A Dog’s-eye view

I had a concept in mind that had been nagging away at me for months, demanding to be crafted into a story. Two concepts, in fact, one about a cat and one about two dogs. Both seemed ideal for inclusion in my short fiction collection, Prickle Moon.

I made numerous attempts to write these stories, trying many different approaches to style and structure. That was unusual for me – I generally have a good intuitive feel for what will work. The problem in this instance lay with the voice.

Each of the stories had an animal as the main protagonist, the character whose journey the piece was built around. The obvious way to write the story was to give the animal the point of view. The easier, less effective way would be to write in detached, omniscient third person. I knew that would lessen the impact of the story.

The trouble is, animals don’t think in human words. Dogs respond to a certain number of familiar words and phrases, such as their name and various commands. They are sensitive to tone of voice and body language. But their thought patterns are not those of a human being, and I suspect the workings of a cat’s mind are even more alien. We often interpret the behaviour of our domestic pets through the filter of our human perception, but we can’t really know what is going on inside that feline or canine mind.

Here’s an excerpt from my most recent draft of the dog story. Muffin, a terrier, has sensed that his owner is about to go away. Pooty is a recently adopted, smaller dog. Yes, she does have a silly name – it came with her from the shelter.

His dinner is late. Pack Leader rushes about doing things. Muffin feels hollow inside, hollow and jangly and wrong.

Pooty runs around the house. She has a nap. She plays with her squeaky toy until Pack Leader yells at her. Pooty cringes. Pack Leader picks her up and cuddles her, making soothing noises. Muffin watches.

Finally, dinner comes. Muffin has a mouthful, but it just doesn’t taste right. He goes under the table. Pooty empties her bowl and licks it clean. She glances at Muffin, then sidles towards his leftovers. Muffin barks, and she retreats.

Pack Leader crouches down and speaks to Muffin in her special voice. Muffin is not taken in. He lets her fondle his ears and scratch his belly. Her tone tells him she’s upset. ‘Calm and quiet, Muffin,’ she says. ‘Be nice to Pooty.’  Wretched Pooty! She changed everything. Muffin is not scared of big dogs – well, usually not – or thunderstorms. But when things change, when The Way Things Should Be is forgotten, his belly fills with terror. He feels it now, deep down, like an ant starting to crawl inside him, an ant that may soon become a monster.

Pack Leader opens the door and calls them outside. Muffin sulks, but Pack Leader throws the ball, and all else disappears. Run, run, run, snatch! Waaaaait – run, run, run, catch! He forgets the suitcase. Run, run, run, grab! He even forgets Pooty, who’s digging in a corner.

I soon got bogged down with this style. What should have been simple (What name does your dog use for you?) became ridiculously difficult – if I had another go at writing this I wouldn’t use Pack Leader, but I failed to think of anything better. I think the story reflects my understanding of canine behaviour, and the simplicity of Muffin’s thoughts works OK. But I was always aware of how inappropriate human language is to convey animal thoughts and feelings. The story became easier to write once Muffin and Pooty were alone in the kennels and not interacting much with humans.

Knowing there were many successful stories out there with animal protagonists, I looked at a sample to see how the writers approached the problem, starting with a couple of classics.

Animal stories have changed with the times, reflecting changes in society. Fashions in writing have also changed, so a mode of storytelling that worked brilliantly for a 19th century audience may not be so effective for contemporary readers. I limited my research to stories in which the animal is presented semi-realistically, since if the animal is anthropomorphised or the book has magical/fantasy elements, the writer doesn’t face the same challenges with voice.

Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) was hugely popular in its time. Buck, a rich family’s pet dog, is stolen and becomes a sled dog in the Alaskan hinterland before going off to run with a wolf pack. The novel contains overwrought language and racist values; it also has a strong message against cruelty to animals. Despite its flaws, it’s a grand and thrilling story. We see Buck through the author’s eyes, complete with philosophical commentary on his actions, so there’s a distance between reader and canine protagonist. However, the dog is a well-drawn character and his thoughts and actions ring true. When we are in Buck’s POV the language is kept simple and appropriate. This passage comes after Buck has seen one of the working dogs lose a fight, then get torn apart by the pack: ‘The scene often came back to Buck to trouble him in his sleep. So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you. Well, he would see to it that he never went down.’

Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) is told in first person by the horse of the title. The writer used the story to draw public attention to issues of cruelty to animals. Beauty has human perceptions; he understands human speech and motivations and can comment on his own situation. For its period, this is a story told simply and directly – it is a children’s book – and the reader can suspend disbelief quite easily.

A later classic was Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972) with its cast of rabbits. I prefer Adams’ novel The Plague Dogs (1977), a powerful story about two dogs escaping from an animal testing laboratory. Stalwart Rowf and brain-damaged Snitter talk to each other in English, and have  conversations with a fox who speaks in heavy dialect. The gripping nature of the story compensates for Adams’ wordy and rather selfconscious style.

I recently began reading A Dog’s Journey by W. Bruce Cameron (a companion book to A Dog’s Purpose.) Cameron makes the dog, Buddy, the first person narrator, but includes human dialogue of which Buddy can only understand his own name and his familiar commands. The combination is illogical – if Buddy thinks in English, why can’t he understand English speech? Despite this, I imagine the book will be immensely popular. Cameron’s understanding of a dog’s natural instincts strengthens the narrative.

Writer friends gave me a long list of successful stories with animal protagonists, many of which are outside the scope of this discussion because the animals in them act or think like humans. Top of my reading list is the wonderfully imagined cat-world fantasy, Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams.

What should you remember when writing a story with an animal protagonist?

  • When in the animal POV, keep the language simple. Tailor the vocabulary to the animal’s perceptions. Short sentences work well.
  • First person is rarely convincing. It requires a high degree of writing expertise.  
  • The better you know animals, the better you will write them. You need a sound understanding of animal behaviour to craft this kind of story.
  • Animal POV is easier to write well when the animal is interacting with others of its kind, not with humans!

The story of Muffin’s terrifying stay in the kennels has been set aside for now and won’t appear in Prickle Moon. I wrote instead a much darker animal story called The Angel of Death, which has a human narrator.

Have you written fiction with animal protagonists? What approach did you take?

Photo credit:
© Photodynamx | Dreamstime.com

 

 

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.

Comments

  1. carol says

    I read a great book (it’s very ‘easy reading’) from the dogs POV called ‘Dog on it’. It’s a detective story, but what really stood out was how the author really captured the essence of dog. It was very smart, witty writing that he made appear simple. I was really impressed. Worth having a browse through. The book should be on my shelf, i could find out the author.

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  2. says

    I never thought about writing a story from an animal’s POV but as a child, I loved Black Beauty. I’d never thought about how difficult it could be. You’re right, finding the perfect tone is a challenge. Making something completely imaginative take on a realistic tone is a fine balance.

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  3. says

    Your example certainly illustrates the difficulty. Now that I think about it, the animal stories I’ve loved as a child and as an adult are all either human POV or anthropomorphized. I liked Watership Down and before that, The Wind in the Willows. My wife read The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, which we’d heard broke new ground in animal POV, but afterward she advised me not to bother. I love animals and they play an important role in my work (mostly horses), but always from a human POV.

    Great tips. Good luck with a worthy pursuit, Juliet. I hope others weigh in with feedback.

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  4. Janie Fox says

    I am writing a modern-day myth with a sunglasses-wearing komodo dragon named Rex who speaks through rap music. He is one of two faithful and supportive sidekicks to the princess hero. :)

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  5. says

    Wow, Juliet. What an interesting and insightful post.

    I love the reminder that we humans like to impose things (our view of the world, our voice) on animals. But that doesn’t honor the animal . . . gosh, we humans can be so arrogant!

    Thank you for sharing this with us. (And I love the photo. Sweet dog.)

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  6. says

    Juliet, I’ve experimented with ideas that center around a shape-shifting protagonist–a man who shifts into animal form–and even that I’ve found hugely challenging to write, to come up with a voice that accurately reflects what human consciousness would sound like when stretched and compressed in equal measures into what an animal’s view of the world might be. The idea keeps nagging at me . . . maybe someday. :)

    Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series contains portions that are written from the POV of a wolf (though there are other human POV characters, as well) and IMO she does an EXCELLENT job with them in terms of language choices and thought patterns; truly, her ‘wolf’ voice is probably the most compelling and convincing animal point of view I’ve read.

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    • says

      Thanks, Anna. I have seen the Michelle Paver books but not yet read them – another thing to add to my massive ‘to be read’ pile!

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  7. Denise Willson says

    Goodness, I would really suck at writing from an animal’s POV. I never know what the heck my dog wants, and I’ve loved her for 11 years.

    Kudos to you, Juliet, for being insightful enough to even attempt such a feat.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  8. Jane Campbell says

    Another example to consider is the final chapter of Barbara Kingsolver’s “Prodigal Summer,” where she uses third-person-close narration for a coyote. Her choice of vocabulary is rich, but always reflective of the nuance a coyote might actually discern:

    “She had reached the place where the trail descended into a field of wild apple trees, and she hesitated there. She wouldn’t have minded nosing through the hummocks of tall grass and briars for a few sweet, sun-softened apples. That whole field and the orchard below it had a welcoming scent, a noticeable absence of chemical burn in the air, that always made it attractive to birds and field mice, just as surely as it was drawing her right now. But she felt restless and distracted to be this far from her sister and the children. She turned uphill, back toward safer ground where she could disappear inside slicks and shadows if she needed to.”

    Animals don’t think in language, or stories for that matter, they think in terms of their senses, of their direct experiences. So as a writer, isn’t our job in an animal story to translate that sense of experience? In a way, it’s the same for our human characters, too, because so much of our experience is, well, experiential, rather than linguistic. I do think animals, especially smart animals, have experiences of sufficient complexity to warrant more sophisticated literary techniques, like the kinds of sentences Kingsolver employs above.

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    • says

      I loved ‘Prodigal Summer’, Jane. You’re right, the sensory description does conjure up for us a wild creature’s way of thinking and feeling. And what beautiful writing.

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    • Leila Wilson says

      Your comments caught my eye Jane and the example of the author’s way of having the coyote communicate is the best I’ve ever read. Thank you for sharing this and I’m definitely going to buy this book. For anyone else interested it is on Amazon Uk at a very cheap price indeed. As Juliet commented….The writing is beautiful.

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    • says

      Let’s not forget Temple Grandin here when we discuss animal perceptions. I’ve heard the woman interviewed several times. and she lacks the natural sense of story that writers who don’t have to overcome autism possess. Her idea of how an animal thinks in stories is the rapid sequencing of sensory experiences, like running a movie in 3D with smells and other senses heightened in a way that replaces narrative.

      I also work as a poet, and sometimes I have struggled with a style called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, that is, the deliberate obscuring of the conventions of grammar. It’s amazing how hard it is to write that way. I think that both Juliet and Jane have identified the key issues around this POV, especially important in writing for children.

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      • says

        I’ve read some of Temple Grandin’s work and I find her ideas about how animals think convincing.

        Interestingly, she differs from Cesar Millan in her view of the way we interact with our domestic pets, dogs in particular. Temple Grandin has said that because we tend to infantilise our pets, our relationship with them is more like adoptive parent/child than pack leader/pack member. This colours the way we write about them.

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  9. says

    Thanks for these insights! While sometimes I get the feeling that writing from a cat’s point of view would be fun (because I live with a cat who has a strong personality), I know it would never work with me. I’d probably anthropomorphize the story and it would go down hill from there. But it is wonderful when writers master this challenge. A difference in species should not divide us from a good story!

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  10. says

    Books from animal POV were some of my favourites as a child and they seem to be making a bit of a comeback. I prefer somewhat more complex language that captures the animal’s experience; anyone who lives with an animal knows their feelings are more subtle than they could possibly explain in the words they know. I tend to enjoy even further anthropomorphosis for the sake of humour or drama.

    This story of mine is from dog POV and won Five Stop Story’s August competition (warning: adult themes!) http://www.fivestopstory.com/read/story.php?storyId=3660

    By the way, if anyone wants an example of a powerful opening, look at Jack London’s “White Fang” – I re-read it recently and it is gripping!

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  11. Leila Wilson says

    Thank you Juliet for your interesting thoughts on writing a story from the POV of animals. I have written both poetry spoken from my cat’s POV and confess I have her speaking as a human would. I also wrote a short stoy based on John Clare’s poem about the grasshpper and the ant. Again I used human speech for both creatures, though this was a story for children.

    Your thoughts have now got me thinking……. Perhaps stories for children would be acceptable using human language? As I said….You’ve got me thinking!!!

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  12. says

    “Squirrel!” (OK, somebody had to say it.) But seriously, one of the things the writers of the movie Up! captured well in that running gag was how powerful survival-based behaviors are, even after millenia of domestication. That was something you captured in your excerpt too, Juliet.

    Your point about living among aliens is on target as well. A long time ago I reminded my writers’ group that we live among aliens: our spouse or significant other, our kids, our in-laws–to say nothing of our pets! Aliens don’t have to come from another country or another planet.

    This is something science fiction and fantasy writers have struggled with for centuries. No matter what we do, our aliens end up being humans in rubber suits to some degree. They have to be: they wouldn’t be comprehensible otherwise. The same is true for earthly animals. We will ALWAYS and unavoidably view and understand them through the lens of our humanness. Once we’re aware of that, we can start to peel away those layers and emphasize the characteristics that make that animal who and what it is–IF that’s what we want to do (as opposed to making it a human in disguise for other writerly purposes).

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    • says

      Great point. And human language is the tool we have to set these stories down, so we have to use it even if it’s a blunt instrument at times. I guess there’s no ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’ to do it – different approaches work for different kinds of narrative and for different readers. A Dog’s Purpose was a New York Times bestseller, proving that what one person finds hard to swallow, others lap up with enthusiasm.

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  13. says

    Ursula K. LeGuin has several brilliant stories in nonhuman POVs. Ants who are artists and dancers; a worried wolf wife; a decrepit Western town of coyotes, bluejays, and rattlesnakes; and Cat Wings, her kids’ books. Always convincing, never condescending, inviting the reader into a magical parallel universe of experience. Hey, that’s why I read.

    I remember being quite entranced by Kipling when I was a youngster: The Jungle Book, Just So Stories. I reread them recently and they hold up well, in part because of the storyteller’s tone. Now that I think of it, many fables and fairytales have nonhuman actors, who often show more “humanity” than the people.

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  14. says

    Last month, the 10 minute animated DVD ‘Titanic Dog’ based on my children’s story from the viewpoint of the ‘Newfie’ sea rescue dog from the Titanic, was released. The challenge was to make the story positive, as so many children and dogs died, so an appealing dog perspective was my choice. Earlier I had even considered writing from the viewpoint of a flea on the dog. How to handle issues of smell, counting ( enough or not enough lifeboats) and the survival via legend in story telling had to be solved. Now animator Tobi Jessop has a computer game planned too.
    http://www.tobop.com.au ‘Titanic Dog’ was his first animation and took six months to research and draw so the dog viewpoint was credible and not scary.

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  15. says

    I find it interesting that you presume to know how an animal “thinks” and I heartily disagree. Empirical evidence suggest far more than you seem to realize. This preconceived idea can do nothing but limit the work. Take a step back, get to know your dog or cat–give them the full voice of which they are capable. It will go better.

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    • says

      Perhaps I should have included my credentials. The two major activities in my life are (a) writing and (b) fostering and rehabilitating shelter dogs. I don’t claim to be Cesar Millan, but I spend a lot of time around dogs and am extremely close to my permanent pack. I’m also a member of a local canine training club and have the opportunity to observe a pretty wide range of other people’s dogs on a regular basis. I would rate my understanding of domesticated dogs as well above average.

      I do know the story isn’t working – I said so in the post.

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  16. says

    I never considered this, really interesting.

    I don’t see why it should be a problem to let the animal think in English even though it can’t understand English speech because we are reading it in English. So you could think of it as translating from animal language to English language.

    To me, writing it the way we believe an animal might think like in the excerpt sounded a bit like a children’s book.

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    • says

      The story is not told entirely in Muffin’s POV. It begins with a section in the POV of his human, and there are other human POV scenes later. However, the significant events in the story happen when no human is present, hence the need to find an authentic voice for Muffin. It does seem that what I did was too simple – I guess I was trying to capture his frame of mind in few words.

      There are some very insightful comments above. If I tackle a similar challenge in future I’ll be less hung-up about using rich language, and will remember the very significant point about sensory description.

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  17. says

    Though I haven’t written and animal story myself, I enjoyed Kathryn Davis’s The Thin Place. Now it’s not all from the animals’ points of view, but I think she did a good job.
    Maybe that’s the key, inserting the dog’s tale into something else that might offer context and give you a break from dog-think :)
    Break a pencil :) (superstitious writer’s good luck)

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  18. says

    What might help is to consider interacting with the environment the way the protagonist might; as dogs tend to favor input from their noses and ears over their eyes (i.e., they go by smell more than sight, and have a more developed hearing range at the expense of their sight), perhaps stressing what the dogs’ smell and hear over what they see might help.

    I had some dog stories I worked on (not yet finished) that flowed a lot better when I went with that approach, and this might be of help. I also had a piece that did get published where briefly we get the cat’s POV; because it was a lap cat, the perspective was, well, overly simple, but I assure you that there’s no prejudice involved in the limited motivations the cat had voiced…

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    • says

      A very good point. That’s why the Barbara Kingsolver example someone quoted above is so effective – we’re experiencing everything as the coyote does (and, of course, Kingsolver’s beautiful use of language enhances that.)

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  19. says

    While my novel–The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles–is hardly a classic, it is told from a cat’s point of view, and is in first person. If you want to take a look, there’s a sample chapter on http://www.vampirekittycat.com. In fact, the whole website is written “by” my cat character. Good luck!

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    • says

      How could I forget The Vampire Kitty-Cat Chronicles?? Seriously, I did think of it while writing the piece, but had to cut my examples down as it was all getting too long. This website is definitely worth a visit!

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  20. Sally McDonald says

    Wonderful and interesting post, Juliet. By giving a brief example of your writing you were able to really clarify the issue. In my book, Pet Sitter’s Diary, some of the animals ‘talk’, but it’s clear that I am interpreting what I THINK they would say in the given situation. In my opinion, the very best example of an author who was able to get inside the heart and mind of a dog was done by Eva Hornung in her novel, Dog Boy. An abandoned four year old Russian boy follows a wild dog pack back to their den and becomes one of them. It is an absolutely riveting tale of dog behavior.

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  21. says

    (Coming to the conversation a bit late, via Elizabeth Craig’s tweeted link)

    For my part, I’d say roughly 95% of my stories involve some sort of talking animal character, though I write fantasy and sf, so most of my animal POVs are far more anthropomorphized than what it looks like you’re going for. :)

    You mention that you excluded works where the animals in them “act or think like humans,” but as others have already said, I think any time you write from the POV of a nonhuman character (whether it’s an animal, an alien, an inanimate object, etc.), you’re automatically anthropomorphizing that character to some extent. I think it’s just a question of what degree of humanization suits the story and genre. Something like Watership Down is, to my mind, already on the fantastic side of the anthropomorphism scale, because the rabbits, while still being ‘normal’ quadrupedal rabbits, also have gods and myths and societal structures and perform behaviors that normal rabbits probably wouldn’t engage in during the course of their lives. And there’s even a distinction to be made between the stories like Black Beauty, where the animals actually talk to each other in straight-out dialogue, and something like Call of the Wild where (as far as I remember; it’s been years since I read it) the animal characters communicate only as real canines would.

    I think part of the problem with writing from the POV of ‘realistic’ animal characters, especially pets, is that it seems there’s a tendency to make the writing too simple and/or too cutesy or self-conscious. I don’t know if this has something to do with the infantilization of pets that you mentioned, but I wonder if it’s just that some writers find it hard to take an animal POV seriously (for whatever reason, whether it’s their own unconscious attitude about animals or the automatic association of animal characters with children’s stories), and then the writing automatically reflects an attitude of “yeah, the dog’s telling this story, I know that’s kind of silly.” So I guess I’d say that, like any aspect of craft, if you’re writing from that POV as a gimmick, it’ll show, and you have to have some conviction that your story really does need to be told by the dog, for whatever reason.

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    • says

      You make some really good points here, Renee. The example someone quoted from Barbara Kingsolver illustrates really well that if the writer takes the animal viewpoint seriously the narrative can be completely believable – this is assisted in Kingsolver’s case by her exquisite use of language of course! I agree with you that animal viewpoint should only be used where it is absolutely necessary for the story.

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