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.