Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Nothing is taboo if you do it right

At Kill Zone Blog, a post by PJ Parrish: Is anything really taboo in today’s crime fiction?

Which is, of course, a question that applies equally to all fiction.

We often hear there are some things you should never do in mysteries and thrillers. … Here’s just a few of the no-no’s I know:

  • Don’t deal with abused children because readers can’t take it.
  • Don’t write about religion because it’s too personal.
  • Don’t write about politics because it’s too divisive and partisan.
  • Steer clear of graphic violence and sex.
  • And never, ever, kill an animal.

I still remember how amused I was in the movie “Up” when all the dogs got parachutes — something that the human bad guy did not get. Mind you, I agree with this taboo, basically. If an author kills a dog or other pet, I’m not likely to become a big fan, even if I finish that book.

However, the conclusion Parrish comes to is this: there are no taboos, but for heaven’s sake do not let your Message overwhelm your story. Parrish says:

I read a crime novel recently by an Edgar-winning writer. The writing was elegant, the plot set-up tantalyzing. I really liked the protag. But about halfway through, I found myself getting irritated. Why? Because the writer started shouting about the devastation of the environment and it was drowning out the story. … you have to deal with a touchy subject always with the idea that it must organically support the story. [emphasis mine].

Yes yes yes! That’s the important thing.

But even though I agree there’s no absolute taboos in fiction, including no absolute taboo against killing pets … honestly. Don’t do that.

Out of curiosity, is there death-of-a-pet in fiction that worked for you and did not turn you off? I can’t think of any examples for me. 

When the pet dies, but not really, that’s different. When Kathleen thinks Sirius is dead in Dogsbody, that’s sad, but Sirius was never actually a dog and does not actually die. Personally, that’s the closest I can come.

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8 Comments Nothing is taboo if you do it right

  1. Craig N

    Well, not quite a pet: in Diana Wynne Jones’ excellent ya CART AND CWIDDER the death of a loyal horse — Olob; I had to look it up — is the spark for the climax of the book, inspiring the main character to get serious about battle-magic. I don’t think it’s worse than other battle deaths (and it happens during an actual battle).

  2. Pete Mack

    There is Old Yeller. There are several animals including at least one horse (Happy) who are killed in Book 4 Protector of the Small. The first is a major character.
    These are both good children’s books, so the rule isnt ironclad.

  3. kootch

    I stopped reading Barbara Kingsolver after she wrote that the devastating fires in Victoria (Australia) were the result of climate change. The fires were caused by arson. She can rant all she likes but not even checking the facts? And Australia have had devastating fires since the Dreamtime, it’s how the land renews itself. The death of Nighteyes in Robin Hobbs’ “Fool’s Errand” was so touching and so very well done. That is the only one I can remember.

  4. Mike S.

    Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was deliberately crafted as the “last Superman story”- the end of that incarnation of Superman. As a result, it features a number of his longtime supporting cast making the ultimate sacrifice in one manner or another, including Krypto the Superdog.

    In that context, I think it works- Krypto gives his life to save his beloved master from a deadly threat, and the loss is recognized even in a notably busy story.

  5. Louise

    When I taught Little Women to a group of 8-11yos last year, they were all far more distraught over the death of Beth’s bird (and Meg’s threat to drown Beth’s kitten) than they were over the death of the baby that led to Beth’s scarlet fever. I was devoutly thankful we hadn’t attempted Where the Red Fern Grows or Old Yeller.

  6. Rachel

    I read Old Yeller. Once. It works in the sense of it’s powerful; but it fails in the sense that I would never touch that book again.

    I grant that given all your comments, there are apparently enough examples of animal death that works to prove it can work.

    Louise, glad you got your students to read Little Women. Great favorite of mine when I was that age. I must confess, I don’t remember Beth’s bird. Nor the threat to drown the kitten, which in any case I wouldn’t have taken seriously.

    kootch, I stopped reading Kingsolver after an acquaintance gave me The Lacuna, and the overall theme turned out to be “You just can’t win against stupidity and cruelty.” Ugh, what a message. But yes, a knowledge-free Environmental Doom message from someone who plainly does not know anything about real ecology turns me off faster than practically anything.

  7. kootch

    “a knowledge-free Environmental Doom message from someone who plainly does not know anything about real ecology ” oh that is such a perfect definition! Thank you, thank you, I hope I get to cosh somebody stupid with this gem.

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