Just Kill the Puppy!

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.

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Computers, Bread and Tents

A conversational essay written long ago (2007) and, though the technology has changed a bit, still has meaning, to me at least:

Computers, Bread and Tents 

Okay, I admit I’m somewhat computer-challenged. However, I’m not totally without skills or understanding when it comes to working on a computer but a few years ago my husband, Bob, was interested in finally upgrading our nearly 10 year old computer and I needed to use it to update some of my drafts. This was how the conversation went . . .

I wanted to transfer some of my recent handwritten (gasp!) notes to one of “My Documents”. Bob was not in the office, the desk top computer’s screen showed various windows open, the topmost was an “Away Message” – “The computer is working – I’m not. BBL”. BBL was patiently translated by my fourteen-year-old daughter as ‘Be back later’. Peeking out behind this window little flying sheets of paper were being inserted into a folder. Rats! He’s either backing up the machine (which hasn’t been done in months) or he’s downloading something. I ran upstairs to find him – watching TV.

“Bob, how long is the computer going to take?”

“Nine hours.”

“Nine hours!  I thought computers were supposed to be fast.  That’s all night.”

“Probably.”  He calmly flips the channel due to a commercial break.

“What’s it doing?”

“Down loading an 875 megabyte program so I can back up things easier.”

I have no real concept of numbers that large, so, “How big is that in something I can understand.”

“About four hundred three and a half inch disks.” He’s still staring at the TV.

All I can think about is the article edits I’m trying to finish – a few hundred words at most. “We don’t have four hundred disks.”

“I don’t need four hundred disks, I can put it all on one DVD; after this program downloads.” He changes the channel again.

I’m not sure how to respond. “Nine hours?”

“Yep.” The TV flashes through eight or ten scenes from various programs.

“So, I can get on in the morning?” I’m hopeful.

“Right after I back it up” He changes the channel again. “I’ll let you know.”

“Okay.” I go find my pen and spiral notebook and start writing.

The shower is pulsing, beating at the sore muscles on my back. Characters play out a scene in my head. I need to get to paper or the computer. Bob pokes his head around the curtain.  “Join you?”

“Not today, how’d the download go?” I really want to get this new scene down before it fades.

“Fine, but I don’t have enough room to open it.” He talks through the shower curtain.

I try again, “You had enough space to download it but not enough to open it? Can’t you just click on the ‘open’ and use the program?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Well…it needs room to expand.”

“So the program comes with yeast?” I was being flippant but how else could I wrap myself around this concept?

He responds enthusiastically, “A lot of yeast!”

“So the computer’s like an oven?” I rinse off and put my hand out for a towel.

A towel is dutifully placed in my waiting hand. “Well…no, the program needs to be told certain things before it can be used.”

All wrapped up I step out of the shower, “Use a different analogy then, if baking bread isn’t good enough.”

He looks thoughtful, then, “It’s like a . . . a tent.”

“A tent?” Let’s hear him explain this.

“A tent comes in a sack, like the program I downloaded.”

“Okay.” I grab a second towel and start on my hair.

“When I get the tent to the camp sight or the computer, I need room to open it and lay out all the pieces, the tent itself, the poles, stakes, the awning, etc. That’s what I don’t have right now, room to lay it out.”

“If you had the room, then what:”

“Then the program asks where I want to put it. I say, ‘over here’.”

I assume this means he tells it on which drive or such to set up this ‘tent’.

“Then, it asks if I want to set it up now or later. I say now and it stakes out the tent, puts in the poles and then asks if I want to put the awning on now or later.”

I interject, “If you said later, and then it started to rain after you’d gone to sleep, can you add the awning then?”

“Yes!”

“I think I understand now. If I want to download a program, I really should make sure I’ve reserved the campsite first.”

“Well, yes.” He seems a bit hesitant.

“Didn’t you do that?”

“I forgot about the trash can.”

“The trash can? What’s the trash can got to do with the campsite?”

“It’s taking up too much space.”

“So throw it out.”

“I’m doing that.”

“How long will that take?” I turn off the water – he’s evidently not going to take his shower yet so why waste it.

“About forty-five minutes.”

“Then what?” I still have to fix breakfast so I can wait a bit longer.

“Then, I hope there’s still room at the campground and I can set up the tent.” He hesitates just a bit. While I wonder what the ‘but’ is. “Unless I have to download it again.”

Ah ha, the ‘but’. “Rats, that’ll be another nine hours, right?” I’m never going to get the rewrites done.

“Yep, so I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to get on sometime late tomorrow night.”

“Let me know.” I pull a pair of jeans and a sweater from the dresser. I wonder if he remembered to pack a sleeping bag? I think I’ll skip this camping trip, it’s taking too long to get there. Where’s my spiral notebook?