Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Creating Effective Characters For Writers: Listen To A Smart Puppy

Oliver: Future Writer?
To my readers who are writers (and all the rest of my readers, too, for that matter), recently I learned a lesson, which for a middling old dog like me isn’t always easy. I’ve been struggling on a project, trying to define a lead character and his supporting cast and as you writers out there know, sometimes characters are just... flat. They walk and talk like real people, do the same things real people do but on the page, they fail the “I’m-really-real-come-on-folks-read-about-me” test.

The characters lack the elemental spark of authenticity.

So I’m a bit stuck, struggling to find my way when my wife and I buy a new puppy, a new addition to our family, and like any change to a family structure, there have been growing pains, but no matter the struggles of integration, our newest family member, Oliver, is one of my ‘people’. He nips and plays rough (as puppies do) and getting him acclimated to living in a house with rules (no chewing shoes, piddling on the floor or 1 AM barking/playing/whining, etc.) has been a challenge greatly offset by his adorable puppy face, but still a challenge.

My anticipation of the dynamic has been altered, as Oliver seems to better respond to my wife than to me instead of treating us the same, and thus far he prefers attacking the garden plants to chasing the ball. My minds eye, as we drove him home, featured a far more idyllic (hollywood-ish?) script. I thought his chew toys would provide entertainment, he would sit beside my chair in the evening with his only wish to have his belly scratched and that after an exhausting day, he would be content to sleep through the night on his nice new LL Bean bed.

But Oliver is a puppy. He also has a mind of his own, a personality with depth, a character that is independent of my desires and uniquely his own. In short, Oliver grows and goes in directions I can’t anticipate.

Just like any of my ‘people’, the people who make up my family, the people who make my life have meaning, with all the joys and conflicts and the daily highs and the daily lows. I can’t anticipate any of them, can’t make them do anything. We all act and interact off, with, against, because, despite our connections. Our personalities shape and are shaped by each other. To predict that shaping, that fluid organic nature of family, doesn’t work. It can’t work, because no matter the planning and the desire, each individual is just a part of the whole- we play our part and receive our cues from those around us, who in turn receive their cues in response to us.

This brings me back full circle to the new trick I learned (or really, re-learned thanks to Oliver), that when you try to force outcomes, when you lose respect for the individual and try to impose a personality on a character, there almost always is some negative push-back. I can influence and guide and shape, but just as with puppies and people, as a writer I’m just part of the whole, not the whole itself.

To create a character that feels alive on the page, you have let go of the plan and allow your character the freedom to make mistakes, to make choices that originate from that characters organic development rather than a master plan sketched out in advance. Shape and direct, sure, put if you try to squeeze, well, then you end with something flat and lifeless. That isn’t good for puppies, people or or fictional characters.

Now, if only Oliver could teach me how to reach the six figure income bracket. Maybe that’s asking too much from a puppy, even one as clever as Ollie.


Rory Green said...

I love this post and I can completely relate, both to the breaking in a new puppy(!) and the breaking in new characters. You have written about the struggle with depth, clarity and humour - thank you!

MT Nickerson said...

Thanks Rory. Can say that the puppy training is one of the most difficult undertakings of my life. Oliver is a great puppy, but at times I fear he's much smarter than me and all hope is lost...

Bluestocking Mum said...

Thanks for finding me on Twitter. Good to find your blog.

I can relate too - I have six month old black Lab puppy called Bruno!
Great post.

Anonymous said...

Oliver is so cute! And smart! Who knew he could teach so much at such a young age, just wait until he grows up! :)

DMS said...

What a great post and it is so true! I have had a few puppies over the years and it always takes a little while to break them in. Their personalities emerge- just like characters. Oliver is a cutie.