Sunday, September 20, 2009

How to Write a Romance Novel-Characters

Good God, where does one start? Characters are the lifeblood of a novel. You must have them or a novel cannot exist. Think about it. Even if you’re writing about the wind, the wind itself becomes a character. You cannot write a novel without them or at least him (or her). Otherwise you’re not telling a story but just trying to prove that you’re clever. I’d call that pretentious. And obnoxious.

The reader wants to relate to the story you’re trying to tell, and the way the reader accomplishes that is through the characters. Gosh, but where to go from here? OK, a quick generalization: you must make your main characters--that is your hero and heroine in a romance--likable. Or at least have the hope of becoming likable by the end. Because the main character, especially the heroine (let’s face it, most of our novels are read by women), is the vessel through which the reader experiences the novel. If the reader cannot identify with or recognize themselves in or understand or just plain admire your main characters, what reason do they have to finish your novel?

Unfortunately likability is hard to define. Personally I like egg-head characters, the absent-minded professor types. I even wrote one, only to have a reviewer give me a bad review because she hates that kind of person. As is her right. We have our own personal tastes, our own criteria for choosing friends and lovers. Good thing too. Otherwise there would be very few happily married couples out there.

But likability itself isn’t necessarily the factor that makes a novel successful. Take Scarlett O’Hara. Yes, she has traits we can admire, but I wouldn’t want her as friend. And yet GWTW is great because of Scarlett. And if you another example of where likability plays a contrary role in characterization, read THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD by Agatha Christie. I won’t say anything else about the novel except that she was both reviled and praised for this novel, and she changed the mystery genre forever with this book.

Character is the person doing the actions; characterization is the traits given to that person. You must focus on the characterization to make rounded, well-formed characters. Just by nature of the beast, a fictional character cannot have as many facets as real person (such a feat, I propose, is an impossibility), but your characters should have enough sides to bring him/her to life in a novel, to let your reader believe they could be reading about a real person. They must be three dimensional, not static; they should grow during the course of the novel (ask yourself, “What have they learned?”); they should have faults. Ack, don’t make your characters perfect. Perfection is not only unbelievable, but it can also come off as arrogant, and often boring. Really. If your characters are perfect, they don’t make mistakes. And then where’s your conflict? (That’s next week, folks).

You can, of course, chart out each of your characters: what is their eye color, hair color, height, etc (always useful if you need to refer to them through out the book, and you will, and don’t wish to have your heroine change from having blue eyes in one scene to having green in the next). You can ascribe an entire history to them: where they attended school, what traumas affected their childhoods, what their favorite Christmas present was; etc.; stuff that may never appear in your book, but might help you understand your character better. You can find character interviews all over the Internet. Whatever helps you to create characters that come alive is what you need to use.

And we can’t forget the other characters in your book, namely the villain and the secondary characters. You should take as much time making your villain realistic as your main characters. Or almost. Personally I like the over-the-top villain: the Voldemorts, the Darth Vaders, the Wicked Witches of the West. But even these characters were given some sort of backstory to make their evil understandable. Heck, the Wicked Witch was given her own book(1) and Darth was given three whole movies(2). And if you’re anything like I am, your secondary characters take on a life of their own. I literally had to kick one of my characters off an island because she was taking over the book. I love secondary characters. Think of them as the character actors. So often they steal the scene from the leads. Like Spike in NOTTING HILL or Alfred in the Dark Knight.

One last little thing: it’s fun to give your characters a quirk to set them apart, be that a fear, a habit, some odd little hobby that makes your readers smile or at least remember your characters. Everybody knows and remembers that Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, that Ron Weasley hates spiders. In my upcoming story, THE WISH LIST (May 2010), my heroine eats chocolate chipless cookies--that’s right, chocolate chip cookies without chocolate chips.

There is so much more to characters than what I possibly can write in a blog. So go explore on your own. Find out what you want your characters to do and learn. Give them personality and faults. And don’t forget to let them fall in love. You are writing a romance, after all.


Books I’m reading now:
Desperate Duchesses by Eloisa James
The Highwayman by Michele Hauf
What Happens in London by Julia Quinn

1 In the original book, the Witch is chasing Dorothy because she murdered her sister and now she wants the silver slippers, not a very original reason, but a reason nonetheless ; the book WICKED followed decades after the original and gave a whole new history to the Wicked Witch. I’ll let you decide if Maguire succeeded.

2 The supposed “first three” episodes of STAR WARS are all backstory. I won’t give my over opinion here, but we as writers know what too much backstory does to a novel. And I love STAR WARS (the original three).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Stuff they didn't tell you

So I’m interrupting the flow for a moment. Yes, this blog is still about how to write a romance, but instead of continuing with the logical progression of topics, I’m breaking things up. I’ll get back to the elements of a novel next week with characters, who they are, what their make-up is, etc. Today I want to speak about one of the unspoken aspects of writing a romance novel: fear.

Fear accompanies the writer on so many levels. What if I’m not good enough? What if no one likes my story? What if I can’t write another novel? What if I can’t sell my novel? What if I can’t sell another novel? What if I get bad reviews? What if the judges slash my entry? What if my co-workers find out that I write Romance? What if I can’t finish? What if ...

What if my mother/children read/s it?
OK, the last one is a valid fear, but one not so serious.

Writing isn’t about the fear. It’s about the courage. The courage to put yourself on the paper. The courage to submit. The courage to bounce back even when faced with rejection. Or failure. Or low sales. Or editors leaving houses. To face detractors, the ones who laugh at your choice of genre, the ones who hate your book. The courage to keep on writing despite all the things that can and do and might go wrong.

Did no one tell you that writing takes guts?

I’ll see you back here next week for the continuation of How to Write a Romance Novel--Characters, when I’m no longer in the revision swamp.

Books I’m reading now:
Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett
Nickled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Sunday, September 6, 2009

How To Write a Romance Novel--Setting

This is where the series becomes nerdy. OK, I like literature and the analysis thereof. I earned two degrees in it. But I believe Romance is worthy of and stands up to literary analysis. So bear with me while I write about stuff you may have learned in high school (or probably dozed through as your teacher presented it).

Last week I talked about the Hook, a crucial element in writing any novel. You want to draw the reader in. And then what? A hook does not a novel make. So today I’m looking at what constitutes a novel, what elements make up a novel. Every novel has five elements: setting, characters and characterization, plot, style and presentation, and theme. All five of these elements combine to create a rich event that carries the reader through to a new world, new ideas, and, at least for my authorial purposes, entertainment. Take out any one of these elements, and a book flounders. You can’t have a book without setting, characters, plot (although I’m sure literary fiction has tried this one—oops, that’s snarky), and theme (This is the one that Romance is accused of overlooking. Boy, does that ever irritate me.)

Each element deserves its own blog entry, so we’ll start with setting. Setting is more than where and when a story takes place. It is also special weather conditions, social conditions, and mood and atmosphere. But setting is important to a Romance novel because often setting establishes which subgenre of Romance the book falls into.

The three major breakdowns in Romance are contemporary, historical, and paranormal; but within each of those categories are further subdivisions. Within contemporary, for example, you have romantic comedy, romantic suspense, action-adventure, family saga, chick lit, etc. Within historical there’s medieval, Regency, Victorian, Georgian, Tudor, Edwardian, ancient, etc. Within paranormal possibilities include urban fantasy, contemporary, historical, futuristic, fantasy, science fiction, and so on. Setting helps establish all these subgenres.

Where the story takes place is the first thing someone thinks of when asked for setting. Place clearly helps set up the novel. The reader needs to know where the story is set. She needs a base from which to embark, a place that can help her begin to visualize the world of the book. It makes a difference if the book starts off in modern San Diego, an estate in Regency England, or standing on a grassy purple plain watching the setting of the six suns in the pale green sky of Planet Jellicorp. Your setting establishes reader expectation.

Time plays the same role. Reader expectation is different for books set in the present, past, or future. But don’t forget time of day or time of year. A book’s feel is different if the opening is at night or in the morning. Your description will vary between winter and summer. We’ll talk more about description in the future, but for now know that it is necessary for the reader to know where the book is taking place.

Weather conditions are an aspect of setting that shouldn’t come up too often, but when it does, it will make an impact. Think about the cyclone in WIZARD OF OZ or the rainstorm in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. In both instances, these weather anomalies must happen to further the plot. By the way, this includes natural phenomenon, like the tidal wave in POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

Social conditions are an integral part of the story as well. Especially in contemporaries, social conditions may not play a major role, but picture a Regency without the rules of society. Or any European set historical without the rules of class. And in many futuristics, social setting is crucial to the story. The new YA best selling series, THE HUNGER GAMES, requires its social conditions as part of its story. And where would 1984 be without the social conditions?

Mood and atmosphere are the final aspects of setting. Is your story Gothic? Is it light and happy? Does the atmosphere speak of danger or laughter? If your novel starts out light and humorous, it shouldn’t end with dead puppies. On the other hand, your story shouldn’t be so intense that it leaves the reader exhausted. Mood and atmosphere can vary in a novel. Real life does. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling moves from humor to tragedy in a seamless manner. And it’s all a part of setting.

Setting is interesting in that it sinks into the background once it is established. When setting comes into the foreground, it should appear for a reason: to announce a place change—from London to a country house, from the space ship to the planet, etc; an important description—in my book, THE WISH LIST, I describe a painting because it will play a role later in the story; weather will change the direction of the plot; etc. Setting pops in and out of the story then sinks into the background. As a savvy reader, you should notice when setting comes forward because it can be a clue to something important. Setting can be so important that the novel couldn’t take place with those characters, with that plot without that particular setting.

So if you’re working on a novel, you know where your story is taking place. Now consider what your setting says about your novel, and be aware of its role in your novel.

Next time, we’ll look at characters.
Books I’m reading now:
On a Wicked Dawn by Stephanie Laurens
Duchess in Love by Eloisa James