Sunday, December 29, 2013

Is Your Hero a Sheepdog? Character Development for Writers


Captive Mexican Wolf at , New Mexico. Edit to ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Is your hero, male or female, a sheepdog? Understanding the theory set forth by Dave Grossman might help you to develop your character and create fun plot twists that your readers would never see coming.

Dave Grossman is a retired Army Lt. Col. now teaching psychology at West Point, and writing. He developed a theory widely embraced by our military and domestic security forces concerning the "sheepdog" mentality.

Video Quick Study (1:40) Dave Grossman speaking on being a sheepdog.
Video Quick Study (2:02) Dave Grossman on being sheepdog and talks about his books. Very interesting to hear how he expresses his convictions. Listen to his tone of voice. This is the tone I have heard -- soft, controlled, respectful -- in the men and women whom I know to be combat-hardened, lethal sheepdogs; it's remarkably consistent.

I first ran across the sheepdog theory at the Writers' Police Academy 2013. I found it interesting that sheepdogs were discussed by both retired Secret Service Agent Mike Roche Blog Link in our class on Mass Killing and again the same day in our SWAT class taught by Dr. Scott Silverii, Chief of Police, Thibodaux, Louisianna.

Dr. Silverii included Grossman's theory in his doctoral dissertation A Darker Shade of Blue which is available on Amazon as a scholarly work, (which I found paradigm shifting). Amazon Link

This information will soon be available in a less academic version January 29th 2014.
Amazon Link

According to Grossman, there are three kinds of people: The sheep, the wolf, and the sheepdog.

Image from Facebook


* Create 98% of society
* Have empathy
* Do not harm others purposefully only accidentally
* Generally follow laws
* Generally non-violent
* Seek security behind the sheepdog
* Will run scared (stampede) with the herd

Image from Facebook

Image trolled from Facebook.
Ideation of a wolf


* 1% of society
* Criminal
* Predatory mental health issues such as sociopaths or psychopaths
* Driven by instinct
* Capacity for violence
* Lack empathy
* Prey on sheep (general society)

The natural predator for the societal wolf is the sheepdog.
Imagine found on Facebook


* 1% of society
* Natural warriors
Image from Facebook
* Protect the herd (society as a whole) from the
* Society likes to hide behind the sheepdog - they
   know they are safe
* Society does not like sheepdogs because the
   sheepdog reminds people that wolves exist.
* Sheepdogs feel marginalized by
   society - they do not feel like they
   fit in.
* Tend to seek out other
   sheepdogs, both for work and for
   personal time, in whose company
   they feel understood and their
   lifestyle affirmed. This was a theme
   that was very  important in Silverii's The Darker Shade of Blue. As the sheepdogs become more
   acculturated and entrenched in their own society, it is harder for them to feel empathy for the masses
   (sheep), to develop lasting relationships, especially healthy marriages, and to interact with the community at
* Driven by instinct
* Capacity for violence
* Maintains empathy, though according to Silverii, this diminishes over time as the sheepdog becomes more
   entrenched/socialized in the norms of their work cultural especially at the level of the Special Operations
   Groups, SOG, such as SWAT and undercover work.

Video Quick Study (3:14)

Usually sheepdog stick together
Image found on Facebook

Both the wolf and the sheepdog kill but the difference is the intent.

Image found on Facebook
Do you believe that your characters will fit neatly into these boxes? Are you writing a wolf, a sheep and a sheepdog scenario? I've contemplated this idea, and I would agree that there are clear cut personality types. As a counselor, I relied on empathy to help my criminal clients develop life skills. Where empathy was lacking, it was a useless waste of time - they were born wolves.

But let's contemplate the idea of grey boundaries. I would call myself a secondary sheepdog. I have been in enough life situations that I know that I don't mind running in to help -- be it a medical or survival emergency or fighting with a criminal hurting someone. BUT I would prefer a true sheepdog  (with trained skills, equipment, and backup) to stand firm. If there's no one else, I'll rise to the challenge. And if it is one of my kids? We are talking a whole other dynamic. Grizzly mama on steroids with a bad case of rabies (yup, that's your warning) will show her fangs. Endangered kids are the go-ballistic hot button for most parents, fictional or not.

So contemplate your character and find their switch.

Image from Facebook

I always find it interesting when I think I understand a character and then circumstances forces them to act "otherwise." Maybe your presumed superhero-of-a-boyfriend goes all scared-sheep on your five-foot tall, hundred-pound heroine, and she ends up having to save the day. A friend of mine's eighteen-year-old daughter, who matches the description for an itty-bitty heroine, watched her boyfriend being attacked by ten frat boys for about a nano-second before she went ape-shit and hospitalized three of them. The other seven ran away. Granted, she is a third degree black belt, but the odds were not in her favor. A non-sheepdog by nature, something internal had to go off so that she would express this side of her warrior personality.

What if your sweet beta male must drop his pacifist stance to save the day and wins the girl right out of the arms of  hunky-dude-turned-sheep? Good! We all liked him better anyway, and then beta-boy and his unattainable heartthrob can live happily ever after.

When your hero/heroine acts uncharacteristically, it will necessarily change the dynamic of your characters' relationship. The larger the threat the larger the shift.What happens to their relationship afterwards? Definite plot twisting capabilities.

The sheepdog theory is a fun one to play around with. Happy writing.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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  1. Fascinating post, Fiona. Well done. And thank heavens for the Sheepdogs!

  2. Yes - sheepdog hold my admiration and gratitude.

    For those of you who do not know Elise Stokes, she is the author of the Cassidy Jones Adventure Series. A YA series with some pretty awesome characters - see if you can spot the sheepdog.

    ~ Fiona

  3. This is a good analogy, and what if there is a lone sheepdog, like a lone wolf. An older sheepdog could turn antisocial, tired of all the sheep and wannabe sheepdogs...NicolaTesla, he would have been one.

  4. You'd said that the sheepdog tends to only want other sheepdogs....I'm reminded of lots of stories where a sheepdog type character falls in love with a girl who is part of the sheep pack. He is hard, battle worn and is attracted to her because she isn't like that. i think readers (who read to escape for a bit) would like that idea.

    1. In a piece of fiction, I agree! Opposites attract and that makes for a fun plot.

      In real life, what I gleaned for Dr.Silverii's research is that the sheepdog - the farther he becomes entrenched in his career - is not looking for/does not want the entanglement of a relationship. There are plenty of women servicing their physical needs without the commitment. This would be important if you were writing a crime fiction, or something that was more factual/gritty/noir and less emotional/sentimental.

      Marliss Melton does a great job of portraying her sheepdog as being just at the point in their life when they open their hearts just a tiny crack - just enough for a heroine to wriggle in and change his priorities.

      Cheers - and thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  5. Fiona, this is intriguing to me in a personal way.

    You see, I'm a thriller author. And in my recently published thriller, "BAD DEEDS," one of my characters explicitly alludes to Grossman's "sheepdog" metaphor in describing my series hero, Dylan Hunter. Dylan IS the classic sheepdog character -- a vigilante-protector of the innocent "sheep"-victims of society's "wolves," especially wolves in high places. I think you would find fascinating the passages of the novel discussing the wolf/sheep/sheepdog issue. I credited Lt. Col. Grossman in my "Acknowledgments." Thanks for a great presentation of his concept.

  6. This is a very interesting post. At first I thought you were talking about sheepdogs literally because I've recently read several romance stories with Border Collies, and I had written one in as well. lol Has research been done on what animals are favorites of romance writers? :) This has me thinking more deeply about the psychological aspects of my characters. Thanks.

  7. What if my main character is a cat?