My professor this past spring was very keen on using the concrete elements of our daily life to act as metaphors for what is going on in our stories. There are so many great ways to use ordinary objects, he told us, and one of the best things to use as a vehicle in your story is animals. Animals are all around us, and have an impact on most of our daily lives. They live in our houses, hop around on our lawns, keep us company when we’re lonely, wrack us with grief when they die, illustrate how children grow up and how aging happens. More than that, though, they are still somewhat mysterious to us. We don’t know what a cat is thinking or what a dog sees. No matter how clear it seems, we are really only guessing and anthropomorphizing. That’s why they serve as great vehicles in a story.
A terrific example of the use of animals to make the main plot stand out more strongly is in Coetzee’s masterful novel Disgrace. In this novel, a shocking act of violence among humans forms the central act of the plot, but it is paired, paralleled, and contrasted with the tragic machinations of a nearby animal shelter. The lead character must euthanize unwanted dogs every week, and the extraordinary care and respect with which he treats the bodies shows his deep wells of emotion, his regret at the way other events have transpired, his truly human side. It is a stunning way to make the reader feel the human drama that much more deeply.
It’s important not to make the animal in your plot stand too clearly as a metaphor, a flat symbol of what is happening in the plot. Instead, remember that the animal has a life (and an inner life) of its own, and use its own subplot to make your main plot move more dramatically. People who don’t cry about human tragedy are often moved to tears by the plight of an animal, perhaps because they are so innocent of crime or conscious malice, and therefore anything that happens to them seems so much more bitter and unjust. Don’t be afraid to kill off a dog, for example, in your story: it can make us feel more, sometimes, than if a human suffers the same fate. While non-animal lovers might find that repugnant, I don’t think it is disturbing. We feel compassion deeply for humans as well, but when an animal suffers, it can allow us to experience a more general grief.
If, for example, your character’s father dies in your story, the character might not cry. If the beloved family pet dies a few days later, though, the tears shed over that animal are in large part for the lost father as well.
How will you use animals in your writing?