When I first started writing, I heard a "rule" whispered throughout writers' circles:
Never kill a pet in your book.
It sounded like good advice at the time, though it did tweak my sense of authorial autonomy. Why shouldn't I be able to kill a pet in fiction? Pets are just as important as sources of motivation, plot and twists as any human character, and they're certainly just as human as any biped, with their own distinct personalities. Sometimes, they're the greatest source of comfort for the characters, becoming full members of the family. I argue that in order to tell a story, authors must sometimes make the difficult choice to kill off a pet.
Unfortunately, the fan backlash to pet deaths can be quite passionate—some writers and artists have even lost fans over it—which is how I imagine this "rule" came to pass. But as writers, it is our duty to tell the truth—the emotional truth, the literary truth and, the truth that lies in humanity's relationships with all creatures great and small.
I started thinking about the stories I'd read or seen over the years and wondered how a family pet or animal friend could be sympathetically and effectively killed off. Here are a few examples, and how and what they did right and wrong.
WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD
Family Guy (TV show)
A couple of weeks ago, the animated show Family Guy suddenly killed off main cast member and fan favorite family dog, Brian. Viewers were shocked, saddened and angry. But it turns out their ire may be short-lived: Family Guy may resurrect Brian.
While this episode was quite moving and addressed the loss of a family pet in a unique and humorous way, returning to status quo rings false with what should be a life-changing event. Of course, we've yet to see how his "death" will affect the rest of the season, or any future seasons. But if Brian is brought back, even on a semi-permanent basis or in flashback form, it might undermine his importance in the family structure. He risks becoming a running joke, like South Park's Kenny ("Oh my God! They killed Kenny! You bastards!"). Viewers will feel cheated of their one true moment in what is otherwise an often subversive, trite and absurd show (which I still enjoy for exactly those reasons).
One thing is for certain: fans of Brian and of the show have been given an important glimpse at the tenuous threads we have on life, and how easily they can be cut. It's really a blessing this is a cartoon, which allows for the impossible, including the return of a beloved family member, no matter how they bring him back.
For Better or For Worse (comic strip) by Lynn Johnston
In 1995, comic strip writer and artist Lynn Johnston killed off her cartoon family's aging sheepdog, Farley. According to an interview in Wikipedia, Johnston received 2,500 letters, many of them negative.
I remember reading an interview with her where she said people swore never to read her comics again. I remember being equally shocked and depressed by Farley's death, perhaps because like so many families who read For Better or For Worse together, my family grew up with the Pattersons, and Farley was as much our dog as theirs.
Importantly, Johnston managed to make Farley's death meaningful. He not only continued his legacy (he bore offspring who lived on with the Patterson family) but he also died a heroic death, saving the youngest Patterson child from drowning.
It's clear from the interviews that Johnston had known Farley was getting on in years; but Farley didn't just get old and sick and shuffle off the mortal coil while suffering or in pain. None of us want to read about that—it's an unfortunate reality most pet owners don't want to face, especially when our goal while reading a comic strip is to escape. Instead, Johnston treated us to one last hurrah, showing us the aftermath and all that comes with losing a loved one. Despite her medium, which could have kept Farley young and spry forever, Johnston's always been true to her characters, to time and change and life and all that comes with it, for better or for worse.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (book) by J. K. Rowling
In Rowling's final Harry Potter book, the first to die is Hedwig, Harry's snowy owl. When I read it, I actually screamed "Noooooo!" What did Hedwig ever do to deserve her ignoble death, trapped in a cage, at the hands of a killing curse meant for The Boy Who Lived? She didn't even get a chance to fight back, to protect her master, to earn a death worthy of a great wizard's familiar.
Here's why Hedwig had to die: her death served as a stark foreshadowing of the many violent and senseless deaths to come. She couldn't be given a fight of her own in this battle because, like the rest of the wizarding world, she was hopelessly outmatched, trapped in the cage Harry thought would keep her safe--a cage paralleled by the final battle at Hogwarts. She wasn't even given a proper burial, which made the whole situation that much more heartbreaking.
On a more practical level, Hedwig is an extraneous character, and when animals and pet sidekicks are relegated the same function as furniture—or, in Hedwig's case, inconveniently easy-to-recognize messenger owl—they are hard to keep track of. An author needs to account for every character's whereabouts in every scene, and frankly, I think Rowling made a wise decision to get rid of the excess baggage Hedwig would have been while using her as an important literary device.
Still, I'm mad she killed her off. Because Hedwig!
The NeverEnding Story (film)
The death of Artax the horse has to be one of the most traumatic animal companion deaths ever in the history of movies. He comes to a slow, heartbreaking and horrific demise by sinking into the Swamp of Sadness, and Atreyu's pathetic, desperate cries for help tell us nothing and no one is going to save that horse.
My issue with this particular death—aside from lasting over an agonizing minute and half—is that Artax's death doesn't serve much purpose in the movie except to make Atreyu's journey more difficult. He doesn't have a steed for the rest of the trek until he meets Falkor, who is arguably a way better means of conveyance, being able to fly and talk and all.
Fans of the film might argue that the boy and horse are, in fact, the closest of companions. There's no doubt they have a connection—we're told Artax can communicate with his boy and serves as a guide on his journey. From a hero's journey point of view, that makes Artax Atreyu's mentor figure. And by the rules of the hero's journey, the mentor must be lost. It's supposed to garner sympathy from the viewers or something, but frankly, I found Atreyu's inability to save his best friend painted him as an unworthy hero. I mean, pulling on his lead and screaming at him clearly wasn't working. A sharp rap on the butt, maybe.
Like Hedwig, Artax is the victim of archetypal story structure, a tool to carry the story and plot forward. But unlike Harry Potter's owl, we resent the hero for letting his friend die in the pursuit of his cause. I might have sympathized more with Atreyu if Artax were a motorcycle or ATV or a tauntaun, because in this instance, making it worse didn't make the story any better. Also, I wouldn't have had to watch a horse slowly drown.
The kicker is that Artax is "resurrected" at the end of the film, which is relieving, but also aggravating for the reasons stated above. Sure, The NeverEnding Story is supposed to be a meta fantasy that revives itself in the fertile minds and imaginations of kids of who read (moralizing! Read and horses won't die, kids!), but when Bastian is soaring over Fantasia on Falkor's back and he spots Atreyu galloping across the plains on Artax, didn't you feel a little cheated?
Were you ever affected by the death of a fictional animal or pet? Did you agree with the author's decision to kill it off? Was it effective or did it turn you off the author's work? Let me know in the comments below!