Let me count the ways . . .
by Fae Rowen
Falling in love is like a roller coaster ride. Filled with anticipation and a little scary to think about, exciting turns and dips precede the grateful sigh when the car stops and you can unbuckle the restraint. Trouble is, there is no safety harness when you fall in love. And those screaming moments aren’t guaranteed to end with laughing and weak knees when you walk away from the ride.
If the reader doesn’t believe the transformation process for your characters, your next book isn’t going to sell. In this three part series, I’ve got some tips on tying backstory to your characters’ traits and mindsets and how those difficulties can be realistically resolved for that happily ever after ending. But these same tips can be used for any genre to make your reader fall for your flawed character. Hans Solo was a space grifter, but I bet more than a few of us fell for him! And we sat through three movies to see him finally win.
As a writer, whether you’re crafting a romance or a story with romantic elements (Shannon Donnelly does a great job of explaining the romance genre in this post), your characters come to the stage with baggage (backstory) and habits (character traits and a mindset). When we–and our characters–fall in love, the sparkle and newness of our situation can obscure the negatives. Until we’ve already “fallen.”
Today we’ll deal with a character (could be male or female) with the following traits:
- Denial of his/her own needs and resentment of partner having or expressing needs
- Harshly judging the partner for having needs and labeling it as weakness or despising other’s emotional behavior
- Not showing up or being present in the relationship
- Averting gaze, expecting harshness, rejection, or abandonment when engaging with significant other
- Difficulty with contact – visual, as in eye contact, or physical, as in touch.
Remember, you get to make up the specific backstory that brought this kind of character to this unlikeable point. But you want to show these behaviors and later, after we care about the character, spool out little bits of backstory.
Besides putting your characters in situations, particularly at the beginning of the story, to show what they’re hauling around behind them, take advantage of secondary characters to show that your hero or heroine:
- Minimizes the importance of relationships. “Oh, she never calls me, I always have to call her.”
- Is a loner. “No one in the town knows where he went to school, or even if he graduated.”
- Fears risking, wanting or longing because she/he feels overwhelmingly vulnerable. “After her first husband ran off with that young dancer…”
- Emphasizes non-relational endeavors. “He’s the best sniper in the unit.”
- Has difficulty experiencing and expressing emotions or needs. “She holds everything inside.” “I’ve never seen him get angry–before.”
- Has given up on humans and relates mostly to animals, “spirits”, nature, etc. “He’s so good with animals. And so bad with women.”
- May have many friends and engage on a somewhat superficial level. Most issues may not arise until he/she enters a partner relationship where deeper needs may begin to surface. “She has no trouble attracting a man, but after four months he disappears.”
- Fears risking, wanting or longing because they feel overwhelmingly vulnerable. “I’ve known him since grade school, and I don’t have a clue what kind of a woman he’d want to settle down with.”
- May feel alien, mechanical, dissociated, outcast, or lost in their world. “When he walked into the restaurant with his new girlfriend, she just sat there and drank her coffee like he was invisible.”
- Is brilliant but has difficulty experiencing emotions. “You’d think for a heart surgeon, she’d have some feelings.”
So how do you help your reader fall in love with these seemingly unloveable people?
- Show vulnerability with other people having wants and needs.
- Show developing trust. Let them accept a human support system and experiment with reaching out.
- Throughout the book, show your character developing empathy without judgment for his/her own needs as well as others’ wants, needs, desires, and emotions.
- Let them participate in life rather than just observe life like they did in the past.
- Give them a sense of belonging–in their community and in a relationship.
What other ways do you use to “hook” your reader into loving your characters and rooting for them?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present.
Punished, no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of arithmetic lessons gone wrong.
Fae began writing after reading her favorite author’s entire backlist in three weeks and couldn’t bear the thought of waiting nine months for the next book. A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now enjoys sharing her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.
Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden.
Thanks for the blog love, Daphodill.
I’m saving this, Fae – you know my characters…tend to be unlikeable. I need ‘save the cats’ like the above! Thank you!
And here I was thinking it was only my heroines who always gets slammed for being “hate-able” by our crit group!
Brilliant post, and great tips, I will follow this series of posts very eagerly 😀
Thanks for your kind comment, Harliqueen. It’s been a while since I’ve actively used that Psych degree.
Another keeper, Fae … thanks for hitting the mark. I have a character right now who is withdrawn and this reinforces what I can do with her 🙂
I’m glad you found this helpful. The bigger the character arc, the bigger the reader payoff at the end. It’s not easy to pull off in the best of circumstances since, as humans, we all know these parts in ourselves and others.
Great post, Fae! Lots of great tips to keep in mind as we write.
Thanks, Orly. More to come!
Great points and applicable beyond love stories and romances. So often it seems like characters fall in love because the writer told them to, not because they have chemistry or because they fit together like a key to a puzzle box.
Right you are, Eric. And because we’ve all lived the years we have, we can recognize the “real deal” from our experiences and knowledge of the human condition versus a story that plays well in the author’s mind, but not so well in the readers’.
Good food for thought, Fae. The flawed characters are way more interesting even though they might be harder to deal with.
And let’s face it, we’re all flawed (oops, maybe some don’t know!) and we aren’t interested in reading about a perfect character’s perfect life. Give me someone who makes more mistakes than I do. When they figure it out it, I know I can figure out my challenges, too.
A popular author recently speculated to the press they may have made a mistake with the romantic pairing at the end of their series. The fans are upset. I find this curious, as I have never heard of an author in this situation. The author thought that in real life, the couple would be doomed to failure. In my experience, I’ve seen the oddest couples make the most loyal pairs. A lot of the people around me have married their opposites. After a couple of years together, the couples’ extreme characteristics seem to mellow in direct relation to their interaction.
The cliche “Truth is stranger than fiction” is around for a reason, even though such cases of real life “oddities” are rare. I know that sometimes I’ve been disappointed in an ending of a book or a series. Not good for an author, because I tend to not buy the next book, even if I’ve pre-bought them before. At the same time, I understand a writer’s desire to shake things up and surprise the reader. It’s a fine line. Thanks for letting us explore this, Cheryl.
Great Part One. I’m looking forward to parts two and three. Backstory is still a bit of an issue for me (tend to reveal in thoughts rather than offhand comments), so very useful information.
Thanks for your kind support, Robin. I’m glad you found some useful tips. In my first book, written without a crit group and without any writing classes (I didn’t even know about POV or “head hopping”!) my whole first chapter was backstory. Luckily I wrote that book only for myself and never tried to sell it. It remains “under the bed” and probably will languish there forever.
I took notes on this post to have the information when I need it. Really detailed knowledge that will help all writers.
Thanks so much, Patricia!
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Um, holy wow. After reading this my brain exploded with thoughts about some dialogue I need to include, so I opened a Word doc to quickly record some notes… and proceeded instead to add two entire scenes into my WIP! I hadn’t planned to go back and add backstory etc. until I’ve reached “The End” but these conversations demanded to be written. So… thank you!
Glad I sparked a creative frenzy, Andi-Roo. Thanks for affirming that thinking about how to add backstory can be fun!
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