Adam is frequently linked by inkPageant for his thought-provoking articles on subjects that many writers often fail to consider. Adam's contribution to this awesome August series is no different.
If you're a writer, you owe it to yourself to consider well his suggestions. If you're a reader, you owe it to yourself to devour anything he's written. My pleasure today is to introduce to you the awesomeness that is Adam Gaylord!
Animals Make a Story
Animals make us Human.
- Temple Grandin
I want to start things off with a little story.
Around 1918 there was an accomplished leather engraver by the name of Harry Wailing living in New York. Harry had a good life. He had a successful business, a nice home, a wife, a couple kids, and a beloved hound-dog. By all accounts he was well liked and well respected. But there was trouble brewing at home for Harry; his wife had taken another lover. Over time this lover became so brazen that he would visit the lady of the house while Harry was at home. After one such occasion, the man strolled out of the lady's room and, on the way to the door, kicked Harry's beloved hound-dog. Harry calmly retrieved his pistol and shot the man in the face.
After that Harry fled New York and moved to Florida, settling on a little island on the Gulf Coast called Mariposa Key where he lived out the rest of his days selling trinkets to fishermen. Ninety-years later a friend and I spearheaded a project to restore the island to its natural habitat (which is how I came to know about this true story).
The thing I love about this tale of woe is what it took to finally push Harry over the edge. He kept his head when he found out his wife was cheating. He restrained himself when the interloper invaded his home. He even managed to contain his rage when these visits happened right under his nose.
But kick his dog and he’ll shoot you in the face.
Without this tidbit Harry’s story is kinda mundane. Turn on the local news in the evening and you’ll probably hear about a jealous husband who’s shot his wife’s lover. It happens all the time. The addition of the dog to this story does a couple things to set it apart.
1. It makes Harry relatable - Everyone loves their pet. I love my dog. I’ve never been in a fight but if someone kicked by dog, they had better do it on the run ‘cause if I can catch ‘em, I’m gonna kick their ass.
2. It defines the bad guy - David Powers King did a great blog post a while back about the "Kick the Dog" trope. Put simply, good guys don’t kick dogs. No matter what the backstory was (maybe Harry was a jerk to his wife), nothing excuses walking up to an old hound-dog and kicking him. That makes you the bad guy.
The thing is, this isn’t an animal story. This isn’t "Old Yeller", "Hidalgo", "Seabiscuit", or any of the other wonderful stories where the animal is a primary character. This is Harry’s story; the dog is a secondary character. If there wasn’t a dog there would still be a story, it just wouldn’t be as good.
And that’s my point: Animals make stories better.
Let me give you a couple other examples (super spoiler alert).
Have you seen the western "Open Range"? If not, as soon as you’re done leaving a comment about how awesome this post is you need to watch it. I love westerns and it’s my absolute favorite. For those of you that have seen it you know it’s a story about warring groups of cowboys (good guy free rangers vs. bad guy ranchers). It’s definitely not an animal movie but there are a couple very important animals in it. Kevin Costner’s character is a troubled man with a dark past...but he loves his dog. His connection to this animal gives his character humanity and lets the audience know that deep in that silent rugged exterior there’s a good man. And when the dog is killed by the bad guys, the audience knows that shit just got real. Conflict was coming anyway, no doubt about it. But with the dog dead you know there will be no prisoners.
One last example.
I KNOW all of you have seen the post-apocalyptic classic "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" (sequel to "Mad Max"). Freaking great movie. And I’m sure you’ll all agree that one of the best secondary characters in the whole film is the dog. He’s a badass. His interactions with the reluctant hero and pilot Gyro are hilarious. And when one of the bad guys shoots him with a crossbow...heartbreaking.
Both of these movies would still be great without their respective animals, just not as great. Animals make the audience care. They give characters humanity. They define good guys and bad guys. They provide comic relief and break hearts. Animals make stories better.
So does your story have an animal or two?
About Adam Gaylord:
Adam Gaylord is a graduate student studying wildlife at Oregon State University. He lives in Corvallis with his beautiful wife and slightly funny looking dog. When he’s not chasing elk and deer or buried in data, you can usually find him knee deep in one of his many writing projects.
Adam blogs at Adam's Daily Apple