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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Pet Names

To avoid any confusion, I'm talking about 'names for pets' in this post. Not 'pet names' such as 'snuggles', 'cuddles', 'arsenic', and 'bulldozer'. That's a whole different category and one that could make everyone feel rather nauseous. No, I've been thinking a lot lately about animal names and their relationship to fiction: how do you decide what to call your pets and, more importantly, how do characters?

So far in my novel drafts I've only included one pet. There's an excellent piece of advice in some book somewhere that warns writers not to include animals without an exceptional reason. They can be self-indulgent little things that do nothing apart from hold up your plot and, when you forget about them, can leave the reader wondering where the fluffy kitten is and whether you did actually leave it in the burning building. The cat in my novel serves a few purposes, or at least I believe she does. I may be being self-indulgent. But Meg gives my protagonist something to get up for in the morning, she gives her something to talk to, and she serves to illuminate aspects of character by her preference for certain characters over others. As a cat person, I have to say that a cat's opinion can occasionally sway me in something like that. Yes... I know.

But why the name Meg? Well, my protagonist found the cat as a stray and gave her a human name to make her part of her hitherto single-person family. The old saying goes that if you give a cat a human name it becomes more human in your eyes. Now, I don't know what our pet names say about us as a family.

My cat, who unfortunately died last week, was called Stalin. Her sister, who passed away a few months ago was called Vlad. These cats were originally my sister's but part of her agreement to get them dictated my mother should have a say in the names. And she was kind of into her history. I have to say, whereas Vlad was a softie, Stal lived up to her name on some occasions. But not as much as the first cat I remember - Beast. Now, she was a stray and a very violent scrappy cat. I was scratched more than I care to remember when I was younger by that darling. She had a particularly amusing game of hanging around on the kitchen country ready to leap onto the back of our poor, unsuspecting doggy. She was originally called (embarrassing moment coming up) Icolbit, because a child who shall remain nameless couldn't speak and wanted her to come over 'a little bit'. However, 'Beast' was a much more appropriate name for her.

We've had two dogs in my lifetime. Paddy, probably a whippet crossed with something it really shouldn't have been crossed with, was a rescue dog. The first day we got him he ran from the house into the middle of a busy road because he was scared. I'm not sure the car helped his fear much. However, one metal plate later and he was perfectly happy. He still shook at anything, even a raised voice, but he was the most docile, friendly dog you could encounter. When he died my mother was heartbroken, and made the decision to go check out a puppy next door to one of my aunts the very same day. So we ended up with Rosie, a Cairn crossed with a Westie... we think. She's highly excitable and we're currently having some problems with her because she misses Stalin terribly. Once Beast died she became attached to Vlad and when Vlad died she latched onto Stal. She's now lost and confused and thinks we're going to leave her every time we leave the dining room. Rosie was my name choice, and not for very pleasant reasons either. There was a stuck-up girl I hated at school, part of a set who loved the look of themselves in a mirror. Naming my dog after one of them seemed to be the ultimate revenge at the time. Ahem. I promise I have grown up since then.

We've had an array of animals in my family. Maud, a grey long-eared rabbit; Norman, a brown and white rat; Noel and Liam, my brother's budgies. Plus an assortment of mice, rabbits and fish whose names escape me. But, for the most part, they were all part of the family - that is, they were named as if they were part of the family.

I know that including pets in fiction should be avoided if they're just going to be an issue of cuteness and irritation to the reader. But think of Fang in the Harry Potter series: whenever Hagrid was in his hut I wanted to know where the dog was because he was a vivid character in my mind. He helped define Hagrid. Where would Count Fosco be in The Woman in White without his assortment of mice and birds? The attention he pays to them highlights a peculiar edge to his character. And, in the world of television, where would Martin Crane be without his dog, Eddie? Animals can help define and shape character as much as they can annoy the audience by their constant interruptions. The key as a writer is to know when you're indulging yourself and when you're indulging the requirements of the plot or scene.


Mockingbird said...

Virtually everything I write has an animal in it somewhere. I grew up with them, I formed stronger bonds with them than my mother sometimes… and most of my pets were the eccentric force behind a plethora of funny stories… In my current fantasy story, my photographer is turned into his cat… and encounters his cat's friends and enemies on the way back to being human again. Giving him a very different perspective on himself. It's a very simple writing concept, character grows through seeing himself through another's eyes… Marty shamelessly uses his cat to score points with the ladies. As they form such a big part of my life, I can't imagine my writing without pets.

Steven Chapman said...

Starsky (tan rabbit)
Wabbit (black and white rabbit)
Spooky (black lovebird)
Monkey (red cheeked conure [parrot])
Izzy (calico cat)
Loki (bearded dragon)
Ike (Chinese water dragon)
Lucy (Spotted gecko)
Norman + Jenkins (2 quails)
Dexter (yellow bellied slider [turtle])
Bob (goldfish)
Mooses (Hamster)
Strawberry + Jam + Custard (3 mice)
Zed + George (2 ferrets)
Ollie + 4 more (5 rats)

An odd array of names, and I think that's what works best. Any name sounds perfect after a while. I always wanted to call a pet 'Wallpaper, and wait until it sounded cool, just to prove a point! I usually do the same with my characters, their pets are typically called something so stupid you do a second take the first time you hear the name, then by the end of the story it sounds a perfect fit :D

CharmedLassie said...

Sj - I love the idea of that story! Scope for all sorts to happen. I suppose given all the animals I've looked after over the years I should use them a bit more in my writing but getting started's such a pain the neck anyway, without losing points over including animals. Then again, who can tell what publishers want?! Or the public, for that matter.

Steven - Lucy the spotted gecko. Out of all the animals in the world that could potentially have my name attached that's probably the most interesting. Some excellent names in there which I may have to steal at some point - especially love the mice! I forgot to mention in the post that I went through a phase of calling my hamsters and rat after characters from the television show, Charmed. I'm embarrassed about that period of my life...