The Illusion of “Real” Characters


Ruby, a much-loved service dog

Ruby had the most incredible ears I’ve ever seen. They jutted out on each side of her narrow face like airplane wings. They seldom drooped, and they never rose higher. They just hung out there horizontally as though she were about to take flight.

And that’s where Buddy, whose name ultimately becomes Ruby in Little Dog, Lost, began.

The real Ruby was a service dog for my friend Martha. (I’m using past tense, because Ruby died about the time I completed the manuscript.) Martha suffered from clinical depression and for seven years had spent some part of every year hospitalized or in hospital-based treatment. She found the little black and brown dog at the Humane Society, adopted her and went through the rigorous training necessary for Ruby to do the work of a service dog as her constant companion.

Ruby responded well to her new responsibilities. Wherever Martha went—to church, to the gym, to restaurants—Ruby stayed close by her side, silent and attentive. At home Ruby’s service jacket came off, and she relaxed—usually on Martha’s bed—but even then about every ten minutes she would get down off the bed and come to find Martha, wherever she might be. “I’m all right,” Martha would tell her, and Ruby would go back to her place on the bed.

Ruby’s presence worked in Martha’s life. Martha has not had a hospitalization since she came home with the little dog with “ears like airplane wings that drop just at the tips.”


Buddy from Little Dog, Lost, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell

A fascinating story . . . and one that has almost nothing to do with “the little black dog with brown paws and a brown mask and a sweet ruffle of brown fur on her bum just beneath her black whip of a tail” in Little Dog, Lost.

Why have I told it then?

Because it exemplifies the way character reaches the page. Whether I’m starting from my own psyche or from a friend’s dog, I take only a kernel of what’s real, plant it, and let it grow into something entirely new. In this case, I borrowed a dog’s ears and a few other physical attributes, stirred in my own propensity for kissing my cavalier “on the lips” and then saying “Argh-h-h-h!” when she chooses that instant to lick, and added a pinch of my own longing. . . all of which you’ll find in Buddy in Little Dog, Lost.

The results? A nicely developed character. Or at least the illusion of a nicely developed character.

Because the truth is that characters on the page are illusions. They give the impression of being whole human beings—or whole dogs—when in reality they are merely wisps.

Strange how much we can love these creations anyway, authors and readers alike. Strange how ready we are to fill in the blanks and bring words on a page to life inside our own minds.

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