Try This: Killing an Animal
A Toughie, but It Works
And first, a story …
Some neighbors got together, and a woman I’d never met began to say that her mother-in-law was terminally ill and would likely die in the next few weeks. Everyone seemed ready for the death, but this neighbor worried that it would traumatize her kids. She didn’t want their first experience with death to be their grandmother’s death. So she wanted to adopt a medically fragile dog or cat, and if the animal didn’t die soon she planned to poison it so her kids could mourn the animal and acclimate to the idea of death well before their grandmother passed. This neighbor was asking around, trying to find a sick animal or an animal she could poison, and the best method to do so. She explained that she’d planned to feed the animal antifreeze to destroy its kidneys, but antifreeze had been reformulated to be less deadly ...
And I sat and listened among a small group of neighbors, thinking the whole time, “You sick person …”1
Our paths continue to cross on occasion, but I’ve never asked if this neighbor found herself an animal. Some answers I just don’t want to hear, you know? But her mission perfectly illustrated my theory about making a character do a despicable thing, but for a noble reason. At least a reason that will seem noble to the reader, and to the character herself. Which brings us to our topic: Killing an animal in fiction. And while it’s not actually killing a real animal, it must be justified in some sense (at least plot-wise), and it must be handled very carefully. You see, the animal will seem very real to the audience, and if you botch this, they will close the book forever.
I’d wager that we react so strongly to the death of an animal in fiction because our own first contact with death was usually the death of a beloved animal. So, botch this at your own peril.
For example, in his famous story The Girl with Curious Hair, David Foster Wallace pours lighter fluid on a puppy in a basement full of punks and sets the puppy on fire, and all the characters laugh as the puppy runs about screaming in pain and dies at their feet. And as much as I enjoy DFW’s nonfiction, I’ve never much enjoyed his fiction since reading that scene. And, yes, I’ve heard the theory that Wallace wrote that story to lampoon Bret Ellis’s books, but that’s not something I knew at the time.
Just as I talked about on the Rogan show, I did stop watching the film The House that Jack Built at the moment the duckling’s foot was snipped off. I’m glad to have been fooled on that one. But any injury to an animal is tricky business.
In recent history I’ve set aside two books because, in one, two hungry men eat a bunch of live chicks. And in the other we’re introduced to a mouse, the mouse is given a name, and then the mouse is chased around a concrete floor so that one character can stomp on it—and no one really mourns. Yeah. It’s not even a real squished mouse,2 but to introduce and kill an animal in the same page seems ham-handed and … yeah.
You want to kill an animal? You’d better have a good reason, and do the deed respectfully and carefully. Let’s start with good reasons, and let’s start with the less-good of the good reasons.
To create an opening for affection to happen …
In the movie Sunset Boulevard, why does Gloria Swanson’s character fall for the character played by William Holden? Because he’s a writer and she needs a writer? Nope. Because he’s young(ish) and hot(ish) and she wants a lover? Nope. The woods are full of hot, young writers, especially the Hollywood woods. Norma Desmond falls for Joe Gillis … wait for it, because her monkey has just died! For years she’d been unmarried and loving just that monkey, and now it’s died and left a vacuum in her life. She thinks Holden is the mortician, come to provide a monkey coffin. And late that first night she buries the dead monkey in her garden.3
The monkey has been Desmond’s primary attachment for years.4 Had Gillis arrived one day earlier or later, she’d never have been so vulnerable. The dead monkey is laid out in her bedroom, and here comes a hot writer with a flat tire who needs money. What’s important is that the monkey died off screen.
Likewise, but to a lesser extent, Nick Carraway adopts a dog for companionship. The dog runs away one beat before Carraway becomes aware of Jay Gatsby next door. After that, Carraway and Gatsby are attached at the hip.
In my own book, Survivor, the goldfish dies in order to create a big emotional moment—but mostly to clear the decks for the budding romance.
So you can dispatch an animal in order to create an emotional opportunity.5
The dying animal as a gun …
You’ve seen this. Often. In the film Notes on a Scandal, the older predatory teacher has a dying cat. That character is courting a younger woman, and you know that the moment the cat dies that will force the plot to chaos. So guess what? At the moment the cat must be euthanized, the older woman runs to the younger for support, and the younger woman chooses to remain with her family. At this betrayal, the character played by Judi Dench wrecks everything.6 Thus the dying cat is a gun, because it could die at any point and doesn’t rely on a countdown such as a pregnancy or a number of days.
On a similar7 note the older lesbian in the book/film Can You Ever Forgive Me? has an ailing cat. The cat’s medical bills drive the main character to forge documents. Note the despicable act for the noble reason. And the plot goes to chaos when the cat is left in the care of a gay guy who does meth and has sex until the cat dies from neglect.8 The cat is a gun, of course.
The animal is a metaphor for something …
In the book and film To Kill a Mockingbird9 a rabid dog staggers into town just so Atticus Finch can shoulder his rifle and demonstrate: one, that he’s a crack shot, giving him a skill and authority previously unknown. And, two, that Atticus will do what’s called for to rid the world of any reckless, dangerous elements.
In Old Yeller, the dog appears, rabid and threatening,10 and his death is the break between the main character’s childhood and adulthood. The dead dog represents a loss of innocence.11 The same goes for The Yearling and a million other books, including Bambi.
Among the biggest animal novels of the 20th century was Flowers for Algernon. It began life as a short story, grew to become a huge bestselling novel, and eventually became the film Charly. The life of a laboratory rat named Algernon parallels the life of a man, and as the rat suffers so shall the man. People cried buckets.
In the book and film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the characters of Holiday Golightly and the cat live parallel lives. As Capote put it, “We’re a couple of no-name slobs. We don’t belong to anyone, and no one belongs to us. We don’t even belong to each other.” And in the book, at least, the two meet very different ends.
The animal’s (almost) death as proof of humanity …
The writer Peter Rock once advised Monica Drake, “If you want to create tension fast, put an animal in peril.” This isn’t quite killing an animal, but it works.12 Your reader will be instantly hooked by any animal facing death. And your reader will love any character who risks her life to save an animal. Face it, most of us would’ve left the Nostromo without Jonesy, but we’re glad Ellen Ripley went back to rescue the cat.
Now, the biggest, best reason to kill an animal …
When you kill an animal, you kill a character’s humanity. How do you turn John Wick into a killing machine? Kill his puppy. How do you make the audience really hate Patrick Bateman? Have him stomp a dog to death.13 In the book and film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, the character of Rynn Jacobs unknowingly kills her mother, then kills her realtor by accident, but finally she intentionally murders Martin Sheen—why? Maybe because he kills her hamster with a lighted cigarette and we hear it screaming in agony and he throws the dead body into a fire … Yeah, once the hamster’s dead, we can’t wait to see Jodie Foster slaughter Sheen.
In the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?14 the bladerunner becomes a ruthless killer only once an android throws his prized goat off the roof of a tall building. In that future, animals are precious, and he’s worked for years to have a pet goat, but once it’s heaved off the roof, so is his humanity.
Likewise, in the play The Goat, or Who Is Syliva? by Edward Albee, the play’s namesake is killed to bring the plot to crisis and destroy everyone’s humanity. I could also argue that the main character in the film Drag Me to Hell is doomed from the moment she stabs her kitten to death.15 It would be tough to see a kitten-stabber get away scot free.
In my own book, Pygmy, the rat goes down the garbage disposal so the title character can feel gutted and ashamed of not taking action to stop the killing.
A final warning …
In his second novel, Marabou Stork Nightmares, Irvine Welsh kills a dog. It’s a dog that had repeatedly menaced and bitten the narrator since he was a small boy. Once the boy has grown up and the dog has grown old, the man leads the blind, ailing dog onto a beach and bludgeons it to death. That scene brought down a raft of shit from readers, even more shit than the book’s gang rape scene. So much shit that my editor—who also edited Welsh—forbade me to ever kill an animal in my work. I’ll let that be my final warning. Be careful. Be justified.
Our next test will be on this topic so stay sharp.
If you at least learned not to kill a hamster, please …
In the spirit of full disclosure I put the ailing cat in Doomed for this same wrong-headed reason. Madison’s parents want her first experience with a pet to be truncated and miserable so she never asks for another animal. Madison’s suffering over a terminally ill cat was based on this few minutes of conversation with my neighbors. That is how books get written: moment by moment.
It’s just words, after all.
Yeah, I call this “PlotSpoiler” for a reason.
While filming this movie, the director Billy Wilder would taunt Gloria Swanson by telling her, “Norma was fucking the monkey!” and she did her best to laugh it off. Poor her.
Personally, I’ve always wanted to depict a cad who attends pet bereavement groups and fakes having a recently dead pet in order to meet hot others who are wounded and vulnerable. Not that I’ve ever done that. Just a story idea. He could walk through a pet cemetery and approach someone weeping… You get the idea.
I summarize here, but I actually like this movie. It’s one of the few I own.
Meaning identical note.
Again, I summarize, but I actually cried on an airplane when the dead cat was discovered under a sofa — despite the fact that I could see that death coming from the first moment of the film! And it was a fake cat! And that’s how attached to an animal your readers can get.
The title itself is a metaphor (a simile?) about killing an animal.
Rabies was such a go-to metaphor. Supplanted only by AIDS.
And yes, I did copy this sequence for my book Rant in a self-conscious, referential way. And I felt justified because I showed characters wracked with guilt and suffering the loss.
Monica gleefully used this trick in her novel The Stud Book.
In theaters, the audience would watch a parade of people tortured and killed in American Psycho, but when Bateman stomps the dog in the alley — people shouted in outrage.
The source material for the film Bladerunner.
Again, I call this mess “PlotSpoiler” for a reason.