The Power of Decency in Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If you’ve been in my workshops or read a few of my writing books, you know about the “pet the dog” beat. The name is not original with me, but comes from the old Hollywood screenwriters. Blake Snyder changed it to “save the cat.” So pet lover-writers can choose their preferred metaphor.

I have refined the concept to make it something more specific than merely doing something nice for someone. In my view, the best pet-the-dog moments are those where the protagonist helps someone weaker or more vulnerable than himself, and by doing so places himself in further jeopardy. Thus, it falls naturally into Act 2, usually on either side of the midpoint.

I think of Katniss Everdeen helping little Rue in The Hunger Games. Or Richard Kimble in the movie The Fugitive, saving a little boy’s life in the hospital emergency ward (and having his cover blown as a result).

David Janssen as The Fugitive

And speaking of The Fugitive, I’ve been watching the old TV series starring David Janssen. The show was a big hit in the 60s, and after watching a few I came to see that a big part of the reason is the pet-the-dog motif in almost every episode. There usually comes a time when someone is in need of medical attention. Kimble, therefore, has a dilemma. He can help and give away his medical skills (leading to suspicions about his background). Or he can quietly walk away.

What do you think this decent guy does?

An episode called “Fatso” will serve as an example. It’s a particularly good entry, directed by one of the best of that rare breed, the female Hollywood director—Ida Lupino.

Kimble (now using the name Bill Carter) has hitched a ride with a traveling salesman who is fighting off sleep. For safety’s sake, Kimble takes the wheel into the next town. Unfortunately, an errant driver forces Kimble to swerve and rear end a parked car.

Knowing the local cops will soon be on the scene, Kimble tries to sneak away, but is nabbed by the sheriff and arrested for fleeing the scene of an accident. They take his prints. Kimble, sitting in the clink, knows it’s just a matter of time before they identify who he is.

Jack Weston as David in “Fatso”

He shares his cell with a sad sack, an overweight drunk named David (played by that reliable character actor of the time, Jack Weston). When the sheriff comes to release David, Kimble socks the lawman and knocks him out. He heads for the door. David begs Kimble to take him along. They hop a train, heading for David’s boyhood home.

Meanwhile, Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), who is always one step behind Kimble, gets the report based on Kimble’s prints. He flies to Kentucky where all this is taking place.

Kimble learns that David, who everyone calls “slow,” wants to see his estranged father, who is dying on the horse ranch where he grew up. David is full of fear because of his father’s disapproval. Something happened in the past that caused his father to throw him out.

Kimble and David arrive at the ranch and are met by David’s younger brother, Frank. This guy is a real jerk. He calls David “Fatso” and needles him about that terrible thing that happened.

Frank is also suspicious of Kimble. Why would a guy like this befriend a loser like David?

As the episode goes on, with Gerard getting closer and Frank feeding the local sheriff his suspicions, Kimble tries to help David. Knowing that the only way David can become whole again is to confront the past, not run from it. To gain David’s trust, Kimble admits he’s a doctor. He then walks David through the night that the barn burned down and killed several horses. David was drunk and alone on the farm, and everyone, including David, is convinced he set the fire.

But Kimble does some digging and finds out that Frank was AWOL that night from the local army base. He presents this evidence to David’s father and mother. They confront Frank. He confesses. He set David up to get him disowned and out of the will.

David’s father asks for David’s forgiveness.

It’s all very redemptive, but there’s one problem: Gerard has just pulled up to the house with the sheriff!

The mother, played with gusto by that wonderful character actress Glenda Farrell, sends Kimble out the back door and proceeds to delay the investigators.

In each show’s epilogue, as we see Kimble disappear into the night, we hear the dulcet tones of one of the great voice-over actors, William Conrad, giving an ominous send-off. In “Fatso,” he says: “A Fugitive has to watch his step. Every step he takes, every hour, every minute, every second, any move he makes might lead to Death Row. There’s no way of knowing in advance. There’s never any way of knowing.”

Thus, virtually every episode is built around Kimble, on the run, arriving in some locale where he manages to pick up a menial job, but then gets involved with another character who is having some life-and-death problem, too … and Kimble is in a position to help.

I say this pet-the-dog motif is the secret of the show’s popularity. David Janssen was perfect for the part. He does a lot of acting with his face—trying to appear innocent as the questions get more pointed; attempting to ignore someone’s troubles even as his core goodness makes that impossible.

The movie works in the same way, with a similar stellar acting job by Harrison Ford. There’s one moment that makes me smile every time. After Kimble saves the little boy’s life in the hospital, he’s confronted by a doctor (Julianne Moore) who had seen him checking out the boy’s X-ray. She calls security. Kimble races to the stairs and starts down, almost bumping into someone.

“Excuse me,” he says.

I love it! Even as he’s running for his life, he can’t give up his fundamental decency.

Why do we respond so strongly to this motif? It’s not hard to understand. In this life, which Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish, and short,” we long for decency, thirst for kindness, are grateful for compassion. Seeing it manifested in a lead character draws us to him, creates the bond that is one of the big secrets of successful fiction.

What are some of your favorite pet-the-dog moments in movies or books? Don’t you find yourself really drawn to characters who show compassion for the vulnerable?

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Creating Characters We Care About

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Today’s post is brought to you by:


I mention the book today because it’s the story of the bond between two brothers. Chuck Samson, an ex-Navy chaplain who served with a Marine unit in Afghanistan; and his adult, autistic brother, Stan, who has a heart as big as the Pacific. And what happens when killers come after them both.
This bond is something I call the Care Package, a story element that greatly enhances reader connection to the Lead.
The Care Package is a relationship the Lead has with someone else, in which he shows his concern, through word or deed, for that character’s well being.
This humanizes the Lead and engenders sympathy in the reader, even if the Lead happens to be a louse.
Let me give you a few examples.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is not just some lone rogue. She is the protector of and provider for her mother and sister, Prim. What she does in taking Prim’s place in the Games is the ultimate sacrifice of love. When she makes it, we are so much on her side that we will follow her anywhere, rooting for her all the way.
In Star Wars, the only reason Luke will not leave with Obi-Wan Kenobe is that his aunt and uncle need him on the farm. Here’s a boy who dreams of becoming a knight, but he can’t just leave his family. We like that in him. It shows nobility. Shortly thereafter, of course, his aunt and uncle are murdered…and Luke is off to fight the evil Empire.
Dorothy Gale cares about Toto in The Wizard of Oz. She’ll do anything to protect her innocent dog from the clutches of Miss Gulch.
Having a Care Package relationship keeps a character from being completely selfish. We don’t like such folk. We hope that we are not that way.
Scarlett O’Hara, for all her dithering selfishness, cares about her mother and father.
Mike Hammer, not the softest of PIs, cares about Velma.
Even the bitter and bigoted Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) in Gran Torino cares…about his dead wife. It is only because of her final wishes that he even tolerates the young priest who keeps showing up to check on him.
The Care Package is one of the reasons we watched Breaking Bad. Walter White engages in a truly despicable act — cooking super crystal meth for sale on the street. Yet he holds some degree of sympathy. He gets into the trade

because he’s dying of cancer and wants to provide for his wife and handicapped son.

But as the story progresses, Walt becomes more ruthless and drags his former student, Jesse, into this dark world.
And yet…and yet…whenever Jesse gets in real trouble, Walt tries to get him out of it. He cares about Jesse in spite of all that happens. And Jesse cares about Mr. White. They forget about this caring at various times when they want to kill each other, but it always comes back when the chips are down.
Now that is good writing, and a great lesson. You can have a criminal as your Lead, and if you give him a Care Package, you’ll still hook the reader. 
In short, the Care Package shows that even the worst characters have some shred of humanity in them which gives the readers hope they might, if circumstances are just so, be redeemed.
In my workshops on structure I stress the difference between the Care Package and a later beat called Pet the Dog. The latter is something that happens in Act 2, when the Lead takes a moment out of her own troubles to help someone weaker than herself. In The Hunger Games, for instance, Katniss helps the weakest of the players in the Games, little Rue.
The Care Package, by contrast, is a relationship the Lead has before the story begins. Thus, sometime early in Act 1, we are given a glimpse of this bond.
A word to you plotters/outliners. Consider using a Care Package as the emotional starting point for your developing story. That’s what I did with Don’t Leave Me. I got the initial idea of writing about a former military chaplain. I started to think about his backstory, and almost immediately came up with the idea of his having an autistic brother he has protected all of their lives, and now must do again when killers arrive on the scene.
It was such a strong emotional tie for me that it incentivized my wanting to write the entire novel, just to vindicate this relationship.
And now you pantsers, as you are writing along, maybe 10,000 words into that wonderful mess you love, why not pause for a moment and consider the lead character who is starting to come to life? You don’t have to worry about structure here, just ask yourself what kind of relationship can this Lead have with someone else that shows a caring spirit?
Heck, you’re a panster! Go ahead and write a scene like that. The benefit to you is the greater emotional connection you’ll have with your Lead. And that’s going to make for a better book.
And just to complete today’s commercial, please note that Don’t Leave Me is currently on sale at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

So what character in recent fiction have you been drawn to, and why? 

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