So, you’re probably looking at the blog post title up there and thinking, “What?”
Stay with me a second; I’ll explain, I swear. I’m going to boil down the basic elements of crafting a good story by using my rescue dog, Gabby.
Gabby is the sort of dog who people love or hate.
Gabby is the sort of dog that lets children climb all over her and hug her and kiss her nose.
Gabby is also the sort of dog who judges people by smell. If you have alcohol on your breath, she will sneeze and then bark at you. If you are male and have ever had a serious time taking cocaine and you are in my house? She’ll bark incessantly at you and never stop even if your cocaine use was over a decade ago.
So, why am I mentioning this? Gabby is a conflicted character. You want a character like Gabby in your story.
A conflicted character is a dog or person with a goal. There is a motivation for that goal and a conflict.
Gabby’s goal is to keep me safe. She is super focused on making sure nothing happens to me or her dog brother Sparty or her cat sister Marsie. Her motivation? Probably because I feed her or because she’s a Great Pyrenees, and that breed’s instinct and training is to keep her charges happy and safe. We are basically her sheep.
Marsie insists she is nobody’s sheep, but I have seen Gabby carry her around the house. She is totally a sheep.
And it might be because Gabby was abused as a puppy and spent her first year chained to a tree, always chained to a tree, never off a tree. She came to us small, terrified, malformed and malnourished. This is her backstory. All characters have backstories, the what happened before we meet them, the what happened that made them who they are when the story begins.
When Em and I picked up Gabby in Cambridge, she was terrified. Every car was about to run her down. Every person was about to hit her. I sunk to her level and she pushed herself against me. Her ears were infected and full of pain. Everything about her was pain. But there was something else there. It was fear and want and need. She wanted to be loved so badly. She wanted to love back.
The entire time we were in Cambridge she didn’t bark once.
The entire car ride back and the whole first week? She never barked.
“I have a miracle dog. It is a silent Great Pyrenees,” I told everyone.
The vet laughed.
The rescue organization people laughed.
I was so wrong.
Gabby started being able to sleep with both eyes closed. Gabby’s ears got better. We got her surgery on her hip. She took walks without being afraid that trees were going to fall on her, without thinking that every car held a monster inside of it that would hurt her.
She ate, but she would never fill out.
And she barked.
She barked at everyone who reminded her of where she used to be. She barked at dogs she didn’t know. She barked and jumped and tried to be as threatening looking as possible when she is easily the dog least likely to ever bite a human and most likely to snuggle. You know when experts say dogs hate hugs? Gabby would let you hug her all day.
So, she’s got a lot of back story there?
What’s the conflict for Gabby or for your characters?
The conflict is the struggle. The conflict is how the reader engages with the character. It’s why the reader keeps reading. It’s how empathy is built. It’s how story is built.
So every character has this trifecta of things:
As a writer, if you muck this up? You’re story will be flat.
As a dog friend/owner, if you don’t realize that your dog’s goal might conflict with a happy silence that comes with a life without barking? You’re going to have an unhappy dog.
So, Gabby’s trifecta of character is: Wants to stop threats by barking (goal) because she wants to keep her happy home and the creatures within it safe (motivation we all understand), but everyone gets a headache when she thinks squirrels are threats and barks too much at them (conflict).
Meg in Wrinkle in Time is: Wants to get her dad back (goal) because who doesn’t want to get someone awesome back (motivation that is pretty understandable if your dad rocks), but dude, she has to travel through time and deal with this great darkness, basically like all the evil in the universe because why not (conflict).
But what makes a character conflicted? Basically anything that stands in the way of her goal.
This can be herself (Gabby wonders if barking is her true calling and doubts herself – an internal conflict).
This can be others (The neighbors call the police because of Gabby’s barking – an external conflict).
This can be the environment (Gabby is in space and cannot bark because there is no sound. Horror! – a conflict caused by setting).
Writing Tip – Make sure your main character has that trifecta of conflict, motivation, goal.
Write about wanting to sing when you have to be quiet.
Write about wanting to tell a secret.
Write about being a zombie who is allergic to meat.
Do Good Wednesday –
So, I wrote a lot about Gabby being a rescue dog. All my dogs have been. If you have the money, consider donating to a dog rescue. If you have the time and space and need and love, consider adopting. If you have the time, find a rescue near you and be a volunteer. I’ve done home visits and photos for rescues. If you don’t have any of these things, but have social media, share a rescue’s site or a post about a dog (or cat or gecko). You could be the step that helps bring a dog like Gabby to her forever home. Even the smallest things help.
Here are the rescues where I got Sparty the Dog and Gabby the Dog.
New England Lab Rescue
National Great Pyrenees Rescue
And this rescue is possibly my favorite one.
Big Fluffy Dog
Random Marketing Things – My nonfiction picture book about Moe Berg, the pro ball player who became a spy, is still coming out March 1 and I’m super psyched about it. You can preorder it.
And the podcast, DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE, is getting closer and closer to real. I’m terrified. Here is a video about it. Sort of.