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?

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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.