My sweet puppy Mika turned one this month. She’s getting to be quite a big dog, but she still has the brain of a puppy, leaping headlong into every situation without thought. Unfortunately, this joyful and innocent approach to life had some negative consequences earlier this week when she came across a German Shepherd on a walk. Mika did what she always does, bounding up to meet the other dog (and dragging me along behind her), but the German Shepherd didn’t return her affection when she tried to lick him on the face.
The consequence? Our beautiful puppy now has a nasty bite on her muzzle. A quick trip to the vets and a round of antibiotics and she’s okay, thank goodness, but it was a bit of a scare.
It’s never easy to see the people you love get hurt, especially when you are in a position of authority. All night I thought of what I could have done differently, how I could have kept her safe. I shouldn’t have left the harness behind. I should have crossed the road instead of walking by the dog. But the thing is, the only way to keep people — or puppies — totally safe, is to wrap them in cotton wool and keep them locked up inside all day, and that’s no way to live.
It wasn’t nice for Mika to get hurt like that, but she’s certainly learned from it. She’s learning manners, the correct way to approach other dogs, and that not all dogs are as nice as she is. These are skills she needs if she’s going to do all the things doggies like to do, such as go to the dog beach and meet other puppies. In the long run, Mika will be a happier puppy having learned this lesson.
The incident made me think of a lesson I learned recently about crafting memorable characters. Through many, many drafts, I discovered the only way to create meaningful change and growth in my characters was to give them challenges that reflected their deepest fears, brought out their worst traits, and forced them to be vulnerable.
As writers it’s certainly tempting to keep our characters safe, to wrap them in cotton wool and put only small hurdles in their paths. But stories are about growth and change, and these things do not occur in a vacuum. People only change when they are forced to do so. The strongest tissue only grows in response to a deep wound.
When creating characters that have real power to affect the reader, we should strive for nothing less than complete emotional honesty. Probe your characters for their deepest injuries, their most potent fears, and then exploit them mercilessly. Only when you let our characters get hurt in a meaningful way will believable change and growth occur.
P. S. I think this is especially important when you’re writing YA fiction. Teenagers live with their deepest selves so close to the surface, so raw and vulnerable, at the same time as they are being exposed for the first time to all the pain that exists in the world. It’s an emotionally tumultuous time and you’re doing your readers a disservice if you only skim the surface of what it’s like to be a teenager.
P.P.S. This past week Nova Ren Suma has been hosting a bunch of authors on her blog responding to the question: “What haunted you at 17?”. Go check it out if you’re interested in an excellent example of emotional honesty in writing.
P.P.P.S. Check out this awesome essay by Carrie Ryan on connecting internal and external conflict to create really memorable stories.