Sunday, July 31, 2016

Character Writing Lessons from a Dog


As I’ve practiced the craft of writing, I’ve read a lot about creating characters. They say your main characters should be compelling. They should have positive traits, but also flaws. They should be well-rounded, with individual quirks and personality traits. They should make the reader care.  

Many years ago, I had a dog named Barney. I learned about him from a newspaper ad. Someone had found him running loose but couldn’t keep him, so she took him to a shelter, paid to sponsor him, and ran an ad to find him a home. The fact that he was running loose when she found him should have been a clue, but I missed it. I adopted him. 


He wasn’t a beautiful dog. That blurry snapshot above flatters him. He generally looked as though someone had crossed Toto from The Wizard of Oz with Stripe from Gremlins. Barney had wiry hair that tended to stick up randomly and didn’t encourage the petting he loved. He was smart and affectionate, but he wasn't trouble-free. He lived to roam. Houdini could have taken lessons. Barney could climb a six-foot welded-wire fence as though it were a ladder. He could scale an eight-foot stockade fence by finding a corner, jumping against one side of the fence and using that as a toehold to ricochet off to the other side. After six or eight bounces, he was over. He could slip any collar, and more than once squeezed out of a harness. People were always finding him, reading his tag, and returning him to me with a lecture about taking better care of my dog. Because that was the thing about Barney – he made people care.

I’m not sure what it was about him. Maybe it was those bright eyes that seemed to look into your soul and approve of what he saw there. Maybe it was his enthusiasm. He would greet people by lashing his tail and leaping wildly into the air.  I think it mostly it was the way he loved life that made people happy to be around him.

Barney had quirks. Once, he managed to get himself stuck between the window and the storm window in our bedroom. Another time, he purloined two dozen dinner rolls. A neighbor in Wyoming used to give him antelope bones, and Barney would bury them halfway out of the ground. We were never sure if he was trying to grow an antelope or just creating a Georgia O’Keeffe-inspired landscaping project.

And at the end of our story, he created suspense. One July 4th he escaped again. This time he’d slipped out of his collar and didn’t come home. I think it was the fireworks that made him run further than usual. I put up signs and visited the animal shelter twice a week for months, just in case he showed up, but he never did. There was no such thing as internet then, much less microchips. Eventually, I gave up. And then, a year later, I was driving down an unfamiliar street, and there he was, tied up in someone’s front yard. He was fatter, but it was definitely Barney. He was glad to see me.

I stopped to talk to the homeowner. It was his daughter’s dog; he was just keeping him for the day. She’d had the dog for a couple of months. It seemed there was another private shelter on the other side of the city I didn’t know about. Barney had been a resident there, and charmed all the volunteers into giving him too many treats. Now once again, he’d found someone to care about him. I hope they lived happily ever after, but with Barney, you never know.

When I think about characters, I always think of Barney. Because if an ugly little terrier can inspire devotion from so many people, surely I can create quirky, interesting, and lovable characters that inspire readers to stick with the story until the last page. At least that’s the goal.


4 comments:

  1. He sounds like quite a dog! And what a great lesson for writing :)

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  2. Aw, it's so cool that you can find character inspiration from the people and critters around you.

    Now if one of your stories has a loveable escape-fiend puppy, we will know his adventures relate to your real experiences.

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  3. I'm sure he'll show up one of these days. Thanks for stopping by, Jamie.

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