Animal characters have had central roles in well known fictional stories. A personal favorite was the 1877 novel Black Beauty by Anna Sewell about the life, tribulations and adventures of a sleek black horse. Black Beauty highlighted the issue of animal welfare and the importance of treating others with kindness, respect and sympathy. Important lessons for any child. Roald Dahl bought garden bugs to life in his 1961 novel James and the Giant Peach that explored the themes of friendship, death, hope, fear, abandonment, rebellion and transformation. I remember being fascinated by the giant caterpillar who had to tie the shoe laces on his many pairs of boots every morning. The book is still on my shelves and I pull it out and re-read it every now and then.
Stories with animals are not only for kids either. The epic 1851 classic Moby Dick by Herman Melville explores the 19th Century whaling industry in all its brutal glory and has the giant sperm whale as a central character representing nature’s wildness. At times Melville takes on the non-human perspective imagining how appalling the whaling fleet must appear to a surrounded wounded whale.
There’s also George Orwell’s 1945 classic Animal Farm about the lead up to the 1971 Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. The themes of corruption, class and abuse of power play out using the allegory of the Manor Farm ruled by pigs. As power goes to their heads the pigs start to run the place on the premise that “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” They become so much like the humans they overthrew that eventually they transform into humans themselves.
Like any character, an animal in a story needs a reason to be there, and a reason why the writer chose an animal rather than a human character. It needs to have a place in the plot of the story whether it’s idealistic, political, satirical, comedic, allegorical or fun. Will the animal character appear clearly as an animal or take on human characteristics; will it be a pet or wild; what is the message it will convey?
My own ability to write fell in a hole recently. It was not due to a lack of motivation, enthusiasm or ideas. There was no writer’s block and I did not fall ill. In fact it would be fair to stay things were going swimmingly. I had established a great routine of writing early, doing some exercise then either writing again, reading or heading out into the garden depending on the weather. Then along came Harper.
I was missing my old dogs company and started thinking about getting another one so I signed up to a rescue site called Petrescue. It’s like a dating site connecting up animal rescue organizations with people wanting to adopt a pet. Pictures of cute furry animals can be distracting and the real thing is a whole other level of disturbance.
Harper came from somewhere around Wagga Wagga via Seymour. The advertisement on Petrescue had very little information. Sweet little female mixed breed dog. Sleepy, playful and cute. Several emails and a phone call to the foster home led to filling out the adoption papers and agreeing to meet.
Many country dogs get adopted in Melbourne, and Seymour is a liaison point apparently. The industry is quite mysterious and I think there could be a great fiction story written about the rescue, movement and adoption of animals.
We drove to the rendezvous point in Kings Park and met a lady there with a car full of rescue dogs. I didn’t want another dog like Jarrah (my old kelpie), as it would have felt like I was being unfaithful to my old friend. The puppy was a leggy, sandy colored thing with a slightly worried look. An Australian Staghound crossed with something of unknown origin – probably some kind of cattle dog like a kelpie.
We weren’t sure about whether to take her or not. Then this guy from Pakenham turned up to look at Harpers brother. He picked up the puppy without hesitation, threw it over his shoulder and started filling out the necessary paperwork. He said he had a Staghound-kelpie cross at home. “Best dog he’d ever had,” he said, “affectionate, trainable and not as energetic as a kelpie. Likes to lie around on the couch and watch TV.” Sounded like an ideal writing companion.
It does of course take some time to get from puppy to writing companion and after puppy Saturday all writing stopped and novel reading was replaced by books and blogs and videos on puppy wrangling and several days of utter chaos as we got to know Harper and visa-versa. Within three days she had gotten the hang of going outside to the toilet and would come, sit and drop as long as there weren’t too many other distractions. We had also introduced her to ceiling fans, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, steel and wooden stairs, the shower, collars, coats, leads, a frisbee, tennis balls, new people who dropped by and Bunning’s. Believe it or not Bunning’s has a very detailed dog positive policy and we were able to take Harper around the store introducing her to the weird and wonderful world of the great Aussie tradition of a trip to the hardware store.
We had our first day at puppy school to start our long learning adventure together. Each day consists of a cycle of eat, sleep, play, starting at about 6am. I’m particularly fond of the sleeping part and I am hopeful we will settle into a new routine soon so I can get back to some writing. My book does have two dogs in it so I look forward to Harper becoming an inspiration rather than a distraction.
What’s your favorite fictional animal character?
Image: Harper and autumn leaves