Why You Can’t Just Kill the Dog

Recently, a college friend of mine reached out on social media to let me know he’d started reading my most recent novel and, in the course of chatting, let me know he was rooting for me not to kill the dog.

The dog in question’s name is Rabbit. So far, he’s made it through two books. If you’re waiting for the final book in the trilogy, you might consider this a spoiler. But as such things go, I think it’s a pretty safe one.

Rabbit is going to be fine, because everybody knows — and most of all, I knowyou can’t just kill the dog

Cobra Commander kicks a puppy (image credit: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/KickTheDog)

It appears nearly every reader or viewer knows this. There are plenty of writers who haven’t quite copped to why killing the dog is a no-no. It’s not that their readers can’t understand that animal harm could be a characterization device, especially as there’s a strong, documented correlation between those who abuse animals and those who abuse human beings. It’s not that audiences don’t apprehend that “killing the dog” could be “realistic” — there are all too many examples of just how often these things happen in reality. What authors have failed to understand, or hear, in their readers’ cries to god, please, NOT KILL THE DOG, is a much broader and more urgent observation about stories and what human beings need from them.

My agent — who is brilliant and lovely and puts up with my endless nonsense with tremendous grace — has said before that when there are pieces of a narrative that feel lacking, it’s often because of problems related to character agency. Stories are about choices. Often the choices we make in the face of the simplest definition of a story we can articulate; the moment after which nothing will be the same. But a character’s choices are only truly interesting when we know things could have gone otherwise. We need to know that the character had agency — a real, authentic ability to influence the outcome of whatever came in that moment after which nothing would have been the same. Human characters, aliens, robots — we find ways in sff to give them all agency, at least to some degree. But animals rarely get that same consideration. 

Think about one of the more infamous and painful “dog killings” in sff, found in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Sansa Stark and Joffrey Baratheon run afoul of Arya Stark’s temper, and her dire wolf pup, Nymeria. This ends with Joffrey bitten, Sansa hysterical, and Cersei Lannister getting her first “kick the dog” moment of the epic as she demands Lady, Sansa’s pup (uninvolved in Joffrey’s injury), be put to death in Nymeria’s place. The scene drives a wedge between the Stark sisters and puts the layers of cruelty quilted into Cersei’s soul on full display. Lady dies because human beings have the agency to destroy her for spite. Nymeria lives because Arya drives her away, certain that if she’s found, she’ll be killed. She lives because of Arya’s agency.

Lady from HBO’s Game of Thrones (image credit: https://gameofthrones.fandom.com/wiki/Lady)

I imagine a skeptical reader objecting to my reasoning here. Sure, Lady does die, but this moment is important character and conflict-building. It’s foreshadowing and plot all rolled together. And the scene is full of character agency. It shouldn’t matter that the agency doesn’t rest with the animals. It wouldn’t, if this were reality, so why should it be so here?

This argument misses the point of why people read stories. We don’t read fiction — least of all sff — because we want the reality of the world we know confirmed to us in all its lurid details. We read because we want to see that reality tested in some way. We want proof-of-concept for something else, some alternative. We seek exploration, escape, and the freshness of what could be or ought to be. Even the surliest of grimdark aficionados picks that vintage because it isn’t quite what we know to be real and true. Even unhappy endings interrogate realism and push back against it, on some level, looking at a warped reflection of our world play along a dagger’s blade. Taking that fundamental principle of narrative — that characters need to be more than automata, and need to have an influence on the outcome of their story — and chucking it for specific characters, particularly the most vulnerable ones, because that smacks of “realism” says less about an author’s commitment to craft and more about the limits of what they’re willing to imagine.

Killing the dog (and now, perhaps you gather that I’m talking about more than dogs; I’m talking about all the characters usually treated as weaker or less-than: about women, about queer characters, about the disabled, about children, about people of color) — is a lazy move, a choice to take the most defenseless characters, the ones we often most long to see and root for, and do them harm because boy howdy won’t that just get a rise out of the reader. “It’s realistic,” we’re told, “because these things happen all the time.”

Maybe. But the glory of storytelling lies in two things: what we can make happen and what we can make un-happen.

“Dreams,” Neil Gaiman once wrote, “aren’t story-shaped.” Neither is reality. Reality lacks the clarity of cause and effect, the conclusiveness and denouement stories so often structure themselves around. As soon as we craft a story into something where we can draw our finger along a line of events and really see and understand how people’s choices add up to a certain outcome, we’ve defied reality. Taking the cheap route to milking your reader’s tears or rage “because realism!” only means that you’ve failed to understand how far you’ve already given up your hold on reality to reach that moment in storytelling. You can make your stories a place of un-happening, a place where different consequences follow our missteps, where the stakes are high but not cheap and predictable. 

Readers beg authors not to kill the dog because yes, they’re cute, and innocent, and they never have it coming.

But we also beg them not to do it because we want authors to prove they understand their jobs better than that. We want authors to show us they’re worthy of our time, able to imagine bigger, or at least reach for something higher than the lowest-hanging fruit.

Rabbit, therefore, is going to come out of my stories in one piece.

I can’t say the same for anyone else. . . but at least they have their own agency and my imagination on their side.