Again, essay written a number of years ago but the idea still holds true.
JUST KILL THE PUPPY!
At my first writer’s conference I participated in a First Chapters class with Paris Bonds. We read aloud the first chapter of our stories then discussed our impressions of each. When the first reader’s kidnappers killed the family dog the entire room protested; “Don’t kill the dog!” He had two reasons for killing the dog; 1) to show the American reader that pets are perceived differently in other regions and, 2) to make sure the reader really disliked, even hated the villain. He succeeded.
After reading my piece I was asked what was so disagreeable about my antagonist. I didn’t have a tangible reason, so my story lacked a real villain and the character was flat, though he had potential. At the time I couldn’t come up with a way to make him really disagreeable but I promised to work on it.
Several readings later a female protagonist listened over the phone as her abusive boyfriend broke her puppy’s legs one at a time (we squirmed at the excruciatingly clear details). Though a bit much, it illustrated the point that abhorrent actions or words by your antagonist made it difficult to like him/her. Much discussion was held on finding plausible reason for each story’s conflict. We don’t need to “kill the puppy” in everything we write; however, if you don’t have a good reason for conflict your characters and story have no motivation to improve, excel, overcome, etc.
The last reading had us all confused about which character was which. We wanted something solid to base our decision on and there was nothing. One participant finally stated emphatically, “Just kill the puppy!” We all laughed but we wanted to know who the bad guy was and get on with the story.
All this made an impression as I struggled to find a motivation for my protagonist to hate the bad guy – without killing her dog. I questioned whether I could come up with something that strong – until I was on my way home.
A fellow conference attendee Chris rode with me and took notes as we discussed the various sessions we attended. Somewhere outside of Raton, as we bantered ideas about my problem I hit and killed a coyote. It was obviously young, perhaps 5 to 6 months old – still a puppy. I was very upset by this incident – though if I’d tried harder to dodge it at 75+ mph I would have rolled the car and injured or killed the both of us.
As the adrenaline seeped away I began laughing. Chris thought I’d really lost it until I said, “I just killed the puppy!” Even though I felt awful about it, the point was driven straight through my fender and pocketbook. I had to find reason for conflict in my story or I might end up killing more coyotes. Several weeks later, almost $1,000 poorer, I picked up my mended vehicle, and came up with a reason. It has helped flesh out the plot and given new life to the characters and the story.
As writers, we need to create believable characters; characters that have depth, with conflicts, doubt, and wills of their own. If two characters are supposed to dislike each other then we have to know the reason – and it’s got to be reasonable or, at least, understandable to the reader. We don’t have to kill puppies, but we do have to look at our story’s society and decide what actions or behaviors would be considered abhorrent enough to cause a clash between the characters. Then, we decide if an explanation is needed to clarify why it is abhorrent to the protagonist. For example, if your society was botanically sensitive, you could have the antagonist cut flowers and openly display them in defiance of the story’s cultural standards.
Being sensitive to your reader’s reactions, too, will help you discover how bad your bad guy is, such as the dog getting killed in the first story of the First Chapters seminar. If we had all been raised in a social structure that did not place pets, especially dogs, so close to our heart, we would not have reacted quite so sourly to the dog’s demise. But, the author got the reaction he was looking for and it carried his story forward.
So the next time your story or character seems a bit flat what can you do? Have your antagonist send a bouquet of posies to your heroine, crash an ax through the casket at a funeral, shout where silence is revered. But, don’t forget your villain must have a logical reason for doing so and it must fit in the story. Also, the conflict should move the story along and provide a basis for the characters interactions. Your hero doesn’t always have to solve the conflict. Real life is not like that and our stories don’t always have nice clean happy endings.
Though I wish I hadn’t hit the coyote I will never forget to find the motivation for my characters to move through their stories and readers to continue turning the pages.