You can check out my books on, and at Barnes & Noble too.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What an Animal

I like to say that my character Tam is an abused shelter dog. Beaten and starved, deprived of love, when he found his way into a new family, he latched on tight, and loved them - especially one of them - more fiercely than a man with a normal childhood would have. His priorities are all centered around his family, his mate, and when either of them are threatened, he overreacts, as vicious as, well, a shelter dog protecting its new owner and savior.

He isn't the first human I've likened to an animal and won't be the last. But for me, "animal" doesn't mean sexy. Animals are honest. Animals don't have ulterior motives or hidden agendas. In their aggression, their affection, and their loyalty, they are only honest. Humans lie to each other and themselves, and they are rarely satisfied with the images they project, always wanting to change or change others. Humans do have animal sides, though - honest, sometimes deeply-buried, totally pure and unbiased impulses, urges and predispositions. If this is true, then it stands to reason that we could use animals to analyze some of the more curious elements of human behavior.

I've spent most of my life riding, training, and caring for horses. In a herd of horses, in the wild and in captivity, all interactions are based on respect. Each herd has a pecking order, and this determines everything from who gets to come in from the pasture first at night to who gets to stand under the shelter when it's raining. They have friendships and deep affections for one another, but bottom line, horses don't operate under the notion that all living creatures are valuable and unique. They don't know jack about being PC. So when a human enters their ranks, not only is that human seen as something foreign and beneath notice, something that doesn't fall into their ranks, but is not respected, regarded or liked. A wild horse that isn't used to humans might be frightened, but a domesticated horse, subject to plenty of human contact, makes every single new human that comes into his life prove him/herself.

New horse owners don't like to hear this. "But I brought him a carrot! Why doesn't he love me?!"

Because you're just this great big carrot machine. You haven't demonstrated that you belong in that horse's herd and that you belong at the head of the herd.

For horses, affection comes well after respect. Your goal with a new horse should be to establish your authority, not to make him love you, because you can't make anyone or anything love you. Horses need boundaries. If you patiently, kindly but firmly, always calmly, establish boundaries and respectful interaction with the horse (i.e., don't let yourself be bitten, kicked, or trampled, and always reprimand when you need to) the affection will come.

Love can grow from respect, but never from contempt. And that's not just true for horses.

A total lack of respect eventually leads to pity, to contempt, sometimes to loathing. It's possible to respect someone and dislike them, but never to love them and find them contemptible at the same time. It's human nature, it's animal nature, it's a straight up fact - no one will love you if you let them treat you like shit. This is where animal nature is sometimes incorrectly translated in fiction. A story can only pull off The Beauty and the Beast, if Beast truly acts like an animal (because there's a difference between animal and monster, and his name is "Beast", not monster) and if the Belle character is a human who understands that respect is necessary if she hopes to survive.

I love the Disney version. I think you always love the movies you grew up with. And the thing that always struck me about Belle - the reason I love her character - is that despite her dreamy nature and naive outlook on the world around her, she expects to be treated well. She believes in courtesy. And she's not taking shit from anybody. The reason she captures Beast's attention, and eventually his heart, is because unlike all the clocks and candelabras in his life, she doesn't let herself get yelled at. She sets him back on his heels - and does it politely at that - and tells him to get some manners. Here's this small, beautiful, physically delicate girl standing up to beastly him, and he has to have some grudging respect for that. This respect evolves into an affection, and then a loyalty, and then a love.

Belle was not the carrot machine who got trampled. Nor was she insecure and trying to dominate the "animal" in her life. She communicated in the only successful way that anyone communicates with an animal. And their relationship is solid because of it.

I write about human relationships, not horses or magically cursed beast men, but the rules of respect translate. Likening humans to animals in fiction is a wonderful metaphor...but it's important to understand how animals truly interact.

No comments:

Post a Comment