
[Brandon] Right.
[Dan] I usually don't finish those books because it's all about how awesome cats are. That's... I don't mean to imply that their books are written by crazy cat ladies, but you can tell that kind of overbearing love for this animal type, it just kind of gets old after a while.

[Howard] One of the things that's... You don't have to proceed all the way to crazy person with house full of animals sort of level. You can't use when... When you're writing to me, when you're writing a story that I'm reading, you can't use shortcuts in order to tell me what the coloration of that horse is. You can't say, "Oh, it was a this." No. Was it brown and white? Is it all brown? Is it all white?
[Brandon] I'm going to disagree.
[Mary] Yeah, me too.
[Brandon] I'm going to disagree. I think saying that says the character knows horses better than I do. I don't need to know.
[Howard] Well, what I'm saying is that for me as a reader, if you want me to know that it is a brown and white horse, if those two colors are important, you have to say brown and white. You can also teach me the other word. I'm happy to learn.
[Mary] But that is true for any jargon.
[Howard] It is. I'm applying it to pets, these animals, because you don't have to be crazy cat lady level to know, "Oh, that's just calico coloring." Well, but somebody who doesn't know what calico coloring is needs to know what kind of environment, depending on the story, this cat will be camouflaged in. Does that make sense? I've got a tortoiseshell colored cat which, when you say tortoiseshell, you don't immediately think that well, it mostly looks like a black cat.
[Dan] I immediately think that the cat has a shell.
[Mary] Yeah. My tortoiseshell looks like a walking pile of leaves. So, excellent camouflage. But I do see what you're saying. That if... Like any piece of jargon, if it is important to the story, you do need to expand it, unpack that for the reader, and don't make the assumption that their level of understanding is the same as yours.
[Dan] But if it's not important to the story...
[Mary] Then...
[Howard] [garbled]
[Dan] You can say it's a piebald and not tell me what piebald is and I will accept the fact that this character knows a lot about animals.
[Mary] Yeah.

[Brandon] I would like us to talk a little bit about the idea that our modern era looks at animals a very different way...
[Mary] Yeah!
[Brandon] Than most societies throughout history have looked at animals. We have little dogs we carry around in our purses. Yet up until even... Even up until the mid-20th century, animals had a very different role in society.
[Mary] Well, no, the little dogs that you carry around in purses have been around forever.
[Brandon] Yes. Right. They have been, but...
[Mary] Freaky, freaky things.
[Brandon] But...
[Mary] No offense [Dan Sykes?] I know you love your pugs.
[Brandon] But I do think that...
[Howard] He's got a purse pug?
[Mary] He does.
[Howard] Wow. Pug's a little big for purse, but...
[Mary] Well, maybe not a purse pug, but anyway, point being...
[Brandon] Yes. Let's talk about that.
[Mary] Yeah. So. That's a really good point that... Don't assume that your... Especially when you're doing secondary world fantasy or creating any kind of nonhuman contemporary culture, don't assume that the way we handle it is exactly the same. So one of the things that you have to do is lay the ground rules, the same way that you would lay them with any other magic system, with any other culture system. That you have your reader either interacting with a pet, comparing it to the norm that they are familiar with and saying, "Well, this is different because..." Or in some other emotional way, to set up the rules.
[Brandon] Well, yes, there is that. I was actually kind of getting out the concept... For instance, beasts of burden. A society that had beasts of burden progressed culturally far faster than those that didn't. This is one of the major cues anthropologically in our society. Those that could domesticate a beast of burden were much more likely to create an actual kingdom, an empire, rather than remaining hunter-gatherers. Having dogs to guard you at night became a major precursor in determining if you were... The infant mortality rate and things like this. Like we don't understand the human interaction with animals. As how powerful that was into our progression as a species. I think if you're developing a preindustrial society, or even if you're doing any sort of alien race, or things like this, you really need to take into account how that impacted us so much, that if you don't look at that, I don't think... It's going to fall flat, if you don't consider it.

[Howard] If you take... Story seed idea. A human interacting with an alien, and the aliens are a lot closer to their beast of burden roots than we are. Okay? The human is of the class of human that uses the phrase crazy cat lady a lot. Not very close to the animals. A discussion between those two characters about the alien's pet can be fascinating.
[Brandon] Yeah. Exactly.
[Howard] It can be a huge, huge boon in exploring the alien society.
[Brandon] I mean, it could be, "Oh, your cute little animal!" "My cute little animal? This thing creates a psy-barrier that keeps predators that hunt by seeking thoughts from finding my village. This thing keeps us alive."
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] "This isn't my cute little pet."
[Howard] Yeah. Stop making fun of my lapdog. This is how I don't eat poison.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Mary] Oo. Also, the interesting idea of one of those working animals that... After the society has evolved past needing that, like the shepherd dogs that go a little bit nutty when they do not have things to herd.

[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is going to be Making Money by Terry Pratchett. Because I love Terry Pratchett. There are those of you who are listening who don't listen to Terry Pratchett yet. You are missing out.
[Howard] You really should listen to Terry Pratchett.
[Brandon] Yes. I've recently read Making Money and loved it. Going Postal, I think, is now my favorite Terry Pratchett, and Making Money is a sequel to that one directly. The thing you need to know about Pratchett is they're all standalones. Some of them have recurring characters, but they're written to be read independently. You look at this and you say, "Oh, there's like 50 disc world books. I can't get started on disc world." Yes, you can. And don't start at the beginning. So, I strongly suggest pick up Going Postal or Making Money. They are both delightful reads. They are wonderful. You can get them...
[Howard] Head out to You can start a 30 day free trial membership and get Going Postal or Making Money from Terry Pratchett for free, and get the other one for 30% off.

[Brandon] There you are. Now let's talk a little bit more about roles these animals could fulfill in our plot. We've already talked about the sounding board as a role that animals could fulfill in our plots. What else are they doing?
[Mary] Well, there's the... Also, the classic raising the stakes by putting the dog or cat in jeopardy.
[Brandon] Okay. Right. We have to then, as readers, the way to do this is we have to make the readers care about this animal. Usually by making the character care about them. But if you seen the show Castaway... This is where Tom Hanks is alone on an island. He bonds with a volleyball with a handprint on it. You feel for the volleyball by the end because you know his emotional reaction to it. There's a point where the volleyball is in jeopardy, and you... It's like his mother was in jeopardy. As a viewer, you're like, "No, not Wilson, the volleyball!" Your job as an author is to be able to do that. With... If they can do that with a volleyball, you can do it with the pet dog.

[Howard] Another system, or another use, would be early warning system.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] A lot of plot disasters first come to the character's awareness when they see something or hear something. You got a pet in the room, the plot disaster now becomes apparent to the character when the cat or dog misbehaves, when the horse stirs, when the alien fuzzgig coughs up something unexpected, I don't know.
[Mary] Yeah. In Libriomancer, Jim Hines's new book, he has a flaming spider. I cannot remember the name of the actual spider... Smudge!
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] And he...
[Howard] This is for the Goblin Quest? No?
[Mary] No. Totally new series. Loved the series. It's coming out... Well, as we're recording, it's coming out on Tuesday, so... But anyway, one of the things he does is that the spider can sense when supernatural things are coming for him, when he's in danger, and it gets very tense, and it fla... It bursts into flame when it's nervous. So knowing that, he will put it in its cage with extra sheets of newspaper under the fire detector.
[Brandon] Like. Okay. And it's an early...
[Mary] Early warning system. It's brilliant.
[Howard] So it's an urban fantasy?
[Mary] It's urban fantasy.
[Howard] Yeah, that's cool.
[Brandon] That's great.
[Mary] But it's also... It also gives him something to care about. He uses it in many of the ways that we were talking about. The foil to speak to, the thing in jeopardy...

[Brandon] I would say that since we're on the topic of pets, we need to bring up... Or more than pets, animals, we need to bring up the idea that is constantly leveraged... Levered at fantasy, the problem... The finger that's levered at fantasy, which is not understanding horses. I'm going to admit, I'm one of those that doesn't understand horses. You will notice a conspicuous lack of horses except for the hyper intelligent ones in Way of Kings which act... I've elevated... They're nearly human intelligence, and so for me to make characters out of them and not have to deal with this. My normal thing is, my characters don't understand it if I don't understand it. If I can take the time to get it right, then my characters can learn about it. This put me in trouble in The Wheel of Time.
[Mary] [laughter]
[Brandon] Where Robert Jordan was a horse person. I'm like, "I've got to write the horses." You'll notice there's far fewer horses in mind than there were in Robert Jordan's. I actually said to Harriet, "You guys are going to have to watch me on the horses and make the horses right." Horses are not bicycles or motorcycles. Of course. And this is...
[Howard] Well, the wheel turns and one age leads to another and... Wow, all the horses are gone from the New World. What happened?
[Brandon] [laughter]
[Dan] One easy trick to start with with horses is to make sure that they have names. Because all of a sudden then, in your own head as a writer, they become characters instead of objects. So as soon as you name that horse, then you're more likely to describe what they're doing. They'll be more present in the scene, instead of just, "And then he parked his motorcycle and went inside." And then, I got here, and when I going to do with Jack the horse? I can't just leave him on the road. So you... It helps you to keep all that in mind.
[Mary] Yeah. Also picking something that the horse likes and something the horse doesn't like.
[Dan] Which are such simple tricks, but they will make it a million times better.
[Mary] Yeah. Like Carl the dog liked blowing up things.
[Dan] [laughter]
[Brandon] Yup.
[Mary] Simple thing, but it gives him so much more personality. So...
[Brandon] If you don't have personality things for your animals, go talk to your local crazy cat person... There's just as many men.
[Mary] Or crazy horse person...
[Brandon] Or crazy horse. And say, "What are some personalities of the different animals here?" And collect a few of them, just like you do research on people.
[Dan] Yeah. In Fragments, I had to have some characters traveling by horse for quite a while, so I named them all. And one of them has the personality of the horse that wanders around. Every time that they stop for a break, this horse wanders off and doesn't want to eat what the other three want to eat. Just simple things like that can help.
[Brandon] All right. Howard, you've already given us a writing prompt. Do you want to repeat it to them?

[Howard] Okay. Your writing prompt. Give us an alien who has some sort of a companion animal that is very, very important to the alien's lifestyle. Maybe it's a beast of burden, maybe it's as I suggested a poison detector, food taster, whatever. Have a human interacting with the alien, talking about, or wondering why this animal is so important.

[Brandon] All right.
[Mary] I know we just gave the writing prompt, but... I should have brought this up sooner. Don't... Be careful about anthropomorphizing.
[Brandon] Yeah. We should've talked about that. Don't make them too human.
[Howard] The thing that I would say about anthropomorphizing is it's okay to have the character anthropomorphize, but don't you, the author, anthropomorphize.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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