|Gee whizz. What a wonderful day!|
Then I started wondering whether it would be too cliche to write a mystery about an old woman who had a cat and solved a crime. It sounded too much like Agatha Christie. But, I reasoned, my mystery was a psychological thriller, not a cozy, and my protagonist was a psychologist in her forties, not an old woman. Yes, I thought, for some reason I needed an extraordinary cat in Faythe's life to help her in the dark days after her husband died.
It wasn't until I added Mao to my novel that I took a closer look at what animals added to stories. Since very early on, books like Lassie Come home and Black Beauty won the hearts of so many children but also adults. And Sea Biscuit and The Black Stallion became favorite movies for many, as well as for me.
What makes these stories so popular with the majority of people? What do animals symbolize to us?
They obviously touch something deep inside of us.
Lets do a short exercise. Write down three words that come to mind when you think about the animals listed. There are no correct answers and they may be different than other people's answers. Each of us is an individual and all of us have had different experiences in our lives.
9. The cat in the picture
How would your words change if the animal was beaten, injured, blind, alone, lost, vulnerable?
Here are a few examples of how I personally see certain animals. Read them only after you write down your own answers.
A dog means loyalty to me and he loves me just the way I am. We have a deep emotional connection and bond. He is a good listener without judging me and is protective of me. He is my buddy and friend. He is loving and supportive to veterans with PTSD, coming home from war and can help, protect, and lead blind people.
A cat is independent and at times creatively mischievous, but when I feel sad she or he comes to lie on my lap and purr. Mao, the cat in my story, was very intuitive and hissed at the murderer. Although small, he stood his ground to protect Faythe.
A lion is dangerous but powerful and can at times care about other animals or people enough to protect them.
You get the idea.
Some time ago, when I took a writing class, the instructor warned the class to be careful not to kill an animal in a story. According to her, people respond to most animals the way they respond to young children. Readers empathize with them and see them as vulnerable, helpless, needing adult protection. People cheer for them when they succeed in overcoming great odds, show courage, or help the vulnerable. Sea Biscuit, a horse, was seen as one of America's greatest heroes during the Depression.
So what kind of animal can you add to your story to symbolize the character attributes you wish to portray? Is the animal supportive of your protagonist? Or can you add an animal to show a lesson in your story? Do you know an exceptional animal you love and wish to write about?