The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 2: The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
The Itch of Writing Bookself 3: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Dogs and cats aren't just for Christmas: they make great viewpoint characters

 A writer friend posted this:

Can anyone think of adult books (i.e. not War Horse) where you briefly get an animal's POV? I would love to use my sweet little dog (who has a place in the story) to be the reader's first experience of a crucial, awful place, before anyone else's. I want to get his keen senses in there - to show the place through a creature who is in one way acutely perceptive - but I wonder what level of language I can get away with. For example, could I describe a smell as metallic, or is that word too sophisticated for the dog's POV? Hope this makes sense. Feel Emma might have blogged about something like this?

Well, I hadn't blogged about it, so I'm doing so now, because I think using an animal's point-of-view can work brilliantly, and also teach you a lot even if you never use it in a finished piece. But it does need a bit of thinking about. Animals, like children, are what John Mullan in How Novels Work calls Inadequate Narrators:  Christopher in A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a classic example, as is Holmes's Watson in some ways: reporting faithfully and accurately but without the capacity to analyse and understand what they report.

Such narrators are not unreliable, in the proper sense of the term, as Humbert Humbert is in Lolita, and Barbara in Notes on a Scandal. Inadequate narrators don't lie, or distort, or deliberately leave things out, and they're not deluded. But it's for the reader to read into what they say, and  understand what's really going on.

And, as I've discussed before, it's when the reader has to create the understanding for themselves that they really make the story their own. In Emma Donoghue's Room, five-year-old Jack is the narrator:

We play Noah's Ark on Table, all the things like Comb and Little Plate and Spatula and the books and Jeep have to line up and get into Box quick quick quick before there's the giant flood. Ma's not really playing anymore, she's got her face in her hands like it's heavy.'

The words are simple; the extra capital letters make proper nouns because for Jack these things are individuals; the grammar, syntax and punctuation reflect his voice not the conventions of correctness. Crucially, Jack describes Ma's gesture - "her face in her hands" - and then attempts to make sense of it: "like it's heavy", but the next step towards real understanding is beyond his frame of reference: he inquires, "Are your other teeth hurting?" There's pathos, but also humour, in the gap between the points of reference Jack uses to try to understand, and what we adult readers can understand: that the heaviness is metaphorical, not physical.

And what about a narrator who can't use human language? Henrietta Brandford's wonderful Fire, Bed and Bone, which is set during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, is a book for oldish children, (my friend was right: it's harder to find animal-centred books for adults):

The wolves came down to the farm last night. They spoke to me of freedom.

I lay by the last of the fire with my four feet turned towards the embers and the last of the heat warming my belly. I did not listen to the wolf talk. This is no time to think of freedom.

But what if the animal (or child) isn't the narrator, but just one of the characters through which an external narrator can choose to tell the story? This is where it helps to understand the essential difference between the Voice of the narrative, and what the narratologists usefully call the Focalisor (the "viewpoint character", to us creative writers) of it. "Focalisation" is an ugly coinage, but useful because, unlike "Point-of-View" it doesn't have connotations of opinion and understanding. It is simply about being the current lens: a lens that can use all six senses but doesn't necessarily filter or create a voice.

What could be less child-like than the voice of Henry James? But this is What Maisie Knew. Maisie is about six, and now lives with her newly-divorced father; Moddle is her nanny:

She was familiar, at the age of six, with the fact that everything had been changed on her account, everything ordered to enable him to give himself up to her ... By the time she had grown sharper, as the gentlemen who had criticised her calves used to say, she found in her mind a collection of images and echoes to which meanings were attachable—images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk, the dim closet, the high drawers, like games she wasn't yet big enough to play. The great strain meanwhile was that of carrying by the right end the things her father said about her mother—things mostly indeed that Moddle, on a glimpse of them, as if they had been complicated toys or difficult books, took out of her hands and put away in the closet. A wonderful assortment of objects of this kind she was to discover there later, all tumbled up too with the things, shuffled into the same receptacle, that her mother had said about her father.

Not child-like in voice, but how brilliantly that evokes something which is central to Maisie's experience of this new life, but at first quite beyond her capacity to perceive let alone analyse! Only "later" does she "become sharper", and able to attach meaning to what at first are only "images and echoes"; are we to read in a certain loss of innocence, as the price of that greater understanding? Notice, too, how "Carrying by the right end" is a much more sophisticated version of "as if it's heavy": evoking in a familiar-to-the-child, physical image something which is genuinely complicated at any age: the business of making sense of human relationships.

And this is Flush the spaniel, as evoked and inhabited by Virginia Woolf on the day he comes to live with Elizabeth Barrett:

He paused amazed. He advanced in awe ... Thus advancing, thus withdrawing, Flush scarcely heard, save as the distant drone of wind among the tree-tops, the murmur and patter of voices talking. He pursued his investigations, cautiously, nervously, as an explorer in a forest softly advances his foot, uncertain whether that shadow is a lion, or that root a cobra. ... The voices ceased. A door shut. ... Miss Mitford was slowly, was heavily, was reluctantly descending the stairs. And as she went, as he heard her footsteps fade, panic seized upon him. Door after door shut in his face as Miss Mitford went downstairs; they shut on freedom; on fields; on hares; on grass; on his adored, his venerated mistress--on the dear old woman who had washed him and beaten him and fed him from her own plate when she had none too much to eat herself--on all he had known of happiness and love and human goodness! There! The front door slammed. He was alone. She had deserted him.

Notice how Woolf-the-narrator does step quietly in sometimes "...reluctantly descending the stairs", but essentially the focalisation stays with Flush. Notice too that "door after door shut in his face" is, again, a metaphor which uses a physical experience Flush understands to evoke a perception he scarcely does. So, going back to my friend's initial problem, if metal is something that a dog would know - would have some kind of concept of - then certainly he could experience something as smelling metallic, or a person as smelling of fear. And, as certainly, you can use words to convey that to us.

Other books that were mentioned in that thread were Lucy Wadham's Lost, which has a section from a dog's point-of-view, and an Alison Fell novel, some of which is a cat's point-of-view, which I haven't been able to identify but which might be The Element -Inth in Greek. (I would suggest Black Beauty, too, but I've never really got over the death of Ginger.)

On her website Wadham describes that dog scene as "one of the best things I've written", and I'm not surprised. Even if you're not planning to make every reader laugh themselves sick, as Patricia Finney does brilliantly with I, Jack for children, and Matt Haig does in a darker way for adults with The Last Family in England, trying something like that out is terrific exercise. Whether the setting is familiar or strange, the very means by which it's perceived and understood has changed. Here is a focalising consciousness which has an objective existence (as the wholly invented creatures of speculative fiction do not), but which is so different from our own. To work the whole thing out stretches both your imagination, and your capacity to express what you've imagined. You can no longer rely on what you're good at - what you've practiced - what you can do. You have to find a new way to see the world, and a new way to write it.

Comments

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David Wilson

I know that at least one of Dean Koontz's books has a dog PoV. The scene was mostly about the dogs nose and what he smelled

Jules Anne Ironside

Really interesting, Emma. I'd never thought to consider inadequate narrators before although the term unreliable narrator was a frustratingly bad fit - Jack in Room, as you said. Examples of animal POV's for adults;

The last Family in England (The Labrador Pact) - Matt Haig
Cujo - Stephen King
Midnight's Sun - Garry Kilworth (Also, Hunter's Moon and Frost Dancers)
The Duncton Chronicles - although I think these anthropomorphize a lot more.

Emma Riddell

Thanks Emma - a really useful reminder about the difference between an inadequate and unreliable narrator. I'd like to recommend Carnevale by MR Lovric for a cat's perspective. His marvellously wise POV is perhaps more fanciful than grounded but suits C18 Venice, and is how I like to imagine a cat would think. Several short chapters are narrated by the cat & are critical to the plot. It's a fabulous book.

Kathleen Bethell

If I'm not mistaken, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski has large prtions of it written from the point of view of a dog. And, of course, there's Richard Adams' Watership Down.

Sheenagh Pugh

I think of those narrators, who aren't lying but aren't seeing everything either, as "unaware narrators". Richard Adams used Robert E Lee's horse as narrator in his novel "Traveller". I've used a wolf to narrate a poem, in fact I think it's more usual in poems, see Les Murray's cow personae!

Whisks

And Richard Adams's The Plague Dogs, as well.
Lobsang Rampa wrote several about his cat - although that was a sleuth cat, and not to my taste - far too anthropomorphic.

Good post, Emma - about time this was addressed! I, as you may know, like writing about animals from an animal's POV along with my own, and it's a very fine line to tread, to try and interpret the world how *they* sense the world - and not how you would.
From my (very) limited experience, there does seem to be a market for animal stories, but we're often told explicitly (by editors etc), that it shouldn't be from the POV of the animal. I wonder why that is? Because they're often overly sentimental? Any other reason?

As a general point, putting yourself into the character of anything alien to you, must be good practice for writing all sorts of things - from Sci-Fi to Fantasy to Adventure to Hist Fic and Thrillers and Crime and beyond!

David Wharton

Paul Auster's Timbuktu is told from the viewpoint of a dog called Mr Bones. Very much a grown up book with themes of Existentialism, the role of Art and and American Identity.

Emma Darwin

Yes, that's one of the most rewarding things, isn't it: having to write using other senses.

Emma Darwin

Thanks so much for those, Jules, that's brilliantly useful.(Matt Haig's two different titles is confusing, isn't it! I wasn't sure which to put in the post)

And yes, "inadequate" is such a helpful term. As you say, "unreliable" really isn't right.

Emma Darwin

Oh, yes, I knew about the Lovric, but had forgotten. She does Venic so brilliantly. Thanks for that, Emma.

Emma Darwin

Ah, yes, rabbits galore. Looking rather nervous at being in the same post as a dog...

Emma Darwin

Sheenagh, I guess that it's less daunting to sustain a non-human PoV in a poem than in a story of much length. And poetry homes in on sensory stuff so often, animals would come naturally.

Emma Darwin

Whisks, yes, anthropomorphism is a fine line, isn't it. I know people who think Watership Down is way to anthropomorphic... He didn't put himself enough into proper rabbittyness, as it were.

I suspect the don't-use-animals is because they get slews of dreadful ones. And perhaps because there are some readers who are just never going to get it. (But then there are some who are never going to get historical fiction...)

Emma Darwin

Gotta love an existential dog called Mr Bones...

Andrew

Hi Emma - of course I loved this post!

There are a number of other novels using an animal's POV that come to mind, but some obvious titles that occur to me right now would be Jack London's White Fang and Call of the Wild (wolves and dogs), and Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone (elephants). Someone already mentioned Watership Down, which must be one of the greatest in this area.

I find myself halting at the idea of the inadequate narrator ... One year into living with a dog, I continue to be amazed at the sensory powers possessed by an animal: alertness to sound, deftness of movement, that incredible sense of smell. I think some of the most effective writing about animals embraces these qualities, which I might dare to call superhuman, even if they are embodied in animals; they are things that perhaps make humans seem inadequate! But they also permit real leaps of imagination in the writing - redefinitions of the boundaries of life that can really make an impression in a fictional world.

Have to admit I don't mind me some anthropomorphising, though - I am sure I do it all the time, without even writing ...

Emma Darwin

I take the point about animals not being inadequate - but I think it would be fair to argue that if they're the vehicle for telling a human story then they're inadequate as any outsider's consciousness is in one way or another: their internal frames of reference don't match (at least at the beginning) the frames of reference of the world they're experiencing.

Obviously if the story is of their own world - Watership Down, I assume (never read it) - they're wholly adequate - and for the eavesdropping human, as you say, more adequate that we are. Maybe we need a concept of the inadequate [i.e. human] reader...

Rosy Thornton

I know this was all over a year ago, but I was browsing and came across it... and thought about Jack London's wonderful 'The Call of the Wild'. It's a dog's viewpoint on a dog's story, not on a human one except as they intersect, and I dare say the voice is very anthropomorphised. But what strikes me on re-reading is how the enduring sensations which the reader carries away are very dogcentric: the comfort of the proximity of other warm, safe bodies, canine or human, in the biting cold; the sanctuary of total, sense-obliviating sleep after hard physical exertion; the blinding sharpness of physical pain; the lulling weight of a belly full of food; the complete bewilderment which results when animal innocence first experiences human cruelty and, thereafter, the whole-body, every-sense-alert wariness with which new human encounters are approached.

Emma Darwin

Oh, yes, of course - thank you so much for that, Rosy. The voice can be anthropomorphised - with a dog, by definition it is, of course - but the insights may be as true to the dogginess of dogs as a human can get. Lovely stuff.

Mark Hastings

Thanks for sharing this Emma. I love dogs ... will be reading this.

Emma Darwin

Glad you like it!

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