Animal Instincts

I don’t know if animals truly are good judges of character – but they can be used to show it in fiction. I am focusing here on how animal characters can illuminate the human ones.

The way your characters treat animals can be a simple method to indicate empathy. They might take care to feed birds over winter. They might use humane traps for vermin. They might lift their piglet on the wall to see the parade! More conflicted characters can be revealed by a confused approach – vegetarian but eat fish, or keep urban chickens yet feed foxes. You might use concerns about animals as a plot driver: the vegan diver who liberates lobsters from local fishermen, the shoplifting  lady with too many cats or the kid with a catapult keeping magpies away from  nesting birds.

On the other hand, their behaviour towards animals can be used to show a character’s darker side. The green-stained fish tank, the donkey with untrimmed hooves or the stinking rabbit hutch speak of neglect and failed promises. What about the horrors who train magnifying glasses on ants, or pull legs off spiders? The choice of animal associated with a character can speak volumes – Philip Pullman knew that well with his use of daemons. And where would a world class villain be without an appropriate pet?

But it’s not just our character’s attitude towards animals that indicates personality – it’s the animals’ reactions to them. Ever since Bucephalus, the behaviour of the horse around a person has been used to  indicate nobility and trustworthiness. Similarly the wagging tail of a dog can suggest they sense a warm open personality. An affinity with wildlife in particular has been used for innocence and patience – I love Dickon in ‘The Secret Garden’ for that.

Ambivalence, mystery or less stereotyping can be created by the showing the trust of more unusual animal in a given character. How will your reader react if a character wins the affection of a hooded rat,  an ocelot or a seal? What if they are generally unpleasant – but feed deer at dusk on nectarines?

Of course, the fear or hatred of  animals can be used to great effect. The reader does not feel comfortable round someone who makes the joyful blackbirds fall silent, makes a wolfhound tremble and droop its tail or a wildcat cower. And having a carrion crow as a companion certainly says something about a person.

So using an animal as a minor,  secondary or ( as in the case of Black Beauty) central character can be useful strategy for letting your reader see personality in action – without hanging a label around your characters’ necks.

Memento Mori

I’m writing this in The Drift In Surf Cafe in The Witterings. Two ladies sit in the window corner looking out at the rain discussing the celebrities that have died recently…

            ‘You don’t know when you might be struck down’

            ‘Mmm – you’ve got to make the best of what’s happening now.’

January 2011 seems to be haunted by death – the news and real life seem to be full of it. We heard of Gerry Rafferty and Mick Karn – notable for moments of musical fame that gave pleasure to many – and Pete Postlethwaite who left a remarkable body of work in a relatively short life.

As a children’s writer, it was Dick King-Smith that really caught my attention. So many people tweeted and commented with regret at his passing: parents who loved reading ‘The Hodgeheg’ out loud, children who remember ‘The Queen’s Nose’ with great affection, and my old teacher colleagues who used his life story to enthuse young writers. He was an inspiration for late starters like me too – though sadly I never told him. But I do not grieve for him.

Instead I delight in the lovely books he left behind, ‘Babe’ the popular film inspired by his ‘Sheep Pig’ and the happy memories of so many people. I feel the same about L.M. Boston: she had saved the Manor at Hemingford Grey, brought comfort to pilots in WWII with the wind-up gramophone and entertained, scared and thrilled many children with the ‘Green Knowe’ books. I treasure a letter I have from her written in her 90s. My only sadness is not visiting the Manor while she was alive – the moral is: write to your favourite authors sooner rather than later!

Dick King Smith was an atheist, I learnt, which made me think about all sorts of alternative burials. I am much moved by the effort loving families make to create a special event; including music that really means something, sending the body off with hand-picked mementoes, and well chosen readings. Celebration lives alongside grief.

It’s an odd thing to write – but I like handmade willow coffins and beautifully printed card ones as well as the traditional wooden ones. I like woodland eco burials – and six foot high weeping angels. I enjoy a good graveyard and obituaries are a great read: Radio 4’s Last Word is well worth a listen. It is the sense of lives well lived that matters.

The writers of ‘The Archers’ tapped into that theme with the momentous 60th Anniversary episode: Nigel Pargetter was a character who loved life. Fictional deaths move us when they resonate with our sense of what life is.

As a person of faith, I believe there is more, but that’s no excuse for wasting this one. Carpe Diem works well whatever your beliefs.