Monday, April 6, 2009

Liking your characters

We have to like your characters. It is as simple as that. If the reader doesn't like the characters from the beginning of the story, even if they are the bad guys, we have no "buy in" to the story. This is especially true with the romances. We need to want to see the two characters get together by the end of the book. Knowing it is a romance, we understand that they will, but there is still the tension of wondering when it will happen.

I bring this up, because I have seen a lot of books lately that are well written, but because the characters had major issues at the beginning, or the situations the characters were in were awful, I had a hard time buying into the story. Needless to say, I rejected the story. Let me highlight a few of them.

Adultry - This is a big one with me (and the publishers). Yes, we know this happens in the real world and yes, we know there are stories out there that make it to the shelves with this in it, but I have to say, this is a big issue in terms of liking the characters. I don't care if there is a "good reason" to cheat (of course that alone sounds strange), but the point is, the character is cheating. This makes that character now fall at the same level with the villain. You don't want this. Easy solution. Get them out of the marriage fast and then move on with the relationship.

Sure, the cheating may add some dimension to the character and the conflict. They have all of this conflicting feelings running through their heads, should I stay, should I go, and the like. But frankly, this makes us question the ethics of the person.

Lying Cheating and Stealing - Sure the characters can be tough, but again, if the lying, cheating and stealing is not a part of their profession, it makes us question the character. Along the same lines, if the reader doesn't know this from the beginning, then we start to question the character. Here's an example. I just read a story where the hero was supposed to be spying for the king and he was to be running around the city being a jerk about it to people.. O.K. that's fine, but the problem is that I didn't see it until at least chapter 3 or 4. This means that during the opening scenes when I really wanted to see the first glimpses of the two main characters, all I saw was a person that I wanted gone. Not a good thing.

Being a jerk - He's a rake. He's supposed to do that. Well, sort of, but I always say, that I don't care how bad the guy is, I still want to see him as a mama's boy. The reader needs to see the softer side of the characters at some point. The other characters might not see it, but we need to.

Look, there are things you can do to increase the power of your story, but creating characters we don't like just doesn't work.



  1. Hummm.interesting. Let me throw this one out. Several of the classic "how to" books for romance writers that I have read, all stress that the male lead cannot be married, or engaged, or even dating, apparently, and then meet a second woman with whom he falls into true love. Is this still true, in this day of serial engagement and marriage? The male lead is always so unrealistically attractive that I can't believe he is ever conveniently alone long enough to meet the female lead. Ask me how many friends fell in true love when they were engaged or married to someone else.
    I remain amazed at how quickly they justify leaving Male 1, and sometimes kids too, in order to pursue what they feel is their real destiny.
    I don't like it, but it is increasingly common today.
    So, in plotting, can the male lead ever be married, or at least, engaged, when he meets The One? Or does ensure a quick dump into the round file?

  2. Disclaimer: the expressed opinion below is given under the assumption that the Hero/Heroine has no relevant reason for being in a bad know the ones. The beauty married to the old lecher who can’t fulfill his marital duties. Or maybe marriage by proxy and the H/H has never seen their significant other? Otherwise...

    Call me old school but if I want real (as in less than ethical/noble) life peppered into my stories I weave it in through the secondary characters. Not the villains per se, but perhaps regular people who are making bad choices. Lots of people make mistakes but do I want my hero/heroine making life altering ones like committing adultery? Even if they thought later: “Wow, that was a huge mistake. I have learned. I’m never going to do that again because you are THE ONE for me.” Yeah, that’s what you said to the person you just betrayed...or ah, didn’t you get together with them for love? Of course, you did! And I’d wager many people faced with the reality of an unfaithful partner are never as comfortable as they once were after they make the decision to forgive their partner this transgression. Why? Because a trust has been broken. So, my point here is that we need to trust our hero/heroine’s judgement. And would we, if they are making these kind of heartbreaking mistakes? I mean what is wrong with having your H/H thinking like grown ups and saying “I’m sorry, I can no longer live like this with you. We’re not compatible. I wish that this had worked out but because it hasn’t we need to go our separate ways and stop causing each other unnecessary pain?” Maybe taking some time to reflect on this momentous decision prior to jumping into another relationship. No, instead I see character’s cheating and using this secondary consequence (the act itself) to mask the primary one (the fundamental unhappiness within the marriage).

    Why not have your H/H tuned in and paying attention to what is going on around them, perhaps noticing a friend’s betrayal and agreeing/disagreeing with it. This gives you additional material to make some great layers for your character’s character. What if the heroine thought the fact that her friend’s husband stepping out on her was horrible? She wants to say something to that friend, yet the hero doesn’t figure it is any of their business. He likes the guy and I don’t know, his flippant attitude prompts her say something like: “Wouldn’t you want to know if your wife was cheating on you?” And that simple question causes him to examine his concept of what a loyal and committed relationship really means or should mean to him. Make too much sense? Not dramatic enough? Again, call me crazy, but I think the drama can be brought in from the story - not by making your H/H doing really bad things so that they can learn from them. Oh, I do want growth in a character but not rampant stupidity cured by an epiphany!

    To have real secondary characters that are fallible is liberating. They are not morally obligated to do the right thing all the time. Not that I think the H/H should always be doing the right thing but surely to God they’re not stealing money from the old lady down the street (even though she terrorized them when they were younger)...I’ve um, read that in a book once. The H/H should be better than these characters in my opinion otherwise why do they deserve the limelight. (Again I’m talking strictly romance here).

  3. Murphy! Who set your hair on fire? And when you say:

    Oh, I do want growth in a character but not rampant stupidity cured by an epiphany!

    I almost choked on my tea.

    Thanks as ever for the laugh. :)

  4. Actually, what I would really like to know is: where has normal gone?

    And the rant? Well, you can blame that on a 'romantic comedy' that I recently watched. Not gonna name names here BUT, with a premise like a guy having been cursed so that every girl he sleeps with will (the very next day), find her true love...and guess what? He figures this out while at the same time he finds his own true love - only (and here is the kicker)he being the 'nice' guy that he is still sleeps with about a hundred more women before he declares his love for her? How very romantic! GIVE ME A BREAK!

  5. I see alot of stories these days with less then ideal leads. To say that this is acceptable is no good. Murph's points seem well taken but on the other hand as Anon says, is there a formula we writers must follow? Or do we risk by not following the standards, getting tossed in the trash?

  6. I hope no one tosses anyone's work in the trash (I think more likely the rejection pile?). Is this the same anonymous that suggested that the books that had already been read could be burned for warmth? If so, I'm sensing a theme here.

  7. Yowser. Hit the hot button with this one! What interesting thoughts there, group. I love the idea of using doubtful situations to add another layer to the story.
    And now that Scott himself has mentioned the "M word," yes, movies, I must agree that the last remake of Pride and Prejudice is one I have watched at least five times in full, just for the pleasure of watching Mr. Darcy squirm and Knightly at her most adorable.
    How we women chrish the fantasy that standing up for ourselves not only gets us love and respect, out of the wild blue yonder, apparently, as unfortunately there is not time in the movie to do more than announce that Mr. Darcy is suddenly in love with our heroine, (compare this to the wonderful, wordless, falling in love scenes in "Last Samurai,"
    but L and R comes attached to a most attractive and obscenely rich male. Bring it on! No poor white trash for me. I am waiting for Mr. Darcy to be cast as Lady Chatterly's gardener, however, so we can get down to business in the orchard-he is most appealing!
    Beyond all this, is there a bottom line here for me to cart away? CAN my male lead be engaged, or assumed to be on track, AT the time he meets his real love? These matters were taken very seriously in 1800's Britain. Nobility did not break engagements, or understandings lightly at all, What do you think? It works, or automatic agent dump?
    Thank you all.
    As for getting back to, gee, Scott, I've been sticking up for people who do not respond to a flood of uninvited queries. I refer you all to Agentfail and Queryfail. What fun. What fury from the unhappy unanswered.

  8. Anon you ask:

    CAN my male lead be engaged, or assumed to be on track, AT the time he meets his real love?

    I'll leave the actual answering to um, Scott, but I don't mind pitching in my two cents as a reader/writer before it's back to the grindstone tomorrow. As an aside, it was fun hanging here today. Therapeutic, you might say, while I worked through a tricky narrative. (insert me dancing around the keyboard here because I'm done with it!).

    About the question: I have one of my own. Why is it so important that your hero be engaged or on track with impending marriage? If it is simply that he thought he was ‘in love’ and then this ‘original beauty’ shows up and sweeps him out of his loafers when it suddenly hits him that she’s ‘THE ONE’?! As a reader you lost me - because the guy obviously doesn’t know what he wants.
    But, if your answer is that it is integral to the plot in some way, well, then I would say go for it but pay close attention to how you let the breakdown of the engagement play out. I know I have been left scratching my head after I’ve read some stories where the broken engagement was plot driven and that’s all it was. When, in fact, this gives a writer a golden opportunity to bring so much more into the fabric of their story. Instead I find too many writer’s skip over this really great learning curve for their characters and immediately bring in the distraction of the heroine, if she isn’t already the inciting incident to begin with. This kind of goes back to what I alluded to earlier today. A man shouldn’t have to commit adultery to cause his marriage to fail - the marriage had already failed otherwise he wouldn’t have committed adultery. A man shouldn’t have to find THE ONE in order to realize that the woman he was about to marry isn’t! And I know it should go without saying (but I get emails and you know who your are) so I’m saying it. Yes, the bit about breaking an engagement, adultery etc... also applies to a woman. Sheesh! Some of you guys are relentless.

  9. Wow! This a good one! I think we need smarter character's these days. I was thinking about the idea brought up in one of the comments about a hero being engaged before he weds or is engaged when he meets the woman he really wants. I had a friend who dumped her fiance of three years for a guy she met two weeks before the wedding. They stayed together for a couple of months and then the romance fizzled out. That is life and that is what we are suppose to write about.

    And Murphy? Were you talking about me?:(

  10. Oh man, more interesting things upon which to ponder. You ask such useful questions. I had not thought beyond my own Why here, which he is that the male lead is expected to make a typical state marriage within his class, but the social and economic conditions which the upper class had taken for granted for so long, were rapidly changing, as the land and agricultural-based income of the nobility began to be overwhelmed by the cash wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution. Men of all classes suddenly realized they might rise in stature on several levels. In the rigid class system that was England, this was a stunning development, added to the impact of the French Revolution.
    SO, accepted behaviors in the upper class began to be challenged vigorously. They had to begin changing or accept the real possibility of civil war and revolution.
    To cut to the chase, Mr. Male Lead is better suited to a commoner, than to line up with an upper class woman who represents everything that is dying in England.
    I add three wildly different examples-Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and the movie, Titanic, all of which illustrate male leads choosing between the old and the new. Would you rather spend your life with adorable commoner Keira Knightly, or his snitty best friend's sister ?
    Thank you all for your most interesting responses.