Blog 4: BETTER DEAD THAN BRED: Fact, Fiction, and Character
Every writer of fiction entwines fact and fantasy. Proportions between the two differ, but all fiction is grounded in what the writer has experienced. How could it be otherwise? Most writers read voraciously, living a multiplicity of lives vicariously, contemplating how it must be to survive, love, and make decisions as this character or that character. Few of us consort with murderers or rocket scientists or struggling citizens of war-torn countries, but we’ve read, watched television, viewed film, and attended dramatic productions, avidly inserting ourselves into the lives we are experiencing second hand.
We integrate everything we read or experience into our world view, consciously or subconsciously, so that when we write, we draw upon the elements of our life. We inhabit, in some way, every character in our books – and they inhabit us. Imagination inevitably ‘sticks’ to something or someone concrete in our existence.
Consequently, creating character involves drawing upon our integrated understanding of humanity, separating out the relevant strands, and weaving them into a person just right for our fictive intentions. It’s a puzzle. We have all the pieces.
Originally, because he asked to be ‘bad,’ Opi was going to be a villain. But knowledge of my friend on whom the character was to be based conflicted so profoundly with that notion, I abandoned that plan. Instead, I decided, he would begin the novel as the good man I know him to be. I had to make him a little flawed because flaws humanize a character. More significantly, in a character who journeys to a personal hell and back, that flaw needs to cause, or contribute in a major way to, his fall from grace.
Ironically, as Tom Stoppard points out in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, fiction appears more real on stage – and, by extension, in all forms of transactional art -- than reality. So while characters may be grounded in people the author knows, or in historical characters known around the world, the author fictionalizes the character to fulfil the needs of the story.
Following this logic, I created my protagonist: Sean Bergmann, a good man, comfortable in his life and his marriage, who joins a rogue activist group using the name “Opi” and risks everything for revenge. That need for revenge is his flaw and his propellant into evil.
(Continued from the previous blog) As the last glow of sun dissolved into the horizon, my agility class friend asked if he could be a character in the novel we had been talking about. My initial plot idea had focussed on our breeder and her family, fictionalized of course, but based on her family, those who lived on the property. But initial plot ideas have a way of morphing into quite different stories than originally imagined. Enveloped in autumnal darkness, I regarded this man I’d known for four years through our ownership of shelties from the same breeder and our participation in training classes and dog shows. His face, obscured by nightfall, nonetheless revealed a man with a settled soul, comfortable and content in the life he had shaped for himself. I asked him, “What kind of character would you like to be?”
His answer astounded me.
“I’d like to be bad. I’ve always been good. I think it would be interesting to be bad.”
There was a challenge. A character grows inside a writer, inside the novel, inside the story within the novel. A writer develops a relationship with the characters she creates. When I create a character who is somewhat based on someone I know, everything that character does or thinks or says is fiction. At the same time, the nature of what that person says or does is grounded in my sense of that person’s ethical core. Often the fictionalized character moves and thinks in patterns similar to those of the person I know. Sometimes the character even looks and dresses similarly. How could I create a bad character grounded in a good man?
I asked a follow-up question, hoping to gain some insight to the kind of ‘bad’ he wanted to be. “What would you like your name to be?”
His reply came after only a few seconds of thought. “Opie.” Opie is the name of his six-year old sheltie, identified by the breeder a few weeks after his birth as a future champion, even a potential grand champion, with his perfect sheltie stance, his speed, his intelligence, and his beauty. But at eight months of age, one of his permanent teeth appeared at a substandard angle. No championship possible for imperfection.
My head exploded with possibilities. How does a potential grand champion become no longer a potential grand champion overnight? How does a good man become bad in the space of a novel? What kind of villain would be called ‘Opie’?
I wrestled with that challenge for several days, during which I happened to be reading about the structure of the mythical journeys of tragic heroes. And therein I found my answer. My character, my ‘hero’, would have a tragic flaw, an irrepressible need to seek revenge for a terrible harm done to his beloved Opie. That flaw would transform him at his core, as he takes on Opie’s name to enact his vengeance.
And thereby my protagonist -- my villain-hero ‘Opi’ -- came into being.
My decision to use the phrase, “Better dead than bred,” as the title of my fourth novel was not easy. At times, I still question the choice. After my breeder agreed her property could be used in the novel, and I talked about ‘the bad guys’ who wanted to import drugs via the airstrip (see previous blog), the conversation fractured into other possible nasty deeds that could camouflage the real evil of drug trafficking. For example, the bad guys might want to sponsor dog fights or turn the property into a puppy mill. The conversation turned to animal abuse and animal activism and spiralled to abusers using activism to divert attention from their brutal deeds.
One of my agility buddies, a lawyer, mentioned an incident of rogue activism in Vallejo, California in 2018. A group of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) activists raided a dog show, releasing dogs from their crates and shooing them outdoors, where several ran across the highway and were killed by motorists. Even more horrific, this rogue team went to the parking lot where air-conditioned motorhomes were sheltering several show dogs from the sweltering heat. They unplugged the electricity and the dogs suffocated. Their rallying cry: “Better dead than bred.” Even as I now type the words into my computer, I feel the sludge in my stomach rebelling against the idea. I certainly had no thought at that time of using that slogan for my title.
I was sickened. I couldn’t listen to anymore. We were all disheartened and disgusted by the cruelty inflicted on animals by fellow human beings. We went to our cars with our well-exercised and well-loved shelties, horrified by what we had heard and shared and speculated. As another agility friend lifted his dog into his crate for safety, he turned to me and asked a question that ultimately would impact every aspect of the novel, including the title.
Beginning to write a novel is like many little fires burning. A flame of a topic bursts into your awareness. A spark of character lights your horizon. A site for murder burns into your consciousness. Then a catalytic event, like an accelerant, intensifies the little fires into the conflagration of an idea: this could make a terrific story! And the process of a new book begins.
P.D. James, author of literary crime thrillers, at a 2010 Literary Festival at Dartington Manor, Devon, speaking of her writing process, pointed to place as the most common catalyst for her novels. Whether the awareness hit suddenly or evolved slowly, she prickled with the knowledge that this particular place would be the scene of a crime in one of her novels.
For Better Dead Than Bred, the place struck me first. My partner and I were at an evening agility class for our two shelties on the property of the dogs’ breeder. Located only a few kilometres outside Winnipeg, surrounded by farms and protected by a grove of spruce, the yard was perfect for running and barking shelties. The fields beyond boasted an unused airstrip, desired by local farmers for irrigation and weed control purposes, but unavailable to be rented because the growl of the planes’ engines would distress the puppies. Old farm buildings loomed over the agility field, lit by the flaming sun sinking beneath the prairie horizon. I shivered, but not with the cooling night air. Rather I felt what P.D. James spoke about: this would be the site of my next novel.
Immediately, the threads of a story began to knit together. A drug cabal wanted to buy the property and camouflage the airstrip to import illegal substances. Finding the owners unwilling to sell, the leader would seduce the breeder’s mother, who lived in her own cottage on the property, and gradually take over. By the end of the agility class, my storyline consumed my thinking processes so much that I guided my dog through the wrong half of the agility course.
While my head was still swelling with burgeoning ideas, after the agility class, I spoke with my breeder, to ask if she would mind my using her home as the site of a crime in my next novel. She gave me an enthusiastic “yes!”
My sheltie friends, overhearing my request, were full of suggestions.
The plot did not develop at all as I had begun to plan it that night. However, the property became the site for a puppy mill in my story and the airstrip and outbuildings inspired the helipad and general layout of Paradise, the centre of evil in the novel.
In the meantime, my conversation with my agility buddies had two significant consequences, which I will write about in my next two blogs.
Sharon J. Hamilton has taught English in every grade, from one through master’s level, during her forty-year career. She earned a PhD in language and literacy at the University of London and has participated in writing seminars at Corpus Cristi College, Oxford, and the Faber Academy, London.