I awoke to a pig-snout in my face, the smell of slop assaulting my nose. With a start, I rolled off my straw pile and hit my knees against the hard wooden floor of the barn, adding to the mess that was my dress.
The pig laughed at me, oinking as he nodded his muddy head.
“Shut your snout, Wil,” I said, rubbing my knees as I picked myself off the floor.
Wil just shook his head, oinking even louder as he pranced away toward the other eleven pigs.
The barn wasn’t very big with barely enough room for the thirteen of us to sleep in, but it was the coziest place I’d ever slept in. A quick glance around told me the sun was just waking and all of the slats of the barn were still in place. Another successful night.
I shivered as I checked the health of each pig, my bare feet slapping against the puddles left by the rain the night before. I pointedly ignored my distorted reflection in the water. I didn’t need any reminders.
I saved Wil for last, checking his hoofs and snout with care. He was easy to pick out because he had a brown spot around his left eye and he was bigger than the other pigs. That also meant he’d be the first to go. It was just a matter of time.
Confident everyone was healthy, I allowed myself to return to my pile of straw. It would be a little while longer before the rest of the farm would awake, giving me enough time to work on my gift.
With great care, I took the gift from beside my bed and placed it on my lap, examining it before continuing my work. It was a necklace made of straw, the most intricate design I’d done to date. It had already come apart several times, but it seemed the gift was finally coming together.
A storm of emotions whirled within me as I pulled back my hair, tying it in a knot to keep it from interfering with my work. Then I went about examining my bed, looking for just the right piece of straw to add to the necklace.
That was when I heard the shouts from outside, coming closer by the second. Kendrick.
I immediately started sweating, fighting away the dread threatening to overtake me. There were plenty of reasons he could be coming to the barn. Though none of them would bring him out this early…
Suddenly, Kendrick kicked in the fragile barn door, a satisfied smile on his face.
“Morning, Allie!” Kendrick said, his eyes disturbingly wild as he licked his lips. He was the eeriest twelve-year-old I’d ever met.
“Good morning, Master Kendrick,” I replied, bowing as I carefully placed the necklace in the pocket of my dress.
Kendrick eyed me, looking me up and down before finally nodding. “Guess what?
I made my voice as light as possible. “What?”
“I said to guess,” Kendrick frowned, “don’t you listen?”
I nodded, counting to three before answering. “My apologies, Master Kendrick. Is it… Market already?”
He smiled wickedly, “no… guess again.”
Just then I heard the sound of wheels squeaking outside the barn, confirming my fear.
Fighting a whimper, I gave in. “It’s… Feeding day.”
Kendrick nodded vigorously, skipping over to the pigs in delight. “Do you wanna choose which one?”
My hands began to tremble. “You know your father will choose.”
Kendrick frowned at me again, but said nothing as my owner appeared in the doorway.
“Dad, can you make Allie choose the pig this time?” Kendrick asked, imitating his father as he straightened his posture.
“Good morning, Master Smith,” I said, bowing once again.
“Lower,” Smith growled, his eyes cutting me. He was dressed in his finest clothes, sporting both a hat and cane, just as he always did for Feeding day.
I bowed again as low as I could manage, holding the position as blood rushed to my head. I waited a full five seconds before straightening back up, inwardly seething.
“I will choose the swine, as usual, son,” Smith said, promptly ignoring me, “as soon as the girl comes to her senses.”
Shaking myself out of it, I quickly grabbed my bed and laid the straw on the ground, making a path from the door to the pigs.
As soon as I finished the path, Smith strutted toward the pigs, eyeing them for only a moment before waving a hand. “The eye-patch.”
I nodded, my hands shaking worse than before. Internally numb, I went about tying a noose for Wil as Smith walked back out of the barn. I’d never gotten used to this part. Kendrick never took his eyes off of me.
Not long after we were on our way to town, Smith leading the horses as I held down Wil. Kendrick had yet to be allowed on these trips.
We were one of the further farms from town, though still less than a day’s ride away. My stomach churned as we rode across rolling hills. There were no sights along our path, nothing to distract me except black scorch marks scattered across green pastures.
As we rolled along, I worked my straw necklace, trying desperately to finish it before it was too late. The entire time Wil kept his eyes on me, trusting me to keep him safe just as I had done for the past year. I couldn’t meet his eyes.
The sun was just barely past it’s highest point when the town came into view, appearing suddenly as we crested the last hill. The town wasn’t much of a town, not even a shadow of what it once was. It was settled on the outskirts of the city, with only a few buildings still standing. Only scavengers remained.
The scorch marks were especially prominent here, not a single blade of grass in sight. In the land in-between the remaining buildings, the ground was black and cracked, a single giant hole in the center.
The other nine farms had arrived already by the time we pulled up, their pigs gathered just outside the town where the cracks began.
A line of soldiers stood before them, each with a special set of leather armor in place of the traditional metal.
“And Smith Farms is last to arrive as usual,” one of the guards grumbled, walking around our cart to get a look at Wil.
“It’s the girl’s fault,” Smith replied, gesturing to me with a frown.
“Well, girl,” the guard said impatiently. “How ’bout ya stop causing trouble and get going.”
I stood hurriedly, bowing to the guard before leading Wil off the cart. As soon as he hit the ground he started whimpering, apparently sensing what was about to happen.
The guard quickly checked him out before walking back to the other pigs, gesturing for me to follow him with Wil. Of the nine slaves standing next to their pigs, I recognized seven of them. Only two slaves had died in the last month. A small victory.
As we got closer to the cracks, Wil grew louder, squealing along with the other pigs. As soon as we joined the rest, the guards gestured toward the scorched earth, giving no special direction.
All of us hesitated, our pigs pulling against their tethers in the opposite direction.
“Move,” one of the guards yelled. “Before it gets agitated.”
I glanced at the other, meeting one of their eyes, a newcomer. Steeling myself, I stepped out onto the cracks, leading Wil across the scorched earth.
I forced myself not to look back, trusting that the others would follow. My arms strained against Wil as I led him toward the gigantic hole in the ground.
Despite my heart breaking, I felt no tears on my cheek. There were none left to give. Close behind me, I heard the squeals of the other pigs echoing Wil’s. Good, they had followed.
When we were far enough out I stopped and pulled out my un-finished necklace. With a whisper of comfort, I laid it around Wil’s neck and pet him behind his ears. Ever so slightly, his squeals subsided. It was so little, and yet it was all I had to give.
Suddenly, the ground below us began to shake, nearly throwing me off my feet. The end had come.
Just then, a screech erupted from the earth and the dragon emerged from its hole, it’s wings stretching across the sky as I released my hold on Wil’s noose. Wil ran for his life.
With yet another screech, the dragon launched into the sky, it’s tongue flicking back and forth as chaos ensued around me.
I huddled on the ground, immobile as it soars above me. Trembling, I watched it swoop down on its prey, careful not to move my head even an inch.
Looking back I was relieved to see that most of the others imitated me, huddled against the ground. Three of the slaves, however, had panicked, and were screaming as they sprinted away from the dragon.
With disgusting grace, the dragon swept from one victim to another, focusing on the slaves first. Within seconds, the screaming had stopped, leaving only the squeals of the pigs.
Wil was the second to last to be caught, almost making it outside the town before being dragged back to the dragon’s hole.
One at a time, the dragon dragged it’s prey down into the ground, eventually remaining submerged after it was done.
It was sometime later before I managed to stand again, pointedly ignoring the blood-stains as I tip-toed back to the cart. The others eventually followed after me as I made my way back to my cart, already planning a new necklace.
The soul of a story is its characters.
Even if you don’t have an exciting story concept, if you have interesting characters, you’ll have a good story. Easier said than done.
There are a lot of ways to make interesting characters, but the gist of it is: make them sympathetic.
Here’s how you do that:
Make them relatable.
If the reader doesn’t connect to the characters, then they won’t care about what happens to the characters. So you have to give the reader a way to connect to AT LEAST one of your main characters. you do that by:
- Giving them relatable passions
- Making them flawed
- Making them seem real through details
- Making them struggle
These are all things that most every human can relate with. For most readers, they will identify with the character, making it them who is passionate, flawed, and struggling.
In this chapter, I showed you Allie.
Now let me ask you, do you like her? Why? If you do, it’s probably because:
- She sleeps in a barn
- She cares about the pigs
- She doesn’t complain about her situation
- She is constantly humbled
- She actively uses her free time for others
- She’s courageous
- She gets motion sickness
- She’s a survivor
This is all experienced in the first chapter and powerful motivators to care about Allie. Because she’s constantly humiliated, most people will automatically relate with and root for her.
Make them admirable.
But we can’t just leave it there, because that’s not a story, that’s just a description. In order to satisfy the reader, the character has to pursue their passions, overcome their flaws, and persevere over their struggles. By the end of the story, the reader shouldn’t only identify with a character, but they should also aspire to the character. It’s about providing hope.
So we must give the characters attributes to admire, otherwise, they become unlikeable.
- Samwise had no special powers, but he was the best friend a person could ask for
- Sherlock starts as a horrible person, but he’s so smart and intriguing that we are usually willing to forgive him
Give them a positive trait and then lean on it until they overcome their flaws and struggles.
For Allie, it’s her courage and resilience that makes us root for her. We love that she cares and has the strength to face danger. On the other hand, we have an automatic disdain for Smith because it’s his cowardice, among other things, that is the source of her struggles.
Make them active. Make them good at something. Anything at all.
Make them surprising.
Just having the first two traits of relatable and admirable can be enough, but nowadays it’s really hard to write anything that hasn’t already been done. We expect mentors to be older men, the knight to slay the dragon, and the guy to fall in love with the girl. So if you really want to write a special story, surprise the reader.
Now, it is actually really easy to surprise the reader. However, it is really difficult to surprise the reader AND write a satisfying story. And writing a satisfying story comes first. So if you can’t come up with something completely unique, that’s okay. Most people just settle for using quirks to set their characters apart.
For Allie, we don’t see much yet, but we do see enough to make us care for her. Her weaving straw doubles as a way to show how much she cares for the pig and reveal one of her hobbies. And for good measure, we may even notice that she gets motion-sick. A lot of people can relate with that.
As far as real surprises, I did it a little with Kendrick. In stories, we don’t usually expect a little boy to cause so much dread. And I made him interesting enough, and unlikeable enough, that a reader may keep reading just to discover how he gets his butt handed to him. As for Allie, there will be surprises regarding her growth, hoping making for an unforgettable character.
(For good measure, I tried to make you care about Wil as well so the ending of the chapter might have a little more emotional impact – if it worked, maybe ask yourself why it worked – there’s multiple potential reasons)