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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Spotlight: Marcia James

"PETTING THE DOG" -- Using a Hollywood Trick to Make Characters More Appealing

I'm sure you've seen it in movies and on television shows: the grumpy character falls for a pet and wins the audience's hearts. Remember Jack Nicholson and the Brussels Griffin dog in As Good As It Gets? Jack plays a cranky, obsessive-compulsive romance author who ends up taking care of a little dog that softens up the curmudgeon. Hollywood calls this device "petting the dog" -- a quick, visual way to let the audience know that a character has some redeeming attributes.

Fiction authors use the same trick. I particularly enjoy taking a big, bad Alpha hero and putting him together with a miniature pooch. It's so much fun to watch them bond.

I have little Chinese crested hairless dogs (aka "cresties") in all of my books and plan to keep including the unusual breed. Sometimes, a crestie might show up in a cameo instead of a starring role, but there will always be one in every story -- just like Alfred Hitchcock, who appeared in at least one scene in each of his movies. The ten-pound dogs often win the Ugliest Dog contests, but they are perfect for my humorous books.

There are a number of four-legged characters in my "Dr. Ally Skye, Sex Therapist" series. In the first book, Sex & the Single Therapist, Zack Crawford (the homicide detective hero) arrives at Ally's house to insist she drop her personal investigation of a patient's murder. Despite Zack's belligerence and frustration over Ally's amateur sleuthing, he's accepted by her two cats. Obviously, the cats have discerning tastes! And he's surprised at how difficult it is to hold onto his "mad" when petting a cat. Not long after, Zack ends up with a temporary houseguest, a canine crime witness. The scruffy mutt helps break down the wall around Zack's heart.

Animal characters have fiction-writing uses beyond making the two-legged characters more appealing to readers. They can be an important element of the plot (e.g., the search-and-rescue dogs in Nora Roberts' romantic suspense, The Search) or part of the conflict (e.g., the abandoned dog in Jennifer Crusie's contemporary romance, Crazy For You).

What are your favorite movie or television animals? One of mine is Eddie, the Jack Russell terrier from the TV show, Frasier. [Click on this link for a montage of Eddie's scenes:]

In addition to the LASR weekly prize, I'm giving away five copies of my At Her Command e-book this week (one a day) to a reader chosen randomly from each day's comments.

Happy reading!
-- Marcia James

For a chance to win this weekly prize, answer the question you find here. For an extra chance, leave a comment.


Mysti Holiday said...

It's a great device! I admit that I tend to get more attached to pets in stories than people. And if you kill of a pet in a story, you may very well lose me as a reader. My first (and last) Nicholas Sparks book was "The Guardian". I won't read him any more (of course ALL of his stuff is depressing...)

I'm a huge dog lover, so can't wait for the rest of your posts!

Marcia James said...

Hi, Mysti! I agree with you about not wanting to read books in which animals are hurt. I can't stand to see an innocent animal harmed. I gravitate toward romantic comedies and happy animal books. ;-)

-- Marcia ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Marcia! Great post. I love AS GOOD AS IT GETS. The fact he was a romance writer made it a "must watch" but the whole movie was just fantastic. As a kid my favorite movies were the BENJI movies. Not really a "pet the dog" device but when I think of movies with dogs those ones always come to mind.

Mysti's post reminded me of a movie where the "pet the dog" device ended up having a huge backlash. In TURNER & HOOCH (with Tom Hanks) they use the dog to soften the up-tight, no nonsense hero and then (SPOILER!!!!!!!!) they kill the dog. Tom Hanks has said the backlash from that was so bad he never wanted to do another movie with a dog. LOL

Margaret Carter said...

I love Roberts' THE SEARCH. I've read it twice and will surely read it again someday. It was such fun to see the taciturn hero who didn't want a dog in the first place get attached to the dog that was foisted on him.

The chick lit novel MUST LOVE DOGS gravely disappointed me because it contained almost nothing about dogs. I expected the heroine's pretense of loving dogs in her personal ad to get her into a relationship with a man deeply involved in the dog breeding and training subculture. IMO, the title and cover art were inexcusably misleading.

Although I'm really a cat person, I haven't come across much cat fiction I like so well as dog fiction. Susan Conant, author of a fantastic series of dog mysteries (featuring Alaskan Malamutes) wrote one cat mystery I liked very much, but she hasn't produced any sequels. I tried one of the "Cat Who" novels. The protagonist's attitude toward his cats was so cutesy it made me gag.

Realistic cats appear in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody historical mysteries.

If you haven't read Susan Conant's dog novels, be sure to try them.

Jane said...

I thought Eddie from the show Frasier was cute, too. I love the dog in Marley and Me. I do love Labrador Retrievers.

Marcia James said...

Hi, Paige! I liked the Benji movies, too! And I hate when a poor animal gets hurt in a movie or book. At the end of Turner & Hootch, weren't there a bunch of puppies born? But that doesn't make up for Tom Hank's canine partner getting killed. ;-(

Thanks for stopping by!
-- Marcia ;-)

Marcia James said...

Hi, Margaret! Sorry for the delay in responding to comments today. This is the only day this week I had appointments.

Thanks for the Susan Conant recommendation! I will definitely check out her books.

I liked the Must Love Dogs movie because I'm a fan of John Cusack. But you're right that the title was misleading.

I love the Amelia Peabody series, and the Egyptian cats in those mysteries were pretty cool.

The Cat Who series was "different". It was as "cozy" as a cozy mystery series can get. I'm surprised the author chose a male amateur sleuth because his attitude towards his cats was a little saccharine.

Thanks for dropping by my guest-blog!
-- Marcia ;-)

Marcia James said...

Hi, Jane! I think labs are wonderful dogs. When I was younger, I had an afghan hound. She was very high-strung and wasn't good around children -- not like labs are.

Thanks for dropping by!
-- Marcia ;-)

Marcia James said...

The winner of the Tuesday guest-blog free e-book is Jane! Yay!

Jane -- if you will email me at, I can send you the e-book attached to my response.

I hope you'll check out my Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday guest-blogs, too!

-- Marcia ;-)

SiNn said...

I loveee dogs in movies and tv shows k-9 is my all time fav but I love marley and eddie from frazier is awesome the dog from full house comet pretty adorable too

Marcia James said...

Hi, SiNn! I never watched Full House. I'll have to see if I can find reruns of the show on TV Land or Nick at Night.

-- Marcia ;-)