Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Kill the Dog

Don’t get attached to the dog. It’s a goner.

Sure, the sweet-tempered pooch gently licks your heroine’s wrist while she sobs into her handkerchief and the hero rides off once again. Or the stalwart dog appears loyally in chapter after chapter, baring teeth and thwarting evil to lend your hero a slim moment to escape.

Perhaps you haven’t gifted your protagonist with a dog. You’re chosen a best friend from college. Or a sage curmudgeon who nonetheless offers tea and advice in chapters 3, 6 and 9. Maybe your hero’s father stands resolutely in the wings, ready to provide comfort the moment the going gets rough.

Well, no matter. My gun is locked and loaded. I’m taking Dad out.

The construction of your story requires more than a riveting battle between protagonist and antagonist. The most compelling novels escalate the tension in a million subtle ways, boxing in the main character and removing his means of support like so many pawns knocked off the chessboard.

Why is Twilight still a sensation seven years after its publication? Consider Edward, a blood-sucking creature of the dead as vicious as Count Dracula yet equipped with an ethical sensibility. First Edward suffers the irritating attentions of a curious girl he’s met at high school. Soon he realizes he’s drawn to her in ways that sap his deadly powers. When he falls for her, he must struggle against the blood lust that urges him to kill. Soon several members of his vampire family—the only characters he can trust—begin to despise his beloved Bella. Of course, he also must contend with Bella’s best friend and the natural enemy of the Cullen vampires—teen hunk and local werewolf, Jacob.

All of those roadblocks appear before Edward learns he must protect his love from the vampire coven intent on killing her.

Popular fiction isn’t your thing? How about the Pulitzer prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird? The young girl, Scout, must watch her father valiantly attempt to defend a black man wrongly accused of rape. Not only does her father fail and the accused man die, but Scout must make sense of the pervasive racism of 1930s Alabama through the lens of a child’s imperfect understanding. Or take Josep K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, a bank manager arrested for an unknown crime only to discover the advice he solicits from associates is contradictory and untrustworthy.

Regardless of genre, the most compelling fiction heaps woe after woe upon the main character. In my debut, Treasure Me, petty thief Birdie Kaminisky doesn’t simply battle a growing awareness that stealing is just plain wrong. She begins to measure her ignoble habits against the exemplary life of a former slave from long ago that built the restaurant where Birdie now works. Both the town’s matriarch and an investigative journalist begin to uncover our young heroine’s thieving past. Finally, the entire town is set against her.

As a novelist you can be forgiven for falling in love with your protagonist, but you must shear away any protective instincts you harbor. Hurt your hero. Discover her greatest desire and thwart it. Give him choices that offer no easy way out. Let her have an affair with her best friend’s husband then have her choose to come clean and call the mess off. Before she’s let off the hook and the confession is made, send the man’s car spinning off a cliff.

Reading is, after all, an escape from the humdrum business of life. The hero who always takes the high road isn’t particularly heroic. Give me a down-and-out PI with a drinking problem and a soul in need of redemption. Now you’ve got my attention.

The more your protagonist must overcome psychologically and in the outer world of your story, the more conflict he’s forced to face, the greater possibility for growth. Equip him with secondary characters that pull double-duty: the folksy neighbor set on the page as confidant should muck up the works at the worst possible moment. The adored father should hide a gambling habit or an embarrassing libido. Send the sweet Golden Lab into oncoming traffic when your hero needs it most.

Kill the dog. You have my permission, and your readers will thank you.

A note on housekeeping: This week my oldest daughter returns from a semester abroad. She took many gorgeous photos while bombing across Europe, and I'm not too proud to steal from her FaceBook page. No, the art you'll see on this and future posts has nothing to do with the essays. Yes, I love the photos and hope you will too.