Writing Wednesday (7) – Animal Violence

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Welcome to Writing Wednesday, my weekly feature where I discuss my works in progress, project ideas, editing struggles, or anything else related to the world of writing. Feel free to grab my button and post your own thoughts on writing! Leave a link to your post in the comments and I’ll stop by.


I don’t know if it’s coincidence or part of a larger trend, but lately I have read a lot of books that feature pretty graphic scenes of violence toward animals. I hesitate to call them “animal cruelty” since none of these scenes involved torture or neglect, but the scenes did disturb me almost as much. Recently Small Review sparked a little conversation about this very topic, and it got me thinking. What is it with animal violence in books?

At first I thought it was a genre thing. Take, for instance, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. It’s a book about werewolves, so you kind of expect some wolfish violence. Still, I was quite surprised when the dog fight scene appeared. Sam “trains” on how to kill the neighbor’s guard dogs by watching dog fights and ripping apart fryer chickens. Then later, he gets into a fight with the dogs while trying to protect one of his pack. It was pretty brutal, but then again, violence is a common theme throughout the entire book.

Today I finished Huntress by Malinda Lo, and wolves were the brunt of violence in this one as well. Here, a traveling party is attacked by the wolves before retaliating in kind. Though it’s easier to justify in this scene, the violence was still pretty gruesome. I just kept thinking, “Really? Do we need to read about jaws snapping through flesh and arrows slicing through eyeballs?”

Then there’s scenes like the one Small Review reminded me about in Delirium by Lauren Oliver. I can guarantee you that the reason I couldn’t remember this scene from the book is that I had blocked it from my memory. Lena hears a guard next door beat a dog, and later she finds the bludgeoned and dying animal lying in the street next to the garbage. She ends up watching the dog die while trying to decide what to do. It’s horrifying.

I think what disturbs me the most about scenes of animal violence is that they tend to include so much more detail than your average human fight scene. Perhaps it’s natural in that animals have teeth and claws to fight with, which can get a bit messier than swords or guns. That was my thinking with Shiver anyway. I mean, it’s wolves versus dogs, so things are bound to get ugly and ferocious.

I know that the scene in Delirium was telling us about Lena. It was a moment of clarity for her, when she had to come to terms with the underlying brutality of her society that had been out of sight/out of mind. She was forced to recognize that things were not as great as everyone pretended they were, and no one cared enough to help a defenseless animal, because that empathy was taken away when they were denied the ability to feel love. I’m not saying that difficult scenes shouldn’t be written, particularly when they serve a purpose.

As a huge animal softie, however, these types of scenes really pull me out of the world of the book. They make me disengage with the material, however briefly, and the author really has to work hard to win me back. Scenes like these are a real challenge. How do we, as writers, address difficult scenarios without losing our readers? Many readers will check out of the scene entirely, skim it, or worse yet, put the book down and never pick it back up.

You can never please everyone, and we don’t all have the same comfort level with violence. I just wonder if this same level of violence would be tolerated with human characters. Sometimes it seems like writers can “get away” with heightened violence if it’s happening to animals, and that’s not something that sits well with me. I don’t want to get into a whole animal rights argument here, but suffice it to say that I don’t find violence any less offensive when it’s perpetrated against animals. This makes it hard for me as a writer to find appropriate levels of violence, particularly if what is expected is something outside of my personal comfort zone.

How do you feel about animal violence in books? Does it bother you more or less than human violence? Am I seeing a pattern where there is none? Do you writers find it hard to write scenes that make you uncomfortable? Leave me a comment with your thoughts.

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10 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday (7) – Animal Violence

  1. I'm an animal lover too, but I'm also a people lover. Why should cruelty to animals bother us any more than cruelty to people in books? As long as the story isn't condoning these acts of cruelty, I think this has to be taken as part of the story. I don't like superfluous sex in books either, but sometimes sex is a necessary part of the plot. It's a story. The fact that those acts bring a tear to your eye or make your heart pound helps to make it a good story.

  2. I agree that they should be taken as part of the story, but I think what disturbs me is their graphic nature. It seems to me that violence against animals tends to be overly descriptive when compared to violence against people. Just as differing portrayals of a sex scene will make people uncomfortable, so does violence. I'm only saying that for me, when it's graphically depicted against animals, it raises my hackles a bit.I've always been more sensitive to cruelty to animals more than cruelty to people, just like cruelty to children can be more disturbing than cruelty to adults. I feel like we should be protecting those that need more defenses. I'm that girl who sees a horse and rider fall during an epic battle scene in the movies and cries out for the horse and not the warrior. The horse didn't ask to get in the thick of the fighting, and can't comprehend the logic of what's happening to it. So when I read scenes that involve violence toward animals, it just takes me out of the world a bit, and it concerns me that I seem to be seeing that a lot.Or am I? Is it just my imagination? Am I being too sensitive?

  3. I'm in tears here, Logan. Really. I can't bear cruelty towards animals. Every time I see a stray dog or one that has been hit by a car, I think of that famous quote "The greatness of a society and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals." ~Mahatma GandhiIt breaks my heart. I think of how much joy my Ozzie has brought to my life over the last 10 years. I have little precious years left with him, and it makes me so sad. I haven't read Delirium, but now I don't want to. Well, I do want to, but apprehensive. I have to agree. I don't find it any less offensive, but you know, now that you are making me think about it, I never realized how much more graphic they are. I mean, yes, I realized, but not in the context that they are more violent than those against humans. I guess I didn't realize it was just something I had grown "used" to. Obviously, I'm having a terrible time explaining myself here, but I think you are right about writers feeling that they have more liberties with those scenes. But I also think that it might be something that is done unconscionably. Whether because it is expected when it comes to claws and teeth or because they think people can more ready accept it as opposed to violence against humans. Gonna run off and check the Small Reviews post I missed, but thanks for these WW posts, Logan. They are always very interesting.

  4. For me I think it's the innocence of animals that really bothers me. If the animal is a main character that talks like the people do (or a werewolf like Sam), then it bothers me less. They're thinking adults. It's the innocent animal who, like you said in your comment, doesn't understand the situation and didn't ask to be there that upsets me. They have no ability to change their situation. Plus, I guess I sort of like animals better 🙂 If something would make me melt into a puddle of AWWWWWW CUTE PUPPY!!! Then the author had better not hurt it or I'll be very unhappy.

  5. @Missie – That Ghandi quote really resonates with me. I spent some time in India in December 2009, and the amount of stray dogs and other animals wandering the streets was a HUGE shock to my system. There was a starving puppy outside of our hotel that I would have taken home with me if I could have. I took a picture of him trying to eat this inedible garbage scrap off the road so I would always remember that it's not just people starving all over the world, although that's bad enough. I can't even talk about it without losing it a little.I think if you know it's coming in Delirium that helps.@Small Review – Innocence! Exactly the word I was trying (and failing) to come up with. It makes my heart break. And I, too, think it comes down to me just liking animals more. People? Eh. They're fine.

  6. I get what you're saying, Logan. I think there is a line, and sometimes writers do tend to get swept up in it and I find myself wincing at the unnecessary gruesome aspects of situations like the ones you describe. I mean, I don't think it's particularly significant to spotlight every little detail of an animal's murder or beating and so forth. But, on the flip side, I can also see how this might play into a story. I mean, it's more or less like human brutality and violence. Some humans are perfectly innocent in nature, didn't ask to be in a certain situation, yet some are found maliciously murdered, sexually abused, and the list goes on. And authors have been known to place scenes such as these in books. I don't see how that's different from animal violence in books. It's kind of a two-way street.My biggest issue with this is where to draw the line. Especially with YA books. Teens are reading these books, and certain scenes should just not being implemented in the storyline, at all. Including graphic animal cruelty scenes. Same goes for humans, though, too.Honestly, it's really hard to take a stand on either side. I'm kind of glued to the middle, seeing the reason for both arguments. And back to your comment on the blog, I agree with you about finding books no one really has heard of. I like giving them away too. I actually have a few that I'd like to, but I don't have the funds to be able to ship them yet. I hope you participate in the giveaway or the contest. Also, thanks for spreading the word! Asher K. (Paranormal Indulgence)

  7. Great post, Logan. Cruelty to animals bothers me much more than cruelty to people in books and movies (and often life) because they do not have a voice and are so vulnerable. I often just won't read a book if I hear it has serious violence against animals in it.I can understand why it would be a part of the story, but I don't want to read about it and get it stuck in my head.

  8. This is an eyeopening post, Logan! Animal cruelty/violence is something I really hate reading about, but I hadn't quite noticed the liberties authors take with these scenes. Now that you've mentioned it, it seems quite obvious. I can definitely identify with being more sensitive towards animal cruelty as well. Delirium's scene shook me up quite a bit and there's a scene in The Knife of Never Letting Go that forced me to close the book for a while and just cry. I'll get emotional over human suffering, too, of course, but animals have a special pull for me.Great post!

  9. Personally, I have a really hard time reading about animal violence. I'm a big animal lover. I guess I just feel like animals have no one to stand up for them. What's truly sad is for example a dog can be beaten but will forgive in the blink of an eye. How many humans do we know who would do the same. Animals usually love unconditionally. For these reasons, they have earned a tender spot in my heart. A heart that breaks when I see or read about animal cruelty.

  10. @Asher – It's the details that bother me too. You're right in that I don't think we need every little broken bone spelled out to us. Yick.@Carrie – I think you're on to something with not having a voice. Personally, I feel those with a voice should always act on behalf of the voiceless.@Stephanie – The Knife of Never Letting Go is on my TBR, but now I'm re-thinking that. I had to do that with Animal Farm when the horse is sent to the glue factory.@Gina – Unconditional love makes it all the more heartwrenching. Great point.

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