Would Your Protagonist Kill a Dog?

An author friend of mine was talking to another author friend of his about the large number of women who read his books. This surprised him. His books are for the most part military thrillers in which the main character (often a man) shoots and explodes his way through his problems, usually scooping up a lady friend along the way for extracurricular fun. This shooting of problems and gratuitous sexy times, said the author’s friend, did not make any of his novels a boy’s book.

“Would your protagonist kill a dog?” asked the friend.

“No, he doesn’t kill a dog,” replied the author.

“Not does he kill a dog. Would he kill a dog. If the dog was in the way.”

The author thought for a moment and allowed that, if they had any other choice, most of his protagonists would probably not kill a dog.

“There you go then. Chick’s book.”

Let me clear here – personally I believe the concept of a boy’s book or a girl’s book is completely socially constructed. Given that fiction is read much more by women than men it seems clear to me that almost any successful fiction title will have a significant female readership. And I’ve spoken to plenty of men who read what is traditionally termed “women’s fiction”. Nonetheless, the idea of gendered fiction is still quite powerful. A lot of guys would avoid Fifty Shades of Grey like the plague – not because they don’t like a bit of light spanking in their fiction, but because it’s perceived as a girl’s book.

Rules of thumb like the above might reinforce the idea that women don’t enjoy violence in fiction and that men are savages who like nothing else, but it doesn’t mean the distinction doesn’t exist. As a publisher, I can’t help but try to think of the potential reader when I read submissions, and sometimes that reader is gendered.

I don’t use a rule as clear-cut as the above, but something figures into it (and it certainly isn’t the gender of the author). It isn’t the gender of the protagonist either – as a reader some of my favourite protagonists are women who would calmly kill a dog if necessary (with a lot less traumatised screaming than most men I know). I don’t know why this is, but I suspect Joss Whedon has a lot to do with it. Either way, the gender of the author and the protagonist don’t come into it – but there is certainly a tipping point that makes me think “probably a boy’s book” (even when I know plenty of women will read it).

So my question for the day – where do you draw your line? Do you like boys’ books or girls’ books? Do you care? And if you’re an author – would your protagonist kill a dog?

[This was originally posted on The Momentum Blog.]

4 comments on this post.
  1. Karoline:

    I read both “girlie” and “boy” books. Although I draw the line at animal cruelty. I don’t like reading it at all. So what would you call The Sharpe Series? is it a boy series? or is it a girl book now because of Sean Bean and he radiates sexiness but is okay for guys to have a man crush on. Do they have to shoot animals to make it a man book?

    Like the Flashman novels..he’s a real jerk. Do they have to be jerks to be qualified as a man book? :P

  2. Joel:

    Not sure about the Sharpe series as I’m not especially familiar with them. But the key is that it’s not about actually killing animals (or animal cruelty) on the page – it’s about the capacity of a character to do such a thing if the need presented itself. Would the character tie themselves in knots in a book (or TV series) to avoid killing a dog – or would they just do it? I think it’s a pretty silly way of telling the difference, but it makes for an interesting talking point!

  3. Hannah:

    One book I’ve read where the antagonist killed the protagonist’s dog came as a shock, I hated the (fictional) action of what was done to the dog, but it wouldn’t stop me reading that author. In fact, since then, I’ve read three more of the author’s books and am sourcing his first two to read asap. Author? Michael Robotham. Dog? Gunsmoke. Protagonist? Joe O’Loughlan. The book? Bleed for Me. Was there shock by some of his female readers. Apparently, some saying they wouldn’t/couldn’t read him again, nor any book that contained killing a dog. This surprised Michael, according to interview, because his stories often involve gruesome killings of women. I think if he had shown the killing, it could have been gratuitous, but we learn of the Gunsmoke’s death when Joe does. It’s incredibly powerful reading and added an incredible terror to the story. I’ve become a real Michael Robotham fan since reading that and three more of his books. If the protagonist killed the dog, it would depend entirely on the circumstances. If it was an ‘anti-hero’ well, it would need to be perfectly written to be ‘acceptable’. In the end though, fiction is fiction.

  4. Joel:

    I think if the antagonist does the killing then it probably doesn’t count on the spectrum of boy book / girl book. Plenty of authors establish their bad guys by having them kill pets and other animals. Immediate proof that they’re bad! It’s the good ones who kill pets you’ve got to watch out for …