Sunday, December 23, 2018

What My Dogs Taught Me About Story Characters, Part 1

Once upon a time we had two dogs. Their names were Toffy and Bandit. 

We adopted Toffy from the animal shelter. A note pinned to her kennel door said: “thrown over the fence at Thanksgiving” and based on that note, she became Toffy.

She was only a year old, but that first year of her life scarred her in numerous ways. Within a few weeks, we knew she had been locked for hours in a small room, she had been severely punished for going potty in the house, and she had belonged to a man. I’d never known of a dog chewing her toenails, yet she did for several months after we adopted her.
We owned Toffy for 15 years, but all the love in the world could not eradicate her early experiences. She would not enter a small room with a door. In fact, she’d forego a treat rather than enter the laundry room where the dog biscuits were kept. 
Walks must have been the highlight of her day before we adopted her, because she went nuts at the sight of a leash. Although we walked her almost everyday and she had a big yard and the house to wander when not walking, her shrieking when we put on her collar and leash alerted the whole neighborhood. I’m sure few found that endearing at 5:30 in the morning.

As for the assumption she belonged to a man, her reaction to my husband supplied that answer. The first time he disciplined her in a stern voice, she became a trembling wreck. Since she didn’t react as strongly to my stern voice, we decided her first owner was a man. Needless to say, my husband never used a stern voice with her. 
Toffy’s only child status was changed within a year by the introduction into our family of a puppy someone left beside a four-lane highway. Bandit was six weeks old when my husband rescued him. 

Bandit never knew anyone threw him away. And no one locked him alone in a bathroom for endless hours, no one denied him the opportunity to go outside when he was being housebroken, and he benefited from the “no stern voice” rule by never having anyone speak sternly to him. Plus, he had baskets of toys to play with, doting parents, and a reluctant new sister.
Sixty-five pounds later, we owned an affectionate, good natured hound dog who believed everyone loved him and he could do no wrong. If you insisted he did something wrong, he’d press his ears back against his head and look guilty for a nanosecond. Then, he came over for the hug he deserved and he forgave you for scolding him.  
As you can see, Toffy and Bandit experienced two different childhoods. And by now, you’re probably wondering what my dogs taught me about story characters. Well, it has to do with psychological baggage. 
What is psychological baggage? It is the sum of all the events that occur during a person’s life. Each of us drags our own version of this baggage through life and it shapes how we act and react. Early life events are often the most significant and have the most profound effect on us. For example, it only took Toffy’s previous owner a matter of months to alter her life forever. Therefore, it behooves us to search our character’s childhood (birth to adolescence) and find their psychological baggage. One of the rewards of finding psychological baggage is the discovery of internal conflict which leads to character growth. 
Internal conflict is the Holy Grail of romance novels and since I write mostly romance, I’ve spent most of my fiction writing career seeking it. I’m not alone in this search. My résumé includes judging almost 50 novel writing contests. Since each contest involved multiple entries, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts by aspiring writers. They were not all romances, although many of them were. It soon became obvious to me that other writers often have problems building solid internal conflict for story characters. 
While many contest entries display a real talent for intriguing external plots, all too often the internal conflict is superficial and easily resolved. A story heavy on external plot with little internal conflict works well in some genres, but not in character driven stories. And even stories heavy on external plot do better if the hero and/or heroine have depth.

It behooves all writers to learn how to build strong internal conflict. Memorable characters have internal conflict. Taking the time to examine our characters’ psychological baggage offers us the chance to do that.

We’ll look at how to incorporate a characters’s psychological baggage into your story in the next blog.