Even though the annual Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Conference is still several months away, many writers in the group are preparing and proposing speaking topics. I’ve often tried to propose a topic that would work well and be accepted by the conference board. The reward is a free conference attendance, and, to me, that is a lot of savings on a terrific event. Unfortunately, none of my topics have, as of yet, been accepted.
Anyway, both Robin and I are interested in secondary characters that happen to be animals. She focuses a lot on cats, and you know my heart has gone to the dogs. We’re thinking of doing a presentation on animals and other non-humans as secondary characters. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on this subject. Here are some of my challenges, as I think through the proposal:
EVERYONE HAS A PET–HOW CAN I PROJECT SPECIAL EXPERTISE?
Much more than half our population has a pet of some sort. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, our country has over 43 million households with dogs and 36 million homes with cats. That’s a lot of anecdotal expertise out there. How can two writers bring something new to the conversation?
I have had three large dogs in my adult life. With each dog, I believe I’ve added skills and interest. But then, so have many who will be in my audience. My knee-jerk reaction to this thought is that I could put together interesting statistics, but I’m not sure how those stats would help people write better about animals as secondary characters. Perhaps, I can re-read my books on “Why does the dog do that?”
WHAT MAKES A NON-HUMAN CHARACTER DIFFERENT FROM A HUMAN ONE?
As pet owners, we all engage with personification of our pets, at least to some extent. How can a writer step so completely outside the human experience to write about a world from a dog or cat’s perspective? And is this necessary? With human side-kicks, we only need to sketch a few impressions and our readers (being human themselves) fill in the gaps.
Or perhaps I’m making too much of our differences? Perhaps the animal psyche is similar to the human psyche and all we need to do is remind readers of Rex’s furry legs, or habit of chewing old shoes and we’ll be okay.
I WANT NON-HUMAN CHARACTERS TO GET THE RESPECT THEY DESERVE
One thing that bugs me, is the now cliché use of an inexperienced dog walker facing that dreaded poo-pick up for the first time. This potty joke is a cheap laugh at best, and is growing more boring all the time.
How can I put animals in a story in a perspective that’s appropriate, yet still give them the distinction of a personality all their own?
IS THIS AN IMPORTANT TOPIC?
Above everything else, a speaking topic needs to be relevant to the audience. Do you think writers would be interested in listening about and discussing “non-humans as secondary characters” in writing a book? Need we, as authors, even need be concerned about stereotyping pets and other animals? Or should we use the stereotypes that already exist (German shepherds are brave, loyal and bright–cats are aloof–fish are boring) and solidify the beliefs that the majority of our readers hold dear?
If you have any thoughts on this topic, I’d appreciate hearing from you. Hoping you have a bright and perhaps a little furry, scale-riddled or feathered day.