Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Description: Animals in Fiction & Animals in Life

Hello Everyone,

I apologize for the lack of posts over the last few days.  I started a new job, and they have had me scheduled every day since Wednesday--even a double on Monday.  I will try to keep my posts as regular as I can with my new job and schedule.

A few days ago, while scouring links on the internet and researching for my upcoming post, I decided to take a break and do a bit of research for my current manuscript, and while perusing through the resources in my library, I stumbled upon a book that I had not picked up in quite sometime.

The book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Description by Monica Wood, is an instruction guide on how to write better description; most of its information is straight-forward, and of course the old adage of "show don't tell" appears many times, but otherwise, it is definitely worth taking a look at--and possibly even picking up at your local bookstore.

On a side note, however, I stumbled across something within her book while thumbing through its pages, and I wasn't sure to what extent, if any, I agreed with her advice.  Chapter Eight in Monica's book deals with 'Special Description Problems' and the first of the four sections in the chapter talks about how to describe animals.

Below is the very excerpt from that section, with which I have many issues:
If you decide to include animals in your stories you are probably an animal lover.  If you are an animal lover you probably share quarters with the world's smartest dog, the world's prettiest cat, or the world's most talented parakeet.  Perhaps you talk to your animals as if they understand you.  And who knows, maybe they do.  Please remember, though, that what works in life doesn't always work in fiction.  Your eight-year-old Siamese might fetch your slippers, but a reader might not believe this of a fictional cat.  So, as you are booting up your computer or sharpening your pencil or looking for your lucky pen, remind yourself that animals are not furry people, no matter how much you adore them.
Plainly stated, she goes on to tell her readers to never describe their animal characters with humanesque qualities or characteristics.  To me, that is just complete hogwash!  Fantasy writer aside, I still believe animals possess a soul and conscience.  Every single pet I have owned has exhibited a personality of their very own--and very unique to them, particularly, not of their breed in general (as Monica tends to suggest).  Now I am not saying they were furry humans (though I've always treated my pets as members of my family), but I am saying that all of my pets have had very distinct personalities all their own.

{26 August 2003 - 26 October 2009}
Our Siamese cat, Sébastien, had quite the personality.  A personality that was very intelligent--self-aware and aware of everything else around him--and very much unlike any other cat I have owned (though they have also had very unique personalities).  To merely call him a cat--or label him as a typical Siamese--and not describe his personality would only do his memory and his life injustice. He was very vocal, often 'talking' to me and Jeremiah.  He knew to always ask before jumping up into our laps if either of us were sitting in the chair or on the sofa; he would let me know if his litterbox needed changing (with a disapproving glance and a nagging howl!); and he had a child-like curiosity, always watching, studying, and learning our every task.  He would even sit and watch TV!  Sébastien also could tell if either Jeremiah or I were upset or sad (it was rare, so it definitely wasn't learned behavior).  He would get up close to us, look straight into our eyes, and then lay (more of a plop, actually) his forehead against our necks just under our chins, as if he was attempting to comfort us with a hug.

When Sébastien was diagnosed with kidney failure and we saw his health fade from us, it was very difficult to watch.  I had to administer fluid injections daily via a catheter into the back of his neck (where there was little sensitivity); it killed me to do it, but the alternative was an even worse fate.  He knew it, too.  He knew that if he didn't get the injection, that he would feel like crap.  In no time at all, he learned to willingly jump onto the window sill to receive the injections (Jeremiah knew how much he enjoyed sitting in the window and looking into the backyard and suggested that it would be a serene spot for him) and patiently wait.  His liquid iron vitamins, on the other hand, I could never get him to take.  I guess, with those, he never saw their purpose or their benefits.

In the days before Sébastien's condition worsened to the point of no return and we were forced to euthanize him, he said goodbye to me--letting me know that he was in pain and ready to pass on.  I remember lying on the outdoor sofa on the deck (one of his favorite spots), and he jumped up near my face to be closer to me.  He looked into my eyes, like he would do if ever I were sad, and gave a soft mew.  I saw the tears in his eyes right before he plopped his forehead under my chin.  He stayed like that for quite sometime... until my own tears had subsided, and when he finally lifted his head, I knew it was his way of saying goodbye.

You can argue with me all you want that it was just normal animal behavior, and you can attempt to tell me that an animal can never have human qualities, but I think by casting a huge net of generalization over animals within fiction and saying that one should never describe them as furry humans is as broad as saying that one should never attribute animal qualities to humans.

Fantasy genre aside, do you think writers should describe animals (pets) with humanesque qualities?  Or do you, like Monica Wood, think that all animals are without human-like qualities and should never be equated to such?  I would love to read any and all of your comments on this topic.

Until next time,

P.S.  For those who are fans of the Paranormal:  On several occasions since Sébastien's death, both Jeremiah and I have felt him jump onto the bed and kneed the blanket with his paws before lying down--just as he always did in life, and we have both heard his meow many times--I have even, before finally gathering the nerve and emotional strength to throw out his litterbox (used, in the same state in which he had left it), heard his howl nagging me to clean it.

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