Thursday, October 18, 2012

Getting into Your Characters

As I’ve said earlier, you should develop your plot and characters at the same time. Usually, my stories begin with “a cool idea.” Something that turns me on and makes me want to develop a plot and characters to go with the idea.

What if a man had lived for 500 years, and he needed to hide his longevity (MORE THAN A MAN)? What if a woman met the ghost of a man she’d loved and lost (CHAINED)? What if a doctor had a fake fertility clinic where he tried to increase the intelligence of children but created a race of telepaths instead (SUDDEN INSIGHT and SUDDEN ATTRACTION)?

From an idea like that, I develop a plot. And as I plot my story, I’m always thinking about the characters. I have an idea of who they are before I start writing. In HER BABY’S FATHER, for example, I knew my heroine was a woman from a middle-class background who falls in love with a man from a wealthy family. He’s murdered, and she’s left pregnant with his child. As the book opens, she’s in labor on the way to the hospital, when she’s killed in a car crash. Instead of taking her to heaven, angels send her back in time to the day she met her lover—and she has a chance to change history and save his life.

That’s the dramatic idea that sparked the plot, but to flesh out the story, I needed to know a lot about the heroine.

I had some ideas about her when I started writing the book. I wanted her to be self-sufficient and have a job that showcased her artistic talents. I wanted her to live in a small town where I could contain the action of the story. And I wanted a secret in her background that the hero’s family would use against her.

But there was so much more I needed to know. What’s her job? What are her goals and aspirations? Is she brave and determined enough to save the man she loves? How does she react when she’s in danger? How does she handle shifting reality when the things that happened before come out differently?

I came up with those details before I started writing. But, as always, I really got to know her when I was writing the first few chapters of the book.

When I write characters, I’m usually more interested in their interior traits than their physical appearance. But I've obviously got to describe them to the reader, and I will admit that all the guys in my books look like my husband if they don’t, I’m lying about it. (Well, they’re taller and slimmer.)

I can’t get very far in the process of thinking about a major character, without giving him or her a name. The names of your characters should be very conscious choices. Percy, Josephine, Ted, Norman, Dirk Pitt, Mannix, Elizabeth, Liz, Betty. They all convey a shorthand impression of the person. And don’t forget to read a name aloud if you’re considering it. Try not to select a tongue twister.

The names of the hero and heroine are very important—and also the villain. With minor characters, not so much. In fact I need to keep a list of minor characters’ names so I won’t switch them in the middle of the manuscript.

You can go either with names that are unusual or popular. Jayne Krentz is famous for giving her characters names that sound a little different—which works for her. I often use names that are popular. A good source for those is the Social Security Data Base of Baby Names:

It gives you the ten most popular names from last year, but you can reset the table to give you a hundred names, or even more. And if you write historicals, you can reset to give you popular names from previous years.

Of course, there are tons of baby-name books. One that I’ve been using for years is The Baby Boomer Book of Names, by Roger Price, et al. What I particularly like about it is the section that gives names by country of origin. When I’m looking for a foreign last name that’s easy to pronounce, I may use an ethnic male first name as a last name for a character.

For example, Garner is actually a male first name of French origin. Eldridge is an Old English male first name, as is Hale. Warner is a male first name of German origin. You can also find ethnic names on various Web sites.

After you’ve come up with a name, there are several left-brain (logical) techniques for getting to know your characters. One is the character interview, which can go far toward helping you create characters who are three-dimensional.

This one comes from Diane Chamberlain, author of many novels including The Good Father. Play the part of your character and fill in the blanks:

I love_______________________________
I hate_______________________________
I am embarrassed by __________________
I want a man who______________________
My mother____________________________
My father_____________________________
My family_____________________________
My biggest flaw is______________________
Eating is_____________________________
Sex is_______________________________
Traveling is___________________________
Money is_____________________________
My house is___________________________
My life is_____________________________
Work is_______________________________
People are____________________________
The world is___________________________
Religion is____________________________
Government is_________________________
_______________________________makes me happy
_______________________________makes me sad
_______________________________makes me frightened
_______________________________makes me proud
_______________________________makes me lonely
_______________________________embarrasses me
_______________________________frightens me
I don’t want anybody to know that____________________
I am afraid of___________________________________
I like to wear____________________________________
I hate to wear___________________________________
The worst man for me is___________________________
Since I was a child I______________________________
If I could do one thing I would_______________________
Nobody ever____________________________________
People think I___________________________________
I wish _________________________________________
I never_________________________________________
I always________________________________________
If I could change one thing__________________________
I hope_________________________________________

If you go through this list with your character, you will come up with all sorts of insights you didn’t know before.

There’s a whole lot more to discuss on the subject of character development. Next time I’ll share more techniques that can help you come up with rounded characters, including using the Myers-Briggs personality types.

What methods do you use for creating characters who are three-dimensional?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

More on Details

One point I want to pound into you is that a novel is not reality, but you must make it seem real to the reader. You do this with realistic characters and a plot that makes sense—and also with the details that you select for your story. Each detail, no matter how small is important.

My own inclination is to know as much as I can before I start to write a  manuscript, but some details will not come up until I’m in the midst.  Nevertheless, these elements must be considered carefully.

I want to use DARK POWERS, my new Decorah Security novel, as an example.  The idea for the book began with a character—Ben Walker, whom readers met in DARK MOON. During a near-death experience, Ben acquired the power to touch a dead body and get the person’s last memories. I wanted to write his story, but what was the best way to do it?

First I needed a plot where he could use his psychic talent, and I decided that if he discovered the victims of a serial killer, he would know who murdered them.

Next I needed a heroine, and I came up with Sage Arnold, a hard-working accountant whose half sister, Laurel Baker, is kidnapped.

To create complications for Ben and Sage, I wanted the local police to insist that Laurel is a runaway. Why are they turning a blind eye to reality?  What’s their motivation?  And how can they get away with their behavior?

Because this plot element had to be plausible, I thought about where I could set the story and determined that the best place would be a small town run by an “old-boy network” where most of the income comes from tourism.  I could make those requirements work in a number of locations, but I decided to focus on Maryland’s Eastern Shore because it’s out of the mainstream and because I’ve gone there many times to do research for books.

Should you use real names of places for your work?  I do think actual places  add verisimilitude, and I often use genuine details like restaurant, city, and street names; but I have a rule that if I’m going to say something really bad about a place, I give it a fictitious name.  Since the conspiracy of silence in town is a major theme in DARK POWERS, I set the story in a place I called Doncaster, although the physical features match St. Michaels, Maryland, pretty well.

The name of my fictitious town is a detail I considered carefully.  Since Oxford and Cambridge are both located near St. Michaels, I continued the British theme and found Doncaster on a map of England.

Once I’d settled on Doncaster as my setting, I looked for authentic details that would make the story more vivid. The main industry on the Eastern Shore used to be fishing and crabbing, along with farming, which is why it makes sense to have abandoned warehouses and crab processing plants that are excellent locations to hide a dead body.  And on the outskirts of  St. Michaels is a newly developed golf course community—another prime setting for a body to turn up.

In town, I used  the seafood restaurant on the waterfront in St. Michaels/Doncaster, where diners can arrive on foot, by car, or by boat.  Then there’s the police station, located in a converted Victorian house. It’s charming on the outside and all business on the inside. (And I had the nasty idea to have my hero and heroine locked in jail cells there overnight.)

And where could a local resident stash a kidnap victim and keep her captive for several months before killing her?  That would have to be in an isolated area but one that was an easy drive from downtown Doncaster—where my kidnapper/serial killer works.

My heroine, Sage Arnold, grew up in Doncaster and has a love/hate relationship with the town. We see the community and its people through her eyes and also through Ben Walker’s eyes. I’m able to introduce the setting as Sage shows Ben around, commenting on the residents as she drives by shops and houses.

Scenes set in the various locations around town allowed me to drop clues about the kidnapper and the victim, clues that only become obvious near the end of the book.

And one detail that turned out to be essential—how does Ben see the last memories of murder victims and not the murderer’s face?  I decided he had to wear a black hood that hid his features from Ben—and from the reader.

In summary, never include a detail without carefully considering what role it will play in the story.  Think of the details as enriching your book and helping to make your fictional universe real to the reader.

What do you think about when considering the setting for a story?  How have you used details to make your fiction richer?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Maryland Romance Writers at the Baltimore Book Festival this Weekend

This weekend, if you live anywhere near Baltimore, you’ve got a wonderful opportunity to hang out with members of Maryland Romance Writers—including me.

This year we have a fabulous location. Our tent is located right at the main entrance to the Festival, on Charles Street below the Washington Monument.

Starting Friday afternoon, we’ll be providing a wide variety of programming on the book industry, the craft of writing, and everything you need to know to succeed in fiction’s best-selling genre.

We kick off on Friday, September 28, at noon, with a meet and greet.  Come talk about books, receive promotional materials and browse the Ukazoo Bookstore!  Following are panel discussions throughout the book festival.

Getting the Courage to Write

Everything you ever wanted to know about how to get started in a fiction- writing career. Come prepared with questions! Authors include: Debra Anastasia, Robin Covington, Cheryl Klam, Sophie Perinot and Rebecca York.

On this panel I’m going to talk about what I call “the writing muscle.” The more you write, the easier it is to do it. (Not that it’s ever easy.) And I’m going to tell you everyone gets rejected—even if you’ve sold a hundred books.

On Writing Young Adult Romance Series

Authors talk about the challenges of writing engaging series and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Participating authors are Jennifer L. Armentrout, Claudia Gabel, Lea Nolan and Jeri Smith-Ready.

3 pm
Craft & Character Lessons

Authors offer advice, guidance and tricks of the trade in developing your writing craft and characterization. Authors include Miranda Neville, Jeri Smith-Ready, Rebecca York and Laura Kaye.

Some of the topics we’ll cover include:

  • Do you come up w/ character first or plot first? Why?
  • Do you plot out your story or do you “wing it”?
  • Do you develop your characters at the same time you develop your plot?
  • How do you come up with well-rounded characters?
  • What are important traits for a romance hero? Heroine?
  • Do you have favorite characters you’ve created?

4 pm
Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction

Authors talk about their take on research and issues of accuracy in historical romantic fiction and read from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles.  Authors include Eliza Knight, Janet Mullany, Miranda Neville, Kate Poole, Kate Quinn and Amy Villalba.

Trends and Readings In Romantic Suspense

Authors discuss what romantic suspense is, what trends define the genre, and share readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Natalie Damschroder, Joya Fields, Caridad Pineiro and Rebecca York.

I’ll talk about exactly what my new Sourcebooks editor asked me for in my new Sourcebooks romantic suspense series.

Blood and Chocolate

Indulge your chocolate cravings with dark and delicious chocolate samples from Maryland Romance Writers, while authors talk about why vampire fiction remains hot and share readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Debra Anastasia, Laura Kaye, Janet Mullany, Caridad Pineiro, and Amy Villalba.

Debating the Erotic and Readings

Authors talk about the differences between erotic romance, erotic fiction, and erotica and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Laura Kaye, Janet Mullany, Caridad Pineiro and Kate Poole.

Saturday, September 29 

Trends and Readings in Young Adult Romance

Authors talk about what’s hot in young adult romantic fiction and share readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Jennifer L. Armentrout, Em Garner, Cheryl Klam, Alethea Kontis, Lea Nolan and Leanna Renee Hieber.

Moderated by Elissa Petruzzi, YA editor, RT Book Reviews Magazine

What is Women’s Fiction?

Authors talk about what defines women’s fiction, how it differs from romance, and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Stephanie Dray, Lisa Verge Higgins, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn and Hope Tarr.

Fantasy In Romance/Romance In Fantasy

Science fiction romance. Time travel. Ghost stories. And more! Authors discuss weaving fantasy and romantic elements together and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Debra Anastasia, Catherine Asaro, Eliza Knight, Loni Lynne, Leanna Renee Hieber and Hope Tarr.

No Holds Barred with Agents and Editors

Come prepared with questions you’ve always wanted agents and editors to answer. And, for the especially daring, come with five copies of the first page of your manuscript, and the panelists offer feedback on what works and what to work on! (One-page instructions: typed, no name, place title/genre at top, double-spaced, one-inch margins and 12-point font.)  Agents and editors include Elaine English, literary agent and attorney, Elaine English Literary; Claudia Gabel, senior editor, Katherine Tegen Books (imprint of Harper Collins).

Publishing Contracts: What Authors Need to Know

An attorney and literary agent, Elaine P. English breaks down publishing contracts and offers advice on clauses to avoid, negotiations and other legal considerations for authors.

4:50 pm
Trends and Readings In Historical Fiction

Historical fiction has been making a big comeback, exploring new time periods and the lives of lesser-known historical figures. What’s behind the trend, and where is the genre going? Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Kate Dolan, Christie Kelley, Sophie Perinot, Hope Tarr and Diane Wylie.

Sex and Historical Fiction Novelists

Authors talk about the role of romance and sex in writing and telling a story of historical fiction and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Stephanie Dray, Sophie Perinot and Kate Quinn.

Fifty Shades of Hot!: Erotic Taboos in Fiction and Readings

Authors offer readings from their latest works and talk about writing the forbidden, including identifying and pushing their erotic boundaries, where the line crosses into pornography, and how to enjoy the risks and the payoffs of writing and reading erotic taboos. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Stephanie Draven, Megan Hart, Eliza Knight, Caridad Pineiro and Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weatherfield.

Sunday, September 30 

Many Paths To Publication: ePublishing and Self-Publishing

Authors talk about the many options writers have to get their writing before readers and will discuss the pros and cons, the journey to publication, and the risks and rewards of epublishing and self-publishing. Authors include Christi Barth, Kate Dolan, Megan Hart, Eliza Knight, Amy Villalba and Rebecca York.

I’ll talk about how I’ve added indie publishing and e-publishing to my traditional career.

The Writing Mother

Authors discuss the challenges of and tips for how to balance a career in fiction writing with the demands of family, motherhood and other jobs. Authors include Robin Covington, Patricia Eimer, Jamie Michele, Lisa Verge Higgins and Laura Welling.

Writing Funny And Romantic

Authors talk about incorporating humor and comedic elements into romantic fiction and share readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Debra Anastasia, Jennifer L. Armentrout, Christi Barth, Stephanie Draven, and Patricia Eimer.

Readings In Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense

Authors discuss the challenges and benefits of writing stories set in the contemporary world, talk about researching contemporary stories, and share readings from their latest works. Authors include Ann Arbaugh, Christi Barth, Robin Covington, Joya Fields, Lillie Finn, and Jamie Michele.

The Healthy Writer

Authors share the challenges of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and offer tips on how to how to stay healthy while pursuing a career in fiction writing. Authors include Sharon Buchbinder, Kate Dolan, Eliza Knight and Rebecca York.

I’ll discuss how I fit exercise into my writing life (including my new treadmill desk) plus how I keep my diet healthy.

Making Old Stories New

Authors present on how to create engaging fiction based on fairy tales, folklore, mythology, and history, and how to make those old stories new, fresh, and exciting. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Kate Dolan, Natalie Damschroder, Stephanie Draven, Laura Kaye, Alethea Kontis and Catherine Asaro.

Creature Feature! Trends and Readings in Paranormal Romance

Authors argue the case for their favorite paranormal creature, talk about trends in paranormal romance, and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Sharon Buchbinder, Stephanie Draven, Laura Kaye, Loni Lynne and Laura Welling.

Come meet some of your favorite authors, and get some great writing advice.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Details Details

As you plan your book, every detail of the story should be your conscious decision.  You leave nothing to chance in shaping your book.  This applies to the characters and the plot—along with all the other elements, you also have to consider setting, dialogue, conflict, the resolution, the pacing.  Each detail determines the shape of the story.  As I said in a previous post, this is not reality.  It must seem real to the reader, but you are the one who picks each detail.

You develop your plot through a series of scenes which are self-contained yet linked to the rest of the action of the book.

Each scene has a beginning, middle and end.  And each scene should have more than one purpose—to reveal character, advance the plot (what's happening in the story), give the setting, or show the character's problem and how the character deals with the problem.

Every incident of the plot should be there for a reason.  Nothing should happen at random.  Every element in a story should have significance in terms of the rest of the book.  It should contribute to the effect you want to create and build toward a crisis point or the climax of the story.

You may have heard that if a writer has a character discover a gun in a drawer, that somebody better fire that gun by the end of the story.  And sometimes this situation is literally true.  Night over Water, by Ken Follett, a book I’d call romantic suspense, is set on a Pan Am Clipper flying from England to North America.  During the course of the story, a boy discovers a gun in the pilot’s drawer—a boy who knows how to shoot.

In Harlan Coben’s Hold Tight, two girls are having a sleepover at one of their houses.  One girl shows the other the loaded gun in her father’s drawer, and we wonder if the scene is going to lead to tragedy.  But we know for sure that Coben, like Follett, is going to use that gun.

In both these books, the characters bring about a resolution to the problems generated by the plot.  And this is a must in your own stories.  In today’s fiction, no author should rely on the deus ex machina.  The phrase means “a god from the machine,” and it was used frequently in Greek tragedy.  At the end of the play, a god would come in and make everything right.  In your book, if the heroine is going to be saved at the end of the story by money she inherits from her Uncle Herbert, then we need to know about this uncle.  We need to know he’s sick or off on a dangerous expedition where he might get killed.

One problem with plotting is that you know what’s going to happen.  You know Colonel Mustard bashed the victim over the head in the hall with a candlestick, and you’re bursting to tell the reader about it.  If you spill the information too quickly, you may have turned your eighty-thousand-word book into a short story.  You have to hide the information and string the reader along.

By the same token you must make sure that the climax of the story is not a surprise.  You must lay the groundwork for the way you end the book.  In Lassiter’s Law, my action climax is precipitated by the heroine’s surrendering herself to the villain.  On the face of it, that’s a pretty foolish thing to do, and I spent a lot of time during the book preparing the reader for her actions by showing how much she needed to prove herself.  She was in jail for several years.  Her self-esteem is low.  She’s willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good because she thinks she’s not worthy of a happy life.

One romance plot trope I hate is when either the hero or the heroine has a deeply held conviction that keeps the couple from working out their problems.  Then at the end of the book, the hero or heroine completely reverses himself or herself—for no good reason.

I had this problem with Shattered Magic.  It’s been drummed into the hero, Prince Grantland, all his life that witchcraft is evil.  Now he’s making an alliance with a witch.  How can he change his mind?

I hope I’ve made it clear that he’s doing it because it will benefit his kingdom.  He’s doing something he hates but says that sometimes a ruler has to make difficult decisions.

I’ll talk more about plotting next time.  Do you try to make sure you’ve got more than one reason for every scene you write?  Do you consciously think about how each scene you write is moving you closer toward the climax of the book?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Theme of a Romance Novel

Back in high school, you probably hated it when your English teacher asked, “What’s the theme of this novel?”

Theme is the least understood aspect of fiction, perhaps because it’s never explicitly stated in the book. You have to read the story and tease out the theme. It’s what the writer wants you to take away when you’re finished.  Some people call it the “moral of the story,” but I see from Wikipedia that this is an “old-fashioned concept.”

So what’s the theme of a romance novel?  The healing power of love.

Your characters have been wounded in some way before the story begins—perhaps by each other.  Often in my books, it’s the hero who has problems so serious that he could never overcome them on his own. He’s been deeply hurt in the past, which makes him unwilling to risk his emotions in a relationship. But my heroine may also have a background that makes her afraid to trust the hero or allow herself to believe in the relationship they are building.

I spoke about internal conflict last time and how you use it in your story to make it seem impossible for the hero and heroine to work out their differences. What changes everything for them is the deep love they come to feel for each other.  In many romances, this starts off as sexual attraction, even lust, but it must morph into strong, positive emotion.  Love finally gives them the courage to drop their barriers and admit their true longings. Or to put it another way, love makes them brave enough to reach for what they haven’t been able to admit they want.

Let’s look at some examples of what this means.

In my Harlequin Intrigue, Guarding Grace, the heroine has discovered she’s a clone, adopted by a family who have no idea that she was designed to be used for spare parts if the woman she was cloned from needs her. Imagine how much this makes her feel less than human.  Is she brave enough to trust the hero with her secret?  And brave enough to believe that a man could love her, even after he finds out what she is.

In the award-winning Meant to Be Married, by Ruth Wind, the hero and heroine ran away to get married when they were eighteen and expecting a baby.  Then her father forced her to leave him and give up their baby for adoption.  Each thinks the other is at fault.  Now, years later, they’re back in the same town and forced to deal with the relationship on a more mature level—and finally admit what they’ve been denying for years, that they love each other.

In my Decorah Security novella, Chained, the heroine, Isabella Flores, is being pursued by killers.  When she hides out at her father’s ranch, she encounters what she thinks is the ghost of the man she loved—Matthew Houseman.  Matt vows to protect Isabella, even though he thinks he’s dead.  At the same time, he knows there’s no way he could have a lasting relationship with her. He must leave her, for her own sake—unless her love for him can convince him that he’s wrong.

In one of my Intrigues, Never too Late, the hero is a documentary filmmaker in the heroine’s dictator-run country, and the heroine was forced to betray him.  As a result, he was imprisoned, tortured and deported.  He doesn’t know that she did the only thing she could to save his life.  Six years later, they’re being chased by her country’s secret police and forced to deal with hard truths from the past.

In Her Baby’s Father, my Intrigue out this month, the heroine is killed in a car crash. Instead of escorting her to heaven, angels send her back in time, giving her a chance to save the life of the man who fathered her child. But he was seriously wounded in Afghanistan, and he’s learned to be suspicious and mistrustful, especially of a woman who seems to be weighing her every word. And how can he credit her crazy claims that she knows someone is going to kill him because it all happened before? The only way he’s going to save his life is if he realizes that she’s acting out of love and desperation to change his destiny.

The novels I’ve described above illustrate the basic theme of all romances.  They are about people conquering their fear of intimacy in order to achieve the warm, close relationship that all humans crave.  Only if they dare to embrace love can they overcome the internal problems that plague them.  This surrender to love is what allows them to live happily ever after. They achieve what has become their mutual goal:  to join their lives in a committed relationship.

When someone tells you romance novels are fluff or porn—or whatever else they say when they are uncomfortable with books that focus on relationships—tell them about the theme of a romance novel.  Ask them if books full of hope and optimism are worth reading.

Of course, there’s also a variation in the romance novel where the conflict is lighter and diffused with humor, the province of such writers as Jennifer Crusie and Vicki Lewis Thompson.  I do like reading humorous romances.  And I try to include some humor in my books.  But the overall story will not be light because I gravitate toward heavy-duty topics where the characters must trust each other enough to overcome their serious internal problems.

What kind of romance do you write, and why?  And what kind do you read?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Conflict–the Essence of Good Fiction

How do you keep a relationship story from getting boring?  They meet each other. They’re attracted.  They fall in love.  They live happily ever after.  What keeps the reader turning the pages?

As in any good genre fiction, the plot must serve up problems the hero and heroine must overcome.  There must be enough happening in the book to keep the reader interested.

Here’s a quote from an article John Irving wrote long ago in Publishers’ Weekly:
"Plot' isn't what compels many novelists to write or some readers to read.  But if you choose to write a novel without a plot, I would hope three things for you: that your prose is gorgeous, that your insights into the human condition are inspirational, and that your book is short.  I am directing my remarks, of course, to those writers (and readers) of long novels.
I’ve taken his advice to heart, and I make sure there’s enough conflict in my story to keep the plot moving along.

Conflicts are divided into internal and external problems.

If you’re writing romantic suspense–you’ve got a whole spectrum of psychotic killers, evil overlords and dangerous wiseguys to threaten your hero and heroine.

But conflict is also essential to a romance without these danger elements.
You might for example write about a heroine who’s an environmentalist, and he’s a slash-and-burn developer.

Or she has a small business that’s in competition with his big hairy conglomerate.

Or what if she’s a homicide cop, and he’s a famous mystery writer who wants to tag along on her cases because he’s writing a female detective?
Those are external problems, but the strongest romances give the reader the emotional impact of gut-wrenching internal conflicts that make it look like these people can’t possibly end up happy together.

Suppose the heroine’s husband was accidentally killed by a cop, and the hero’s the man who shot him?  He knows who she is, but he can’t stop himself from falling in love with her.  But he’s terrified of what will happen when  she finds out who he is.  And, of course, she will.  How can they possibly overcome that?

Or he’s a detective who’s been hired to find a serial killer, and he thinks it’s her brother.  Or he thinks it’s her.  He gets to know her because he’s investigating the murder, yet he can’t help falling for her.

Suppose you have a hero whose parents were each married and divorced several times, and he was shuffled around from home to home.  Now he’s fallen in love with a woman, but he thinks that his background has made it impossible for him to be a reliable marriage partner.

Those are some conflicts that make it seem impossible for the hero and heroine to make a commitment to each other.  But during the course of the story, they will have reasons to reevaluate and change.

As you plan your story, you must give your characters life.  The readers must like them and identify with them.  Yet they must have flaws that make them three-dimensional and human.

One of the best examples of a famous flawed character is Scarlett O’Hara.  I don’t even have to tell you the name of the book she’s in.  You know.  She's so well drawn that we understand her goals and desires--even if we don't like the ways she tries to achieve them, including marrying her sister’s fiancĂ©.  We may hate her reasons for marrying, but we understand her need to save her family home.

Then there’s the hero of my novella, Chained, who thinks he’s dead, which makes it difficult for him to imagine an ongoing relationship with the heroine. <g>

In a romance novel, the hero and heroine’s internal problems will make them afraid to reach out for love.  And the conflict can’t be easily solved.  It must be strong enough to carry through to the end of the novel.
In Mary Kirk’s Embers, the heroine’s been sexually abused by her brother, which makes her afraid to have a physical relationship with anyone–even the man she loves.

In Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, the hero was thrown into a savage boarding school environment, where he was bullied and taunted.  Now rich and powerful, he’s vowed never again to let anyone reach him emotionally.  Then he falls in love–only he’s too damaged to admit it.  I said in one of my previous posts, “Who are these people, and why will they drive each other crazy?” That’s a question you must consider if you want to keep the reader reading.

How do you think about character conflicts in your own work?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Plot Driven or Character Driven?

In discussing plot and character, we often make a distinction between books that are plot driven and books that are character driven.

Most mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers are essentially plot driven. In a plot-driven story, incidents happen, and the characters are forced to react to them.  The hero is accused of murder.  The heroine’s baby is kidnapped.  The heroine wakes up to find the villain has set her house on fire.

In a character-driven book, the story is shaped by the character traits and the inner feelings of the hero and heroine.  Most literary fiction and some romances are character driven.

However, to some extent these two elements are always intertwined.  Because you can’t work on a plot without having the right characters who fit into it and without considering how the incidents affect these people.

The way I think about it is—the most important thing about each element of the plot is—how will the characters I’ve created react to this situation?

What will be their feelings, their emotions?  Seeing the hero dangling off a cliff adds drama and tension to a story.  But the tension is increased when we experience the scene through the eyes of the heroine—who is desperate to save him.

Or turn the tables.  How does he feel if he comes back to their hideout and finds she’s been kidnapped?  What if he comes home and finds she’s packed her things and left?

I’m going to take what seems like an extreme example of a plot-driven scene and look at how adding character-driven elements enhances it.

In Eternal Moon, one of my werewolf books, a serial killer is using implements to torture and murder women real estate agents.  After Jacob and Renata have made love, she gets a tip that he may be the killer.  When she thinks he’s away, she searches his house and discovers planted evidence that makes him look like the murderer (small plastic bags with locks of hair from the women who have been killed).

Jacob comes in and sees she’s found the evidence.  Although he protests that he’s being set up, she’s holds him at gunpoint while she calls the cops.  He changes into a werewolf and shows her why he doesn’t need implements to tear anyone to shreds.

The transformation takes place while the police are on the way to Jacob’s house to arrest him.  The action is tense and dramatic, but it’s only part of the scene.  The emotions of the characters are equally important.  Renata’s horror that the man she made love with is a serial killer. Jacob’s anger and frustration that she thinks he’s guilty. His desperation to prove it can’t be him.  Her terror at discovering his true nature.

This scene is obviously from a paranormal romantic suspense novel.  The external plot is the suspense plot, which has to move at a good pace to keep the reader turning the pages.  But, as in any romance, the internal plot is always equally–or more–important.

Once I get my basic idea, I focus on the characters and the conflict between them as I design the incidents of the story.

In any scene you write, you don’t have to get it down all at once. I often start by focusing on blocking out the action. In the scene I described above, the action is her breaking into his house and discovering the evidence hidden in his closet, his coming home and finding her, her holding him at gunpoint while she calls the authorities, and his changing to wolf form.  I may initially get some of the characters’ emotions, but I always have to go back and add more to tie the action to what the characters are feeling.

The scene I described above started from Renata’s point of view as she sneaks through his house, first feeling guilty because she’s spying on Jacob.  Then her emotions turn to horror as she thinks he’s the killer.  When Jacob comes home, it switches to his viewpoint so I can get his feeling of shock–then desperation–as he tries to convince her of his innocence.
I don’t hop back and forth from one viewpoint to another in a scene. I stick with one character and perhaps switch POV once, if I think it’s necessary.  And I do try to use the POV of the character who has the most to lose.

But you can show a character’s emotions by using cues that the viewpoint character observes. It can be body language (her shoulders tensed), facial expressions (her mouth softened), tone of voice (her voice went high and reedy),  manner of speaking (she clipped out her words), or actions (she slammed the book onto the table).  Take it as a challenge to show the reader a character’s feelings without being in his or her head.

One more point I should make—the emotions of the characters are always crucial in a love scene. Otherwise it’s just a description of putting tab A into slot B.  Women writers are better at this than most men writers. (Ken Follett is a notable exception.)  One of my favorite examples of an inadequate love scene written by a man consists of these two sentences: “He climbed into bed.  He reached for her breast.”

If you’re oriented toward plot, don’t leave out the emotions of the characters as you tell your story.  And if the characters are what interest you most, make sure enough is happening in the story to keep the reader turning the pages.

Do you think of yourself as a plot-driven or a character-driven writer, and why?