A path lit by words

Scanning for Gators

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If you asked me what makes Hilton Head an imperfect paradise, I’d have to say it’s the alligators. They lurk in our ponds and lagoons, and some of them are huge–as much as eight feet long, big enough that my Cocker Spaniel would make a nice snack. And Toby is sociable. He’d walk up and sniff one if I let him.

I’ve never seen an alligator run on dry land, but I hear they sprint like Usain Bolt. That makes me protective. I cross to the other side of the road, even if the gator is half a football field away. Call me over-cautious, but I don’t take chances with carnivorous animals. Shoot, I pick Toby up when a too-big dog barrels toward him full-tilt, on the beach. Two weeks ago, that happened with three dogs, each one harmless on its own, scary in a pack. Snarling and snapping ensued. No one was hurt, but I was angry and shaken, afraid we would have to give up our beach walks.

When I complained to a colleague who moonlights as a dog-whisperer, he wasn’t sympathetic. “You’re the problem,” he said. “You’re making your dog a weenie. You have to let him stand on his own or other dogs won’t like him, let alone respect him.”

Ding! went the bell in my head. His words took me back to a lesson I learned from a wise editor when I wrote my first book. She said I protected my heroine and she was right—I loved Ali St. John too much to put her in danger. I kept her leashed and in sight, so I could whisk her away when the going got tough–making her a weak character few readers would care about.

Ali was facing a home-grown terrorist, a man she thought was her friend, and not once did he hurt her or threaten her life. Whenever she faced the slightest risk, I swooped in and rescued her. In the end, she saved the day—a hollow victory because I never made my readers worry that Ali might fail, let alone die.

Here’s what I learned: You don’t have to torture your characters. You do have to test them and disappoint them and make them sweat. You have to let them be wrong and lose—more than once, even badly— so they and your fans can rejoice when they win. As the author, you can “scan for gators,” but you can’t kill them off or chase them away. That’s your protagonist’s job.

It’s still not easy to put my characters in jeopardy. I do it, though, and I trust them to pull through. Left on their own, they often surprise me with their wit and their resilience. My writing is richer and my characters are more engaging, now that they run free.

My dog not so much—weenie or not, he’ll be staying on his leash!

Author: Jean Bardo

I'm a freelance Human Resources consultant and blogger, a published short story writer, and an aspiring author of fiction I call "literary mysteries."

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