Sunday, November 13, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Deer and the Dog

One of my bosses once told me about how a family member raised a fawn and it became running buddies with one of the dogs. They'd race each other on country roads.

They disappeared at about the same time.

Can you say "Disney movie?" But what constitutes a happy ending here - the deer and the dog living wild and independent lives together? The deer learning to be a deer and the dog coming home when his buddy's okay?

Disneyfication aside, this is not a story for someone without a profound knowledge of animals. The breed of dog and the species of deer (around here, that would be mule or whitetail) would be the first important questions to answer. A story told without the viewpoints of the dog and the deer would be limited in many ways, so being able to think like the animals, and translate those viewpoints into terms humans can understand, would be vital. When writing from an animal viewpoint, it is important to remember that animals are not stupid compared to humans - they merely deploy their brainpower in different areas. The processing power devoted to a dog's sense of smell is every bit as impressive as that devoted to literary criticism, and the rewards for the dog far more tangible and immediate. The author would have to decide early how much to anthropomorphize the animals (a certain amount is inevitable), and whether to give both viewpoints equal time, or to choose one animal as the protagonist.

Then you'd want to know about the family they were raised in - why did they raise an orphan deer? There's all kinds of reasons not to. City folk get sentimental about them, but anyone who lives in the country long will come to regard them as "hooved napalm." Deer have numerous symbolic roles in our society; deer-hunting is an important cultural activity in rural areas; attitudes toward hunting, and the assumptions hunters and non-hunters make about each other, can stand-in for some of the most bitter, vindictive divisions in early 21st-century American society. These issues are too big to ignore, but could easily overwhelm the story, even if the author is trying to be even-handed. If the protagonists are the animals, these matters must be de-emphasized; but if dog, deer, and some member of their human household (presumably a child) all get viewpoints, they will form a major part of the human's character arc.

You could do something interesting, showing the human grappling with abstract issues while the animals focus on practical matters. Animals are eminently practical. The capacity for abstraction is the hallmark of the human mind; which is a strength in some situations, a weakness in others.

A side effect of this practicality is the essential innocence of animals. I have always considered this to be the essential point of the Biblical story of the Fall. Animals never ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; nor was it ever forbidden to them. They have no moral sense. They have no shame. They don't need either. That's part of the abstract ideation that they don't mess with. I think that's why the death of an animal in a story is such a guaranteed tear-jerker for most readers (certainly for me!).

That's a little simplistic. Certain animals - notably dogs - occupy a midpoint on the moral spectrum. Dogs certainly know shame and guilt. And man is not the only primate capable of abstraction. All generalizations are false.

A story is all about specifics.

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