Posted by: Jess Riley | November 17, 2008

Kicking the Dog and Poking the Poodle

In the past, I’ve made my views on good and evil more than clear.

Now, I mentioned kicking the dog in one of my previous posts on the subject, along with the point that I think it’s a lazy way to make a character look evil, particularly because it just doesn’t work. Evil people, in real life, don’t walk down the street and go, “Good golly I feel evil today – I’m going to kick a puppy just to prove how god-damned evil I am.”

Poking the poodle is just one step below that. This takes kicking the dog and turns it into something funny – a character who would like to think that he is evil engages in a terribly minor piece of villainy to prove that he is evil. In fact, for the distinction here, let’s go with this Penny Arcade strip. Flipping off a box of kittens, that’s poking the poodle. Punching a baby ‘in anger’ is kicking the dog.

In fact, I’d like to lobby to change the term from ‘kicking the dog’ to ‘punching a baby’, but I’m getting off-track; any support for my petition can be left in the comments here.

Anyway, even though I’m avidly against actually using a Kick the Dog moment seriously, given that I think it’s a sign of lazy writing and characterisation, I am completely in support of Poking the Poodle in the name of comedy. Whether as an outright parody (although, admittedly, I’d like to suggest that outright parodies be kept for parody scenes and not just appearing in other people’s serious roleplay; I’m uptight like that) or as a character trait in a more subtly humourous character, this device can be used to great effect.

For example:

  • A young man goes to join a group of dedicated spies, assassins or general ne’er-do-wells. They look at him with derision, ask what he wants with them.

    “I want to join your organization,” he replies as they stare him down.

    “But lad,” one of them says kindly, “we’re not nice men. You’re not cut out for work like this.”

    “Of course I am!” He pipes up in response. “I – I’ve been known to cheat at cards!”

  • The big, bad career soldier steps into a bar. Suddenly, everyone goes quiet; they’ve heard of this man. They remember the stories. No one knows if it’s really true about that time with the lead pipe and the ham sandwich, but no one ever really wants to find out.

    The only guy who reacts differently is one of the local adolescent boys; he bristles at the sight of this new man, as he’s always been the big shot in these parts. He stands up to make his case, to fight the new man off (if as gently as possible) and the career soldier just smiles at him easily and says, “Sit down, lad. You don’t want to fight me. Didn’t you hear the story of the lead pipe and the ham sandwich?”

    “No,” he replies, barely managing to keep the squeak out of his voice. “But you don’t want to fight me. I – I only left an eight percent tip at the restaurant last night, just because I felt like it.”

  • Alright, alright, maybe I am being a little bit silly. The point is, in a case when someone wants to hype themselves up as being bigger or badder than they really are, there’s nothing that works quite so well to make this point as some confessed minor act of poking the poodle – something they claim to have done to show their evil which may not even be true, and just isn’t all that bad even if it is true.

    Poking the poodle can be used as a quick way to show a lot of things about a character, most of which are in the general field of ‘I want to look big and bad’. I consider this a different tactic from kicking the dog, because the motive isn’t as inexplicable; “I kicked a dog because I am evil.” just doesn’t make sense because there’s no real motive of ‘I am evil’, while, “I poked a puppy one time because I wanted to look badass” has an inherent motive that makes a lot more sense.



    1. Of course, you get excellent points if you manage to do a convincing subversion of poking the poodle, too.

      The underlying point of ‘I’m so bad’ is ‘I’m such a badass.’ Poking the poodle makes it clear you want to be bad, but you’re not.

      But it doesn’t disqualify you from being a badass.

      If you go in, stammer that you cheat at cards, and then piss someone off enough that they attack you, then KICKING THE CRAP out of them is a particularly brilliant thing to do.

    2. I just loved this and laughed a bit I must say. 😀

      As for the topic, all good points. I think an interesting reverse would be (and I am sure there is a trope for this) someone who commits terrible acts with great ease but then takes great offense to someone doing what could be considered a “Poke the Poodle”. Like a leader of a group killing a bunch of helpless people, and one of his minions then steps on a flower and the leader gets pissed and kills them.

      Another thing I can think of, would be playing the apprentice/minion to an evil madmen but anytime you try to do something evil, you just end up doing a “Poke the Poodle” to the great comedic displeasure to your master. Or a kind of opposite where the master tells his minion to commit what he calls evil acts, but they turn out to be “Poke the Poodles” much to the dismay of the minion who just wants to do evil.

      “In fact, I’d like to lobby to change the term from ‘kicking the dog’ to ‘punching a baby’, but I’m getting off-track; any support for my petition can be left in the comments here.”

      Yes, lets petition for it to be called punching the baby haha!

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