Storytelling Tropes: Kick the Dog

A series looking at common tropes in storytelling. This essay looks at kicking the dog and how to use or avoid it.

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© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

‘Kick the dog’ is when a character does something evil that does not advance plot or even character, but is used simply because the author wants to demonstrate that a character should not be sympathised with.

A cruel act, no matter how small or trivial, establishes a character as a cruel person. In just the same way, the author may show a character being nice for no apparent gain, but simply to demonstrate that the character is a good person and this is where the audience’s sympathies should lie. Both devices are designed to help the audience become emotionally invested in the story.

What separates this trope from regular actions of bad characters is that this is purely gratuitous; a single beat of the story to force audiences to recognise this character is not to be liked. Whereas other actions of bad characters may come across as more reactionary or logical, this does not.

No dogs need be harmed in the making of this trope, though the origins of this trope (unsurprisingly) involved harming dogs. Any action or statement that shows the character’s meanness will do, such as a gloating to a homeless man with a burger, or flicking ash of a cigarette on a child’s ice cream. They can be racist, sexist, homophobic; anything that can be deemed offensive is on the table. This event doesn’t have to happen in the moment, but can also be referenced by the protagonist to an audience surrogate just to get it out there.

This trope is common in shorter pieces of work, often episodic in design, where it is important to set up the bad guy of that issue, volume, or short. It is in this that they’re often met with poetic justice for their meanness, but it is rarely a direct consequence of that ‘kick the dog’ moment. When it is, however, it can be argued that this is no longer a ‘kick the dog’ moment (though some refute this as there would be no natural build up to this moment even if there was a pay-off).

This trope can be used to surprise the audience, especially if the author has written the character as good until this moment. This is a risky move, however, but potentially rewarding. If it fails, it can come across as sloppy writing and an obvious ploy to fool the audience, but if done well, it can be shown as a pivotal moment, or as a working plot twist. The latter can be achieved with subtle foreshadowing but no outright escalations until that moment.

Of course, this trope is reliant on the nature of its victim: the ‘dog’. The reason people dislike the idea of characters kicking dogs is because dogs are perceived as innocent and look to people with an unconditional loyalty that melts hearts. People love animals, and harming an animal is often on par (sometimes more so) with harming an infant. If the victim is in fact a jerk, then this trope can be used to garner sympathy for the villain instead or to showcase hierarchy of power.

Kicking the dog is also done for no practical reason other than demonstrating the evil side of the kicker. If the perpetrator does it because they care about their victim and want to help them somehow or because they know something and ‘this needs to be done’, this is being cruel to be kind and is actually a form of character development and potentially relevant to plot.

Unfortunately, using kick the dog can be an obvious sign that the author has written themselves into a corner, and that they’ve accidentally written their villain to be too sympathetic. A thorough character design and development plan can help overcome this. Make sure that the action is not over-the-top unless it calls for it (such as showing signs of bubbling rage), and not completely out of character unless necessary for them and their development, as well as making the moment relevant to the story’s plot – such as this action being a reaction to something someone said but also resulting in a much-needed defection later.

For the opposite effect, ‘Pet the Dog’ is used to prove a character is good, and ‘Adopt the Dog’ is showing a character going from neutral to good.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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