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 sisters, Marsie, Cloud and Koko.
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, Gabby was beyond 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 knee. 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.
Actually, Gabby’s dream day would just to be constantly hugged.
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’s in A 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 MONday –
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.
National Great Pyrenees Rescue
And this rescue is possibly my favorite one.
Random Marketing Things
NEW BOOK ALERT!
I just want to let everyone know that INCHWORMS (The Dude Series Book 2) is out and having a good time as Dude competes for a full scholarship at a prestigious Southern college and getting into a bit of trouble.
Here’s what it’s about:
A fascinating must-read suspense from New York Times bestseller Carrie Jones.
A new chance visiting a small Southern college.
A potential love interest for a broken girl obsessed with psychology.
A damaged group of co-eds.
A drowning that’s no accident.
A threat that seems to have no end.
And just like that Jessica Goodfeather aka Dude’s trip away from her claustrophobic life in Maine to try to get an amazing scholarship to her dream school has suddenly turned deadly. Again.
What would you do to make a difference?
After his best friend Norah was almost abducted, Cole Nicholaus has spent most of his childhood homeschooled, lonely and pining for Norah to move from best friend to girl friend status. When birds follow him around or he levitates the dishes, he thinks nothing of it—until a reporter appears and pushes him into making a choice: stay safe at home or help save a kidnapped kid.
Cole and Norah quickly end up trying to not just save a kid, but an entire town from a curse that has devastating roots and implications for how exactly Cole came to be the saint that he is.
Can Cole stop evil from hurting him and Norah again? And maybe even get together? Only the saints know.
From the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of the NEED series, Saint is a book about dealing with the consequences that make us who we are and being brave enough to admit who we love and what we need.
BUY NOW! 🙂 I made a smiley face there so you don’t feel like I’m too desperate.
4 thoughts on “Writing With Dogs Who Slobber: The Three Secrets to Awesome Characters”
“In space, no one can hear you bark,” is a rather terrifying thought. Such a great post.
It is terrifying, isn’t it?
I love the way you explain writing! Can we talk about getting you in to the Tremont School to do a series on writing with our middle school kids? I am pretty confident that we could get some money from the Tremont Fund to pay you. I want our kids to learn about writing with rescue dogs! <3
Oh, I could totally do that. That would be so much fun.