READ OR LISTEN
Blake Snyder was right when he wrote Save the Cat—his well-known book on screenwriting—saying the best way to make a protagonist likable and memorable, is to have him/her do something heroic that touches the emotions. Have your character rescue something innocent and helpless, like a kitty stuck up a tree or about to be run over by a car, and you’ve demonstrated lovable personality traits like compassion, trustworthiness, and selflessness. You’re in.
I’m thinking of this because—and this will surprise no one—in movies, books, recordings, or whatever storytelling medium you use, you can kill people in horrific ways all day long, but you cannot kill an animal without potentially losing your audience.
I’m at a point in my current novel where a number of people are under siege without access to food. The story is based on actual events. What happened in real life is that, for survival, they killed a number of their horses for meat. It is one thing to kill cows or sheep, who are bred for the purpose and are considered relatively ‘dumb’ animals. But horses are pets, companions, often well trained and at great expense. To eat horsemeat has been offensive for centuries. Because human lives (for most people) have greater value than animal lives, one could be forgiven if he/she killed horses when they were desperate for food, but only if there were no other choice.
I had imagined some touching and dramatic scenes. Not for a graphic slaughter, but focusing on human emotions. To be forced to make such a decision could be agonizing, and therefore stirring for the reader. But even with the most heart wrenching scene of love—a Sophie’s Choice kind of scene—I knew members of my own family, and particularly my book-loving cousin, would refuse to read them. We are all animal lovers.
So I decided to do an informal survey of other authors’ thoughts on this, by scanning Facebook and blog posts. Some (a few) said they would go ahead and write it, because it is true and real. A very Ernest Hemingway approach. This is what I’d been thinking also. But the overwhelming majority said, “Don’t do it! You’ll lose your audience!” One established author said, when reading one of her favorite writers, she came across a scene where an animal was killed, threw the book across the room, and never read that person’s work again. And then, my neighbor said, “No, you can’t kill horses! Bring in some flying rabbits instead.” A very L. Frank Baum (Wizard of Oz) approach.
So all of these reactions got me thinking.
I can recall two recent instances in which a human killing really turned me off. I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones. When the kid was shoved off the castle tower because he’d seen something he shouldn’t have, I was done. When I found out the kid survived, I tried to watch it again, but I just couldn’t find the love. I hate gratuitous meanness and cruelty. Don’t we have enough cruelty in the world without manufacturing it for ‘entertainment’? (Yeah, I’m in the minority on this idea.)
Anyway, I soon realized my reaction wasn’t just about the cruelty. I watched Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker, a strange and quirky story that I found quite interesting. But then, just as she finds love with Teddy—a strong and magnetic character—he drowns in a silo full of sorghum. Dark humor? Maybe. But I’m done. I just don’t need crap like that in my life. Yes, tragedies happen, but it seems this one was done for shock value, rather than good storytelling. I’m not alone in this response.
So then, back to the horses. What to do? Stick to reality, or make killing an animal palatable?
Kevin Costner got away with killing a horse in the opening scene of Yellowstone, but the horse was fatally injured in a truck accident. Obviously, it was a mercy killing. At the same time, it made the character look cold and brutal, which must have been exactly what the director wanted.
Another mercy killing, unforgettable at least for those of us who grew up in the South, was in Old Yeller, a novel by Fred Gipson (and a movie by Disney) in which a beloved family dog gets bit by a rabid wolf and has to be shot. For me, it brings to mind the Gordon Lightfoot lyrics from If You Could Read My Mind— “and you won’t read that book again because the ending’s just too hard to take.”
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg got away with killing a cute monkey not only by making it a spy against our hero Indiana Jones, thereby making it ‘bad’, but also giving the monkey its own hero quality. It dies after eating poisoned fruit, thereby sacrificing its own life to warn and save the lives of the good guys.
As a writer, I’m first a storyteller, second a historian. I make decisions based on what feels right for the story. After much consideration I see no logical reason to heroize a horse and then kill it, but I think the threat of having to kill horses can be far more compelling than the actual act. It is similar for sex scenes. As Outlander Author Diana Gabaldon has said, what happens before the sex act—the build-up, the conversation, the foreplay—is more arousing than the act itself.
So I’ll ‘save the horse’, use the threat of impending doom to advantage, and then reveal the awful truth in the author’s note at the end. I’ll just have to warn my cousin to skip that part.
Nancy Blanton is the author of three historical novels set in 17th century Ireland, with the 4th book coming out in 2021. Visit her website at nancyblanton.com, follow her on Facebook, or find her author’s page on amazon.