When Your Writing Goes to the Dogs: Training Your Canine Characters to Earn Their Kibble.
By Sylvia McNicoll
For as long as I can remember, I have loved dogs. When I was a child, people used to let their animals roam leash free and I had my own pack of collies, German shepherds, and assorted mongrels trailing around me. I read books like Old Yeller and watched Lassie and The Littlest Hobo.
Flash forward to today and I’ve completed my 14th novel in which dogs leap, bark, sit, shake, misbehave and then redeem themselves. The latest book is the third in The Great Mistake Mystery Series where 12 year-old Stephen Noble and his Watson-witted sidekick Renée Kobai solve crimes by analyzing mistakes while walking Ping, a Jack Russell, and Pong, a greyhound rescue. All of my animals have learned to earn their kibble by contributing majorly to setting, character and plot.
Mortie and Worf, the real-life Ping and Pong
With a few trips around the dog park under my belt, I’d love to share what I have learned about making the most of your canine characters:
1) Choose your breed mindfully, it’s a detail, of course, that informs character. You can do your research on the one that suits your plot the best, but breeds themselves can be marketing tools. One of my most successful books Bringing Up Beauty tells about a Black Lab fostered to ultimately be trained as a guide dog. Black Labs were the most common guide dog at the time, and remains the most popular breed in North America. By contrast, the two breeds in my new series rank 111th (Russell Terriers) and 147th (grey hound) in popularity, so find what works for your story. I realized after that choosing these breeds made it harder to find props for author talks—no one sells a spotted greyhound stuffie. I have based the dogs in my stories on actual dogs in my personal life, but changed one breed to gain a specific attribute that fits with the story I was writing.
2) Give your animals backstories as to how they arrived in your novel. Backstory for acquiring the pet, again, informs character and provides dimension to the relationship between dog and owner. In my new release, The Best Mistake Mystery, both Ping and Pong are rescue dogs. For me, this provides the reason for their neediness, company, and attention (although we adopted my Jackapoo, Mortie, as a pup so he’s needy just because).
3) Name your dog carefully—the fashion now is to give canines human names, we love them so much, but if you have a protagonist named Max with a pet named Ryan, you will confuse your readers. A backstory for the name can also give a character cue and will assist both the editor and reader in keeping your dog’s name straight. The Ping and Pong names hopefully communicate their Yin/Yang complimentary natures. Ping sounds smaller to me and so is the tiny terrier’s name. Pong, sounds bigger, more like my greyhound character who rarely barks, as per his breed. Of course, the names complicate things when human characters play ping-pong at the community centre.
4) Most importantly—Give your dog a role. Obviously canines can sniff out a missing object or person, identify a criminal, wake the household in case of fire or burglar invasion, but more subtly, they can act as sounding and venting board as well as give solace for your people characters. In my hi/low book, Dog on Trial, Hero, the golden retriever, (spoiler alert) chews open a toilet pipe which causes the house to flood but then saves the next door neighbors as well as their cat, Killer, and her kittens. More subtly though, Hero acts as a friend to main character Owen while at the same time helping him find friends. In the end, he acts as a kind of bonding gel between Dad and Owen and completes the family. Your main characters can struggle with their animal’s bad behavior, or laugh at it, but they can also just cry into their fur.
5) Teach them to sit and stay while humans are talking. In real life our dogs sleep through most of the day but in a novel they need to at least snore to alert the reader that they are still in the scene. You’ll probably have to add a whole set of movements–yipping agreement, slumping down in discouragement, wagging in conciliation—to keep them involved in the story. But furry big-eyed creatures are way cuter than humans so be careful. In The Great Mistake Mystery Series, my humans Stephen and Renée discuss important mystery clues while Ping and Pong occasionally distract my readers by nudging for pats, marking territory and licking their parts. One of my trusted writing partners asked me if I could just give them a treat so they would stay quiet for a while and let her focus on the clues. Enter the dad’s famous homemade liver bites. Ping and Pong chewed quietly as the plot progressed.
In the end, creating genuine loveable dog characters is not that much different than creating memorable people characters except that that dogs communicate with body language and barks rather than words. If you show love to your dogs as you write about them, your reader will love them, too.
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