Thursday, September 16, 2010

Canines take over

Recently someone asked me whether the two dogs mentioned in my novel are based on my real life pooches. Of course they are! It’s so much easier to write about what you know after all. I didn’t really mean to include them though, they just kind of crept into the story when I wasn’t looking. This made me wonder how many other authors are tempted to include their pets in their manuscripts? Or even include pets at all? I can think of lots of books that feature dogs, but hardly any where a cat plays a leading role or a hamster, guinea pig and so on. The only one that sprang to mind starring a bird was Kiki the parrot from Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, but I’m sure there must be lots of others.

Dogs can so easily steal the show in books. Man’s best friend only needs to make a tiny appearance, and we remember them, sometimes long after we’ve forgotten the other characters. There is something so very appealing about them and they stand out on the page even though their actions have to do their talking for them. And I suppose because they’re easier to train than some other animals, it’s possible to utilise them more to help with the plot. They’re our guardians and loyal companions, they give us sympathy when no one else will and they love us unconditionally no matter what.

Some authors have brilliant canine characters and I think Georgette Heyer was especially good at creating them. Take for example the dog in The Reluctant Widow, who decides to “guard” the heroine to the extent that he won’t let her out of her own study! Then there’s the so called Baluchistan hound (whatever that is?) in Frederica, who causes havoc in the hero’s house because he won’t go with anyone other than the heroine’s brothers. Both wonderful plot devices used to great comic effect.

Katie Fforde’s novel Practically Perfect features greyhounds and who could fail to fall in love with those gentle creatures? They bring the hero and heroine together, as dogs often seem to do in real life (I’ve never had as many strangers talk to me as when I first bought a puppy!). Then there’s Lucy Dillon’s recent Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts, which won the RNA’s Romantic Novel of the Year Award this year.
It features a whole cast of canines, who all win you over, especially the boisterous Basset Hound who makes you want to own one yourself. Apparently Lucy based him on her own Bassett, which might be why it stands out from the others.

As a child, my absolute favourite was Timmy from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series – I made my parents name our first dog after him even though we chose to buy a collie because of the gentle creature in Lassie Come Home. And as an adult, another favourite was Tricki Woo, Mrs. Pumphrey’s fat Pekinese in All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, who had to go on diet “holidays” at the vet’s just to be able to move. Whenever I see Pekes now, I think of him and smile.

So do you use your dogs or other pets in your novels and do you find this happens without you even thinking about it, as mine did? And what’s your favourite canine character in other people’s books? I’d love to know. (Also, can anyone think of a novel where a cat saves the day? I can’t, but that might just be because I’m a dog person and therefore slightly biased.)

Don’t forget to come back on Sunday, when Liz will be posting again.


  1. I loved this post Pia.
    In one of Liz Fielding's books a hamster plays an important role in the plot. So does a cat in Kate Johnson's Sophie Green series.
    Julie Cohen talked about animals in her RNA session, how they can be an important "object" in the story that symbolizes a part of the character's personality or a centrepiece of the character's life.
    I can't think of any other dogs than the Basset Hound in Lucy Dillon's novel.

  2. Jennifer Crusie has a *lot* of dogs in her novels - there's even a Basset in Anyone But You.

    Mysteries seem to have more cats in them: The Cat Who series comes to mind. Sneaky Pie Brown (Rita Mae Brown's cat) is even writing a series.

  3. I have to admit, I will never ever buy an adult novel with a pet on the cover of it. I even decided not to buy a book that I really wanted, after I heard that one of the point of view characters was a dog. The only exceptions I've made are for Watership Down (which isn't about pet rabbits, or mostly not) and James Herriott's books, which I devoured as a child.

    It's an irrational prejudice. I'll admit it. Because I do like animals in real life, a lot.

    You have to sneak a pet up on me in a novel, and then I might like it. I'll probably really like it. I did love the dog in The Reluctant Widow, for example. (Thanks for reminding me of him, Christina!) I do like pets in children's books, though. I liked Hedwig in Harry Potter, and I loved the daemons in the Northern Lights trilogy.

    And I do agree with what Sarah said I said (LOL!), which is that fictional pets can function as useful symbols and representatives of their owners. Which is probably why the occasional pet has appeared in my books, despite my irrational prejudice against fictional animals.

    I'm quite willing to have my prejudice challenged, of course.

  4. I know i haven't actually used animals too much in my books but i have loved in others. it can also effect how i feel about a character - if they are lovely to them or beastly....

    I can't say that any particular books jump out at me though except those childhood ones that purely populated by animals and strange creatures...Cat In The Hat


  5. I love this post, Christina! You named all the pet characters that are familiar and fondly remembered for me, too.

    Edie Ramer recently self-published her book Cattitude about a cat who finds herself in a human body, LOL!

    For the most part, I'm cautious of pets with their own point of view in a story, like Julie, mostly because I think we over-humanise animals sometimes. Much as I love my kitties, I don't REALLY think they think like humans...

    Having said all that, though, Gaspode the wonder dog in Terry Pratchett's books (afflicted with fleas, scurf, mange, hard-pad and lickey-end) is a notable exception - a street-smart, guttersnipe mongrel, given intelligence and a voice by exposure to a high magical field, and frequently forced to save the day, in small ways, in spite of a strong sense of self-preservation and a weak sense of social responsibility. Or wossnames, as Gaspode would say.

  6. I don't think I've ever written a book that didn't have a pet in it -- a dog, or a cat, or a couple of cats AND a dog, with a few horses scattered around for good measure. Even in Every Secret Thing, which didn't have a pet per se, the modern day hero has an Airedale, Reuben, that he talks about. And in the sequel, which I'm writing now, the heroine's getting a dog of her own.

    Not only do I think the pets help make the books believable (throw several random people together, and at least ONE of them is bound to have a pet) but they're useful for revealing someone's character. Because I write in the first person, sometimes a heroine learns more about a man by how he acts with his dog than by anything else.

    And like any other character, the pets affect the plot in sometimes unexpected ways. Once I created a villainous character only to find that his son's dog quite liked him, and wouldn't be swayed. So, since dogs are often better than we humans when it comes to judging character, I trusted that the dog knew best, and let my "villain" be a good guy in the end.

    And Julie, you surprise me! I'd have pegged you as a pet person.

  7. Thank you for all these comments! Lots of new books to explore there (must read more Jennifer Crusie ones and that "Cattitude" one sounds very interesting!) and I totally agree about not liking a character who isn't nice to animals. There is nothing more off-putting that someone who is horrid to their pets (or to children).

    How funny about your villain, Susanna - you're so right though, dogs have an instinct for who is good and who is bad and they're never wrong.

  8. PS. Try telling my dogs they're not human! :) They think they have equal rights around here ...

  9. I am a pet person, Susanna! I've had lots of guinea pigs and grew up with a dog. I'd love to have a dog. I like other people's dogs and cats and other animals.

    But I'll just never normally pick up a book that has a pet on the cover. It screams "CUTE!" at me, and I don't gravitate toward cute books. But as I said, I do often enjoy books with animals in them, if you sort of sneak them up on me. :-) I think I'd like Gaspode the wonder dog.

    Nobody has yet mentioned Heathcliff hanging Isabella's dog from the gate in Wuthering Heights...

  10. Euuuww! Never did like Heathcliff much, not my kind of hero. I'm not really keen on any of the Bronte ones actually, although Mr Rochester as played by Toby Stephens was quite nice :)

    Also, no one's mentioned Marley & Me - not really fiction as such, but the dog was sort of the central character. I hated the ending (well I would, since I hate unhappy ones), but the rest was ok.

  11. I agree that characters' pets can tell us a lot about them - even when characters don't have pets, their attitude towards animals speaks volumes. I like animals well enough, and have always had a cat or two around, but I'm not gaga over them. Like Julie, a cover that features a cute litle doggie might stop me from reading the book. But I will write them into stories because they're so useful. ;)

    Mary Stewart's heroines are always animal lovers - and this usually illustrates their kindness and compassion. Cats figure in a number of her stories - Thornyhold and Rose Cottage spring to mind. Another book I've read recently where a cat tells us a lot about the heroine and the hero, is Susanna's The Splendour Falls, where Emily befriends a stray cat.

  12. I think I might be the opposite of you and Julie, Sofie - if there was a dog on the cover I'd buy it! Well, any animal actually, as long as it doesn't have more than four legs (never could understand why anyone would want a spider or stick insect as a pet!)

    Must re-read The Splendour Falls - thanks for reminding me :)

  13. Funny thing - I just got a book out of the library called Un-Bridaled by Eileen Rendahl - no cute dog with it's tongue lolling out on the cover but it turns out there's a dog called Jessie that has a huge part in this story. ;) Goes to show you never can tell by a cover . . .

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