Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too. This week’s installment is by Tina Gower.
When our dog was a year and a half old she went into heat. It was three weeks before her official call back date. We had the day on the calendar circled. My husband and I had so many plans of things we wanted to do with Balina before she went back for her final training, but all of it would be cut short. It didn’t seem fair. I was pregnant with our first child and was due in a month. It was supposed to work out perfectly, but it didn’t.
She was the third dog I’d raised for Guide Dogs for the Blind, a non-profit that has campuses in the California bay area and Boring, Oregon. We wanted to keep Balina. It was the first dog my husband and I had raised together and we’d secretly hoped she wouldn’t pass her Guide Dog training and we’d get to keep her as a family pet. When I was younger I so badly wanted my dogs to succeed, so it would show what a great dog trainer I was. It also hurt to let them go. The small scary secret most volunteers have is that we all want for the dogs to succeed and also fail at the same time. We want them to make a difference in someone’s life and we never want to give them up. Two opposing views can exist at the same time.
As a writer, these conflicting emotions combined with learning the path the dogs would take once they were out of my care taught me to think deeper about character point of view and emotional arc.
First off, as raisers we are invited to the campus a few times a year to participate in events that are designed to raise our awareness for not just the organization, but for the people who will use the service. At the annual raiser picnic we’re all asked to complete an obstacle course—the trick: we have to do it wearing goggles that simulate one of the many different kinds of blindness. When the dogs we raise graduate we’re invited to the ceremony and meet the person our dog is paired with. It’s the first time we hear their side of the story. We learn about the emotional journey they embarked on when they signed up to receive a Guide Dog. We also hear from the advanced trainers. They often have a detailed understanding of each dog’s personality.
It struck me as interesting, how many people come together to make one really important thing happen. In raising Guide Dogs, I’m not the protagonist of that story, so I found it interesting to trace the dozen story threads that had to combine into that unique tale. I knew my story well, but it was interesting to learn about the family Balina eventually was placed with. She became a breeder (She lived with a family very close to the campus, we were outside of the range required, so we couldn’t keep her. It was a huge bummer, but at the same time a huge honor. Dozens of her puppies went on to become full-fledged Guide Dogs for the Blind). We learned about how that family came to be involved with the program.
The unfolding story interested me, so I decided to do some more digging. As a writer I’ve learned to not just stop at the surface of my character.
It helps to understand:
Where they were.
How did they get here?
Who influenced them?
What is the side-story of the characters that helped them along the way?
It wasn’t something that required a flow chart or personality check sheets. I just would lay back and imagine what the full dimension of the story could be if I thought it out. It was the same way that the dog had been taken through its training. As a puppy she was handled at the Guide Dog kennels and given enrichment activities, then paired with us. We trained her for a year and a half to do basic things and have adventures along the way, then gave her back for final training (the trainer has their own story). She was then given advanced training, and was paired with a person who is vision impaired (who has their own story, too, maybe this isn’t their first Guide Dog). The list goes on. Realizing the different facets made me a more thorough researcher for character point of view and emotional arcs.
And, so, just as we had special circumstances, like losing the last few weeks with our dog, and me being pregnant, I realized that characters wouldn’t have cookie cutter pasts and emotional reactions to things either. Nor would it be interesting to be regular Joes—the little interesting details were fascinating. It helped me to dig a lot deeper and find the hidden stories underneath.