Novel Ideas: #14 “Dogs Must Live!”

You may think you have a perfectly rational reason for killing a dog in your novel.

Never kill dogs

Maybe he’s a very large, rabid dog. Death would be a blessing.

Or maybe he’s a devoted guard dog, destined to give his life in loyal service to his human family.

So, really, in both of those cases you would be justified in killing a fictional dog, right? Nope. Wrong. Your readers will still hate you.

People who don’t have dogs may think I’m crazy. “What?? It’s just a dog!” they will insist.

They’re wrong, of course, and we dog lovers pity the shallow lives that dogless people live. Sure, those people have clean cars and carefree vacations, but they are otherwise ignorant about the infinite value of dogs.

But I defy you to find, over … hundreds of pages, the death of a dog.

You might argue this point, too. After all, plenty of writers kill off innocent children fictionally; and children outrank dogs. That’s true. Sometimes in fiction, it’s necessary for a child to die. This is heartbreaking, even devastating, but nonetheless allowed when crucial to the plot or character development.

Bestselling author George RR Martin, the genius behind “Game of Thrones,” loves to kill off characters — from infants to the elderly, be they good or evil. In fact, Martin has likely killed off more characters than any serial killer in history. But I defy you to find, over the course of many hundreds of pages, the death of a dog. (Dire Wolves don’t count.) Martin’s not stupid.

“But wait,” you might say, “lots of dogs die every day. And some people like to eat them, too.” I say “yes they do” to the first, and “not in America!” to the second.

The important thing to note is this: We don’t write about those dog deaths. Check the newspaper, if you don’t believe me. No Dead Dog stories. (Well, almost never, okay?) Nobody wants to read about dogs dying.

Over the course of my life I’ve written dozens of articles and short stories. I’ve also lost several dogs from various causes. You won’t find any accounts of those canine deaths anywhere in my work, fiction or non-fiction. That would be repugnant.

Alright then, what creatures can you safely kill off in your fiction?

Your list of acceptable alternatives is enormous. You may always kill rodents and bats and birds. Wild creatures (except feral dogs) are allowed to die, especially if they’re scary. You can kill sheep and cows and horses, even pigs and chickens. Camels and llamas, ostriches and emus, donkeys and mules — all may die as needed.

You’re free to end the lives of farm animals and untamed beasts, as long as those deaths are essential to your story, and not merely inserted for shock value. Do what you must. Just don’t kill any dogs.

“But what about cats??” you ask. Oh, man…

questionDo you have some killer advice for your fellow writers? This is one installment in a series. I’d love to hear from you about character deaths and related Novel Ideas.  Share your thoughts in Comments, just below.

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  1. Better to kill a mockingbird…

  2. Better to light a fire…

  3. Old Yeller – ooh, I hated that book as a kid.

    Spoiler Alert:
    The author thought having a puppy at the end would make it OK? Nope.

  4. Jim! It’s been too long. But I must disagree with you on the dire wolves. In the story, it was clear they were given to the children as pets and the children became extremely attached to them. The killing of Sansa’s dire wolf was meant to create despair and anguish (just as a dog owner would feel). Are there regular dogs in Game of Thrones?

    I don’t know about dog deaths in books, but they are often used in horror films as a warm-up before the people start dying. I’ve seen it in The Babadook and The Conjuring. Go pick on screen writers. They’re the real culprits.

    • Hey, Tammy, I’ve really missed you!
      We certainly should revive our critique sessions, one way or another.

      You’re right about those dire wolves, of course: they were indeed pets. The emotions stirred by those deaths were the same as intended by any pet-dog-killing author, as you stated. I had to exclude them from this post, however, just on principle. You’re probably right, anyway — Martin violated this “rule” on purpose and for effect. (Yes, dogs are common in GoT, at least in the books, as camp followers and town scavengers, not generally as pets.)

      Your point about horror films is interesting. Dogs in extreme pain make a gut-wrenching sound that’s universally recognized; I’m sure that’s why dogs die in the movies. I’ll withhold any additional response to that (despicable) practice. 😉

      Thanks much for your thoughtful reply, Tammy. Drop me a line any time.

  5. So To Kill a Mockingbird and several of Jack London’s books became popular because they were SO, SO, SO good that people forgave them for the dog deaths?

    • Jack London’s following was so strong and loyal that, yes, I believe you’re right, Katharine: he could get away with murder — even of dogs!

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