No two people are alike. For that matter, no two animals are alike either! One mark of a great story is believable characters, each with his or her own distinct personality and habits. Author Kaley Birchfield is only eleven years old. Her story, “A Home for Barney” (the featured story from our March/April 2014 issue), is only six pages long. Somehow, in those six short pages, Kaley manages to bring to life a whole host of human and animal characters. How does she do it?
There’s the narrator, Christy, a young woman who works at a goat farm. From the first sentence, we see that Christy loves nature. As the story goes on, we learn that she is emotional, loving, and a bit of a worrier. Christy’s co-worker, Marla, seems kind of slow at first. Little by little, we see that, while Marla may not say much, she is wise, and she feels things deeply. Their boss, Jenny, is a take charge kind of person, full of confidence. But she has a soft side and feels sad, like Christy does, when Barney the goat has to leave.
Then there’s Barney and another goat, Mocha. They couldn’t be more different from each other. Barney is gentle, calm, and affectionate. Mocha is unfriendly and moody. Even the family that arrives at the end of the story has well-drawn characters, especially the bubbly, impulsive youngest sister, Autumn.
It would be boring if Kaley simply listed each character’s distinguishing qualities. Instead, she shows us what each character is like through their words, actions, gestures, and speech. Marla seems unemotional, but the goodbye hug she gives Christy speaks volumes. Christy’s emotions are up and down as she and Barney are separated and reunited more than once. At different times Christy’s shoulders sag, she can’t sleep, she has a lump in her throat. She is overjoyed when Barney runs up to her after their separations. When Autumn realizes how sad Christy is to lose Barney, she blurts out her family’s address and tells Christy to come visit.
Why do we write stories? Why do we read them? You can probably think of many answers to these questions. Maybe we like to leave our own lives for a little while and lose ourselves in the lives of others. Maybe we have feelings of sadness that we can’t express, and a sad story helps us tap into our own feelings and get them out. And no matter how young or how old we are, we can always learn. We can learn how to be better people, more loving toward each other and our pets, more understanding, better able to cope with loss and change. But before we can get all these benefits from a story, we must believe in it. We must believe that the characters are real.