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from tutorials given at the Romance Writers' Conferences in Brisbane and Auckland August 2000
Characterisation is the key to the success of
your novel. And if anyone has any doubts about that, listen to
what the experts have to say.
Karin Stoeker, Editorial Director of HM&B, told attendees at the Romance Writers of Australia Conference in 1995: "It doesn't matter how fluently you write, or how cleverly you plot, if you don't have well rounded characters, it won't work."
And this year, best selling author, Nora Roberts, was asked in an interview in Publisher's Weekly, how she's kept her writing fresh, after writing 130 novels - her secret was - the characters! Nora explained that each new book is like the first book, because it involves a completely new set of characters. She said: "... without flesh and blood characters, the writer - and the reader care about, you've got nothing but words on a page."
So how do we produce fully rounded characters the readers will love and care about? I believe the secret is in creating heroes and heroines who are two things in one - they must be the same only different.
Writers of contemporary romance are creating fantasies based on well loved mythical tales, but these tales must be grounded in the very real world of the twenty-first century. So - this means our heroes and heroines should have universally recognised qualities in common with the characters of all other romance novels, but they also need to be fresh and interesting, real and individual. This is what I mean by the same only different.
Let's tackle the question of sameness first, because I know we are attacked by our critics for this very thing. I'm only going to talk about the two protagonists, the hero and the heroine as they must take up most of the space in a romance and they must stand out from the other characters.
A romance reader comes to our books with certain expectations. She wants to be able to recognise the hero and heroine in our story as soon as they appear. When those characters meet her expectations, she knows she can trust them to take her along a familiar and loved story path. On each journey down that path, she wants unexpected and new twists, but she trusts that it will always end at the same place - happily ever after. She wants the same only different.
So what should be the same about all heroes and heroines in a romance?
I'll start with simplest most basic feature - the physical. And as I see it, there is only one rule. He will have hard muscles and she will have soft curves. You can play around with varying degrees of physical attractiveness, but even if he is a nerdy professor and she is an uptight librarian, the hero must have a hard, very masculine physical presence and the heroine must be softly feminine. To my mind, this essential, primitive, physical contrast between the sexes is fundamental and it's at the heart of the sensual tension of a romance.
Something else that is clear cut is the characters' morality. Romances are not prudish, but they do have a very positive moral code.
Whether the heroes are Super-Alpha Navy Seals, Cowboys or Beta Boys Next Door, and whether the heroines are Virgins, Nurturers or Warrior Princesses they will be basically good, admirable people. Even the bad boy types and the spunky, audacious chicks must be people who are ultimately capable of a relationship founded on respect and commitment.
They are by no means perfect and they might fight their nobler urges in the early stages of the book, but they have the strength and emotional courage to eventually offer each other a great love that will overcome all obstacles.
The psychological elements are not so black and white, but in modern romances, there is a growing trend towards powerful heroines. I love a comment by Jennifer Crusie that in fairy tales, heroines got what they wanted by simply looking good unconscious, or by having tiny feet.
These days, heroines do not lie around in the woods waiting for their prince. They are often determined and prepared to fight for what they want. Today's heroines make decisions and are prone to revealing their feelings. On the other hand, today's heroes, while still remaining strong and powerful, often reveal a chink of gentler, nurturing qualities.
So these are fundamental similarities that exist in all romances.
However, our job is to keep our reader in the world we've created for our characters. We want her to suspend her disbelief and completely accept and care. We want her cheering them on through their trials. To achieve that, we have to throw away the stereotypes and create real people. They have to be new and different.
Just as in the real world where no two individuals are the same, in our stories, we need characters with unique, layered personalities, who have a past that has shaped them and who will continue to grow and change during the story.
Celia Brayfield in her book, Bestseller: Secrets of Successful Writing, claims that creating characters in writing is a matter of discovering them rather than making them up.
I have found this to be very true. I think I work on a very intuitive level when I write. I can't force my characters to life. I can't sit down and interview or analyse them in depth before I start the book. I know this works for a lot of people and it's worth trying because it could well work for you. We all go about this in different ways and there is no one, right way to do anything in writing.
I start with some basic situations and a general idea of my characters, but I have to feel my way towards knowing them intimately. It's like they're out there in another dimension and they gradually move towards me, so that I see them more clearly as the story unfolds.
This method works for me, because I discover things about them that serve my story purpose. One little example - if I had tried to fill in a detailed character list for Maddy Delancy before I wrote Borrowed Bachelor, and I'd come to the question about what kind of car she drove, I probably would have written down any old car.
But when I was writing the story and I had begun to know her well and I got to the point half way through the story where she had to hop into her car, it was suddenly glaringly obvious that she drove a little pink van with the Floral Fantasies logo on the side. By then I already had a pink thing going with Maddy and her job as a florist had begun to grow on me in ways that it hadn't before I started the book.
Because I have more of an intuitive rather than an analytical approach, I had to think extra hard when I was planning this tutorial. I was thinking about exercises we could do. I especially wanted to focus on how it's all sorts of little things that gradually build up the character in the reader's imagination.
Since I was very young, I'd been aware of a "movie in my head" while I was reading, so I was thinking, how do we actually switch on that very real, vivid "movie" in the reader's head?
One trick I find helpful is to surround myself with visual stimuli. As a teacher, I often used pictures as starting points for getting kids writing. So, besides having a picture of the hero and the heroine, I often buy a magazine related to my story - simply because it will provide me with one or two inspiring images. I've used beautiful photos from interior decorating, bridal, pregnancy and Outback magazines to fire my imagination. Sometimes the photos in advertisements capture great emotional moments.
This year I wrote a story about a mustering team in the Outback and I found a magazine that had a wonderful photo essay about mustering and yarding cattle. As I wrote those scenes I would spend ages just gazing at the pictures, just soaking up the atmosphere and the ambiance.
I can't explain exactly how it helps, but it seems to keep me focused and in tune. I guess it helps me to visualise my characters in a real place and a real situation. To see what they're seeing, to touch what they're touching and smell what they're smelling.
Because I find visual aids so useful, I hit on the idea of watching excerpts of romance movies specifically to analyse how to choreograph a scene - how to flesh out dialogue with body language and facial expressions and how to make a character move more realistically. I thought we could all view a scene together and discuss it.
But I discovered something quite interesting. I tried several videos, but not once could I find a scene that was useful for talking about writing. Because all those things that I thought happened - pacing up and down while delivery lines, fists banging on desk tops, etc. didn't happen. Most of the dialogue in a movie is delivered during close ups - everything is told through the expression on the actor's face - mainly the eyes, the tone of voice and the timing.
This, I realised, is because a great deal of the story in films is told through other devices like setting, costumes, lighting, camera angles, and music. Most movement is saved for big action shots.
After I got over my disappointment, I decided two things:
(1) In future I am going to watch more live theatre - because when the actors are standing in front of us on the stage, they have to use their bodies to bring life to dialogue - and they have to exaggerate the movements so they will be seen at the back of the theatre. I'm sure there is a lot to learn from them.
(2) I had to think even harder about what tools writers use instead of lighting, camera angles etc, to bring life to the characters and the story.
So, that's the other area I'm going to cover today: - How dialogue, body language, tone of voice, introspection and point of view contribute towards character. Then on course, there's your characters' emotional landscapes.
Let's start there, because we all know that romances are all about emotion.
For your characters to overcome their problems and find each other's love they need emotional courage. So do you - the writer. You must be prepared to expose your own inner thoughts and feelings and memories. You need to totally immerse yourself in your characters when you write and dig deep into your own psyche, virtually losing yourself in the writing - to give it true depth of feeling...
I have to feel the character's emotion - when I can feel it, I can write it. Sometimes, this means crying as I write.
The most natural way for this to happen is to write about the characters you love. It's no good reading someone else's work and being very impressed by a particular style of character and thinking ... maybe I should try something like that... unless you read and think yes! This is exactly the kind of character for me.
If you don't love your characters, you can't really expect your reader to. Don't try to mimic the best sellers. Your story won't come across as real and vivid unless it has characters only you could have produced! If your characters are not warming your heart, if you don't feel totally involved with them as you write, think hard. Think about what kind of characters you've really loved in your favourite stories.
Did the hero tease the heroine?
Was the heroine gentle and serene?
Was the hero dark and mysterious, manfully hiding a past hurt?
What settings do you love? Because setting colours the characters. Sometimes changing the setting can make your characters come alive. Setting can be like a third character profoundly affecting the relationship.
Apart from loving your characters, and being as emotionally honest as you can, you need to know them intimately. It's all the little details that you feed in that make the characters become real individuals with complex layers.
Little things add to character appeal in so many ways. When an editor wrote back to me about the first three chapters of the ms that eventually became my first sale, she commented on how much she liked the hero - and it was little things about him that she spoke about - e.g. when Fletcher was determined to throw the heroine off his property and he was risking his life to fight his way over a flooded creek, he turned back to the heroine, knowing she was terrified, and sent her a grin like a cheeky schoolboy.
How did I come up with that little detail? As usual, I was working on a semi-visual level. I was asking myself, if Mel Gibson was acting this scene, what might he do? And I thought of his character in the movie Gallipoli - cheeky, yet courageous and I saw that grin - so I wrote it.
If you can throw in the unexpected - little tender, comical or tough moments that contrast with the rest of the scene, it can melt the reader's heart.
Another important tool of characterization is dialogue. It reveals a great deal about character but also about mood, attitude, power and emotion.
Again, when I write dialogue, I have to be there in the scene and hear it. I like to write dialogue first in a stream without pausing to add the speech tags or description. I want the natural speech patterns to flow and then I go back and direct the scene - adding in occasional descriptions of how the lines are delivered through tone of voice and gestures etc. I see myself as a movie director and the characters are actors working out the best ways to deliver those lines.
Sometimes I go back and break up longer chunks of dialogue by having the characters interrupt each other.
I try to include as much dialogue as I can. When I re-read my work, if I feel the story is slowing down, I will hunt for passages that can be turned into dialogue - instead of having the character just think the ideas - I get them to say them - this can sometimes achieve other things too. Having the words spoken out loud can give the thoughts more weight, more significance- can even be the springboard for more conflict.
I recently read a Nora Roberts book where the heroine was considering surrendering her virginity to the hero. Instead of just thinking about this, she discusses it with her mother. Putting these thoughts into dialogue made it a very powerful scene and raised my admiration for the characters that they could discuss this so openly. It also heightened the story's emotional tension at that point.
Think about using telephone conversations as a way of including more dialogue - even conversations with secondary characters - it can fill in the gaps in your story rather than slowing it down with blocks of narrative. Every time the character opens his or her mouth you are building up the picture of him or her.
But it's not just what your characters say, but how they say it. Body language is important in dialogue scenes. I work at this in much the way an actor does. I crawl into my character's heads. I feel with them. I'm in the scene with them. I'm often sitting at my desk, trying out positions - I find myself sitting the way they might be sitting, or pulling a face, so I can describe it more accurately.
It really is important to think about what your characters are doing as well as what they are saying thinking and feeling. Rarely are they standing in an empty space. The scene will seem more real if you remind the reader that they are for example - drinking a cup of coffee. Think about the mug and the spoon. Is the coffee hot or sweet? Feed in one or two little details during the dialogue.
Next time you read La Verle Spencer look closely at how she uses little touches like body language and personal habits to bring her characters to life. I've learned so much from writers like her.
But sometimes it's best to let the uninterrupted dialogue work by itself, because, as well as revealing character, dialogue gives your writing energy and pace.
Choosing which character's point of view will work best in a scene can be tricky. I'm still learning a lot about that. There seems to be a general rule that you should consider what's at stake and you should choose the point of view of the character who has the most to lose. I think this is a good rule - it will ensure the most emotional tension.
I have found it can also be useful to choose the viewpoint of the character who can have a fresh or unique perspective on the scene.
You also need to think about the plot. Sometimes you want to let the reader to know how one character is thinking but keep that information from the other character. For example, in "Outback with the Boss" my heroine is caught out in a very embarrassing situation right near the start of the story. She has a lot to lose, so many would say it should be told from her point of view.
She hopes the hero doesn't recognise her. I want the reader (but not the heroine) to know he does recognise her, so I wrote it from his POV. In the next scene, back in her POV, we see how much the heroine is suffering from her predicament.
Characters can give writers headaches.
Occasionally characters arrive in my head, almost complete and it's like they take me in hand and write the book for me. It's a dream run all the way.
I think we've all been there - where we start out full of inspiration and at some point, the characters have turned to us and said, "You just don't understand" in much the way a teenager might. And again, just like a teenager, they seem to be turning out quite differently from how we planned for them when they were born.
What I do then, is find the parts where they are working well - where I really like the characters - and think hard about what is happening there and what's missing in other places.
Questions to ask at times like this are:
* Is my character getting too wimpy? Or to immature? Am I avoiding something?
* Do I need to rewrite some scenes from a different point of view? Is this character revealing too much of his or her feelings too soon? Would the other character provide a unique or more emotional perspective at this point?
* Is there enough tension? Do I have to raise the emotional stakes?
* Do I know exactly what each character's story is? Is it clear in my head? Can I write it in one sentence? e.g. Hero is a charming guy who's broken hearts left right and centre and suddenly finds himself in that same uncomfortable position. Heroine is a very conscientious, clever and loyal employee, who mistrusts the motives of her new boss.
* Is it a matter of plotting? Am I letting too much plot get in the way of character?
One way to make sure you keep the characters at the forefront is to remember - what could well be a golden rule for writing fiction: For every action there should be a reaction. In other words, every time something happens we must know how one or both characters feel about it.
From my experience, no two books seem to emerge the same way.
I've found you need to be flexible when creating characters and just as parents have to rethink their strategies when their children become difficult, you need to work at finding solutions. Sometimes it's just a matter of trial and error. You need to walk that thin line between losing yourself in the story and being able to pull out every so often and put your editor's hat on.
So far we've talked about the who and the what and the how of characterization, but the biggest question is why! I can add to that point I made earlier that for every action there must be a reaction - we also need to know why.
In other words, every time something happens we want to know how one or both of the characters feel about it. And we need to understand why they feel that way. At some point in the story, we need to understand their motives.
And we must be able to provide a reasonable explanation. Plausible motivation is crucial if you want your characters to seem real and believable.
A comment by Vicki Hinze in her Aids4writers column provided a light bulb moment for me, when she pointed out that in fiction, characters have to behave more logically and rationally than we often do in real life. We can be spontaneous and irrational, but we can't have the same luxury with our characters.
Motives for our own behaviour may be both incredibly complex and irrational. For example, let's think about what motives led us to be sitting here in this tutorial today.
There will be immediate, obvious ones - like you came to keep a friend company - or this is the year you plan to be published and you want to learn every last thing you can.
But keep pushing back. When did you decide you wanted to write romance? Why? What sparked that desire? Was it a book you read? Someone you met?
Keep going back. What gave you the idea that you could even contemplate writing a novel? When did your interest in writing start? When did your love of books start? Was there any one person or book that had a big impact on you at some time in your past?
If you were writing a book about yourself, you would need to select a few important details as your driving motivation. Always remembering that you are writing a romance, so don't let those details be too mundane.
You need this same kind of back story for your characters. If you can plan it all in detail before you start that's great, or you can, as I do, just keep asking yourself all the way through your story Why... why... why? Either method, you need to know your characters' fears, dreams and ambitions, weaknesses, family background, education and beliefs.
Of course, in your novel, you need to think hard about where you will include background that influences motivation without force feeding the information. Sometimes it can be helpful to have another character ask why - question your hero's or heroine's motives. Then he or she can either answer them, or if the true motives are too private, you can briefly allude to the character's thoughts.
Motivation doesn't always have to be a bad experience and it doesn't always have to be of huge significance, it can be the gradual ripple effect of a few small things that have happened in your character's past.
Motivation isn't always rooted in the past. It can also develop out of things that happen during the story.
I was very impressed by an idea put forward by author Cathy Maxwell, who said that the relationship between the hero and the heroine is almost another character - it must exist on every page. She explained that this relationship interferes with the hero's and heroine's original goals and in the end becomes a motivation for the resolution of the book - to resolve the relationship hero and heroine must change.
So in other words, their original motives are often superseded by the force of the relationship. I think that's a very good point to remember, too.
The last point I want to make about characterization
is that in a short category romance, you can't afford to waste
a word. Every description of your character, from physical appearance
and personality to fears and ambitions has to serve your story
purpose. It has to either heighten the tension or feed the emotional
atmosphere or add to the surprise and delight.
The thing I'm slowly learning is to trust my instincts more. I have found that nearly every time my instincts have nudged me that something isn't quite right, it has turned out to be so. Sometimes I've had to wait till an editor points it out and I think - I knew that - I knew it wasn't right. Why did I persist in leaving it that way?
There's so much to learn about writing, but the only real way to learn it is by doing. I'm sure those authors who've been selling for twenty years or more will tell you the same. All we can do is keep reading, keep writing and keep loving what we do. The rest will follow.