Kick the Dog or Save the Cat?
The core of fiction, the part that makes readers keep going, is who is on the page. The characters are the most important element to a story. Any plot—whether complex and intricate or simple and streamlined—will fail without good characters, as the reader just won’t care.
When establishing a character upon the page, the temptation can be to list off a description of their appearance, their background, their overarching motivations, or their strengths and weaknesses. All of this is unnecessary and should be avoided without question, all because of three words: show, don’t tell.
To get a story going you put a character in a setting and give them a motivation. That’s it. Come up with a real individual, place them into a scenario or place or concept, and then give them a driving force, however banal or everyday. Obstacles will present themselves to prevent the character reaching their goal, either through distraction or obstruction, and the character’s motivation will change and grow as the larger story develops. This not only applies to your protagonist, but to every character. Your job, as the writer, is to then pick which story to tell, where you will begin and end, and who you are going to focus on. Bring them to life and let them live, then relay from your chosen perspective.
If you are—correctly—avoiding spelling out the entirety of a character, including their life history, proclivities, foibles, and nuances, then you will need another way of showing the reader what they are like. You could tell the reader, of course, but that would be cheating. Not so much for you, but the reader would reject it. You need to assume that your reader will have a problem with authority but enjoys being a detective, for that is the mindset of a reader. Telling them this is how this character is will cause them to rebel against the rules you are forcing, and your character will ring hollow. Showing them actions that suggest certain character traits, without explaining the traits they suggest, will give your reader a puzzle to solve; they will gather up the pieces you leave throughout the narrative and assemble them into a whole person. Ideally, you want some of those pieces to be slightly contradictory; as we are complex three-dimensional beings with conflicting emotions, so too should our characters be.
Dropping clues as to the true nature of a character means enticing your reader to invest time and effort into that character. They must read further, pay more attention, work harder to figure out who they are. Therefore, you need to give the reader a reason to keep going. There are three ways of doing this, but each involves a lot of care and attention on the writers’ part to not get wrong.
Kick the Dog
This is where your character undertakes a negative action without dramatic self-benefit. The traditional example is the villain kicking a dog for no reason other than it was there, and the yelp gives them a twisted sense of satisfaction. Obviously this can be undertaken very simplistically, and if so is all but painting a sign on a character saying ‘I am a baddie!’ To kick the dog effectively is to be more nuanced, subtler, and embed the action into the character’s core motivation so it shows more than just they are not a nice person.
In Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, John Hammond arrives at an archaeological dig site to convince palaeontologist protagonist Alan Grant to come with him to his new attraction. Hammond arrives by helicopter—a device well-known for making a lot of wind and stirring up dust—and yet chooses to land right by the dig site, causing fossils being carefully uncovered by brushes to be slightly obscured with sand and dirt. Was this to get the attention of Grant, or simply because Hammond is so well-off and entitled that he simply did not consider the consequences of his actions? Either way, he could have landed a little further away and still made the same impact without undoing several hours’ hard work from the students now covered in dust themselves. This is a subtle kick of the allegorical dog, foreshadowing Hammond’s ignorance and disregard for others when pursuing his own goal of rescuing his grandchildren. Whilst we can identify with Hammond—empathise, even—he sits in an antagonistic role, though he is not exactly a villain. He is a conflicted and flawed character, and that is why his kick the dog works.
Save the Cat
This, on the other hand, is where your character undertakes a positive action without dramatic self-benefit. The traditional example in this case is the hero saving a cat for no reason other than they can, and the affection from the cat and appreciation from the owner brings its own satisfaction. This also can be undertaken very simplistically, practically hanging a neon board around the character’s neck saying ‘I am a goodie!’ Much like kicking the dog, to save the cat effectively is to be more nuanced, subtler, and embed the action into the character’s core motivation.
When the unnamed narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club cannot sleep, he goes to see his doctor, who suggests he check out a testicular cancer survivors’ support group to see what real pain is like. The narrator attends, declines to share, then at the point where the men are invited to hug, looks to leave. Another central character, Bob, moves to hug him, and the narrator allows this to happen. As a result, the narrator cries, and then goes home and gets a good night’s sleep. Whilst the narrator did substantially benefit from the hug, he did not know that he would until afterwards. Embracing Bob and allowing himself to be hugged by a man who—he could tell—needed it, was his way of subtly saving the aforementioned cat. We can identify with and empathise with the narrator, and he is placed in the protagonist role, yet he is far from a hero. What we do understand, however, is that despite his morally questionable job and unethical consumeristic lifestyle and later indefensible actions, he has some level of integrity—even if he doesn’t realise it yet—and that foreshadows his coming reaction to the increasingly audacious actions of the fight club that he in part created.
Ignore Them Both
You can simply create a character that only undertakes actions—whether positive or negative—when there is obvious self-benefit. In this example, the character walks past the dog seeking affection, and also ignores the crying cat stuck on a ledge. This can be carried out incredibly simplistically, which is akin to handing the character a t-shirt emblazoned ‘I am ambiguous!’ To ignore them both effectively, like kicking one or saving the other, is to be more nuanced, subtler, and embed the action into the character’s core motivation.
Indiana Jones, during the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, is approaching a temple of some description to retrieve a golden statue. One of his guides draws a gun, but Jones disarms him with a crack of his bullwhip. He could have killed him—after all, he kills plenty of other people throughout the story—but he lets him run away. Jones did what was necessary without kicking the dog. Then, upon entering the temple, the other guide almost steps on a booby-trapped flagstone which would have fired an arrow into him. Jones stops him and tests the stone with a stick. He shows the guide what would have happened, not because he was saving the guide’s life, but because he wants to protect his own. He doesn’t let the guide walk the path to the statue as he just proved his own carelessness. Jones wants the statue, and so he must retrieve it himself. He did not save the cat, merely protected his own self-interest. From this sequence we learn that Indiana Jones is a morally complicated character who, when he is going after a particular artefact, becomes consumed with his quest, but not at the expense of his own life. This foreshadows his own character change, as he later pursues both the Ark of the Covenant and Marion Ravenwood, and is faced with a choice. It also reveals why he is willing to undertake the dangerous mission of acquiring the Ark in the first place, yet with his own caveats. He is an ambiguous character, but this is subtly shown instead of obviously told.
Deciding on the right approach will draw your readers into your story and cause them to invest in your characters. The most important aspect of this, however, is to not be obvious in what you are doing. If you can spot that your character kicks the dog, or saves the cat, or ignores them both, then so will your reader. Hide it, make it subtler and smarter, write it better. In the long run, your readers will thank you.
© 2019 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.