Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Monday Musing: Save the Cat, Kill the Kid

On Friday, I stumbled across a thread on Absolute Write that was already three pages when I started reading. By the time I got to the end of page 1, the thread was five pages long, and still growing. As of this morning, it is 9 pages long, with more than 200 posts.

It wasn’t another “Authors Behaving Badly” thread, though those always draw the crowds. No, this was on cruelty to animals in fiction. “How do you feel,” asked the original poster, “about scenes or incidents where the antagonist harms an animal?”

Photo by Steve-h

I was surprised at the strength of the reaction. While some folks took the opportunity to complain about it as a cliche–“Look at me, I’m super evil, I’m going to harm this animal!”–others, many others, in fact, argued against it on a different level.

“I stop reading. And you go on my “never buy again” list.

Vivisection innocent girls. Decapitate babies. Blow up cities. Destroy civilizations. I’m OK. Hurt an animal, and I stop reading. It’s just a line that I can’t forgive being crossed by any storyteller (all media).”

The spirit of the above response (do anything you want to people, but don’t you dare kill an animal) was echoed by a surprising number of people. There was much talk of book hurling and blacklisting, but not as much talk about why. Fortunately, there was also talk about ways the action could be altered so that it wouldn’t be so…tropey, for lack of a better word. And, as often happens, the discussion veered off into discussions of culture and other things, though I’ve sort of lost track of it.

It reminded me more than a little of this post by E.L. Wagner, who also took the time to ponder the reasons for this reaction in a very rational way. I suggest you pop over there and take a read; it’s worth it.

I don’t have time to get into it today in any greater detail than this. I’m curious, however: how do you feel about animal deaths in fiction? Is it all a question of how it’s done, or does it trigger an immediate, “Stop reading now” reaction?

Have a great week, see you on Friday!

12 Responses

  1. Um, I'm a little concerned about this. Dogs are not pleasant creatures in the future in my post-apocalyptic novels. They're quite vicious and so my character does not like them. And, of course, they attack her and she has to defend herself, but still… I don't know how that will go over. I LOVE dogs, but in my novels they are not portrayed as lovable, furry, cuddly pets.

  2. I know better than to kill a PET off in a book. I did put one in danger, though. My husband was reading my book and got to that scene and asked if the dog died. I asked him: Does it say stupid on my forehead? Yeah, I'm not stupid. My pet characters get happy endings, too! 🙂

  3. I think if the animal death serves a purpose for the greater book, then I don't mind. I certainly won't stop reading because an animal dies, unless it's sadistic, and in that case, I don't read sadistic books about humans either…

  4. A general comment–first, a day later, I'm looking at the title of this post and cringing. It's a little 'out there', and could be softened with a question mark, but I'm not going to be a revisionist. I hope no one is offended.

    Second, it seems that in cases like L.G.'s, most people seem willing to make an exception when it's 'man versus nature', or 'man versus genetically-altered monstrosities.' Sadly, it's also often more accepted when it's certain types of animals on the receiving end of the death–snakes, spiders, bugs of all sorts. Keep your hands off the 'charismatic megafauna', and stay away from pets especially!

    Third, as Olivia and Sheena-kay put it, a lot of it seems to be context-dependent. A lot of the objections over at AW were of the sort I mentioned in the thread–that if it's done just to show how evil the antagonist is, forget it. Also, there's HOW it's done. Presentation is (almost) everything. Thanks, all!

  5. Fwiw, I like your title.

    Caveat: I haven't read the AW thread.

    I wouldn't want to read a book where animals were killed for no reason, but done for food (as in my 1850's HR), done to characterize a serial killer, done out of self defense/self preservation, etc. -even a pet martyring themselves to save their owner from danger- wouldn't make me stop reading. *shrugs* I believe in treating animals with kindness, but I don't put them above humans.

  6. It's when an antagonist hurts a CHILD that I have the hardest time continuing to read. But I can understand the reaction. I always think of this quote by Milan Kundera (from The Unbearable Lightness of Being): "Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it."

  7. My absolute response would probably be to stop reading and feel sick and upset. Those who are unable to rationalise, empathise and fully understand the consequences of such deeds might revel in such literature and try to emulate what they read. Also, sadly it is a fact that constant subjection to such media turns us into desensitized human beings.

  8. As most of the others have said, it depends on the situation. Melissa made quite a few points where it could be accepted as part of an overall plot.

    I can pretty much guarantee I'll never read anything from the person on AW you quoted, though. That crosses my line.

  9. I appreciate your response, Madeleine. While I won't argue against the impact of violence in media (including books) on our response to it, I do think that people who will seek out such violence and try to emulate it are people whose problems go deeper than what they read. In this case, I would argue the literature (or other media) is likely less a cause and more a symptom of something wrong with them.

    It is a subject that calls up strong emotions, and we all have lines that we are unwilling to cross.

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