You've read the advice, right? To craft a compelling story our characters must grow. I read this over and over, and I agree. If our characters start and end in the same emotional or mental state-of-being, the reader will probably pitch the book across the room before finishing it. I think I actually just heard the thud of it hitting the wall.
But...not every genre calls for the same type of character growth.
In a thriller, readers will put up with a gruff, hard-drinking, hot-tempered hero if he's dead-set on finding his daughter's abductor. In a women's fiction novel, readers will put up with a spoiled, self-centered heroine if she's going through a painful divorce and just found out she has breast cancer.
Throw either of these characters into a romance novel, however, and you might have a very tough sell.
The surprising truth about characters in romance novels?
The reader has to fall in love with the characters in order for the reader to believe the heroine and hero will fall in love with each other.
Well, sure, of course the reader has to like the characters. That's true in all fiction, right?
Wrong. I'm not talking about liking the characters. I'm talking about flat-out swooning for them. When I read a romance novel, I want to experience the rush of falling in love. How can I do that if the hero acts like a jerk? I don't love jerks. I'm not attracted to them. I'm going to have serious doubts about the heroine if she is attracted to them. **I've written jerky heroes before, and guess what? Editors didn't like them either.**
What about the heroine? Do I like abrasive, self-centered women--or needy, desperate ladies? Not really. I'm friends with caring, strong women who know the difference between standing up for themselves and acting like a shrew.
Writers of romance have a tricky dilemma with this. How can we show character growth AND make the reader fall in love with our heroes and heroines?
Jody Hedlund wrote an excellent post, "How to Avoid the Trap of Creating Unlikable Characters," last week. The full article is linked and I highly recommend reading it. She gave three tips:
1. Avoid giving our characters too many negative traits
2. Avoid giving an unforgivable trait or action
3. Bring out likable traits too
My first books had likable characters but boring plots. I knew nothing about goals, motivations, and conflicts, and I knew less about scenes, sequels, and turning points. As I studied, I took the "your character needs to show internal growth" concept too far. My next books featured unlikable characters and interesting plots. If my heroine was likable, my hero was obnoxious. I couldn't seem to figure out what I was doing wrong.
I'm not sure what turned the switch--maybe all the romance novels I've devoured for years seeped into my pores or something--but I made a connection that's made a big difference for my characters.
In romance, our characters can become better people without overcoming a terrible flaw. If they have a very bad flaw, make sure they've experienced the growth before the story begins. Their character growth can be an offshoot of this, but it shouldn't be the main conflict.
What do I mean?
If Susie can't say no to men who treat her poorly, the reader will struggle to like her. So don't make Susie's main internal growth hinge on her getting out of a doomed relationship and into Mr. Right's arms. Instead, have Susie realize she has a problem before the book begins--maybe even six months ago--and now she's single. She knows she needs to change, but she's not sure she's up to the task. Mr. Right won't be fixing her problems. She'll be working through her issues because Mr. Right is worth the trouble.
We are tempted to show Susie in a bad relationship and making dumb decisions to prove she's changed at the end. This alienates the reader--we don't want to read about doormats. Susie can still grow if she's already learned her lesson before the book starts. Now, the reader sympathizes with Susie's struggle to find a worthy man.
If John has a hot temper and can't hold a job--this should not be his growth either. We're tempted to start the book with him slamming something against a wall and getting fired to prove he's changed at the end. But what women is attracted to a guy with such a short fuse?
Maybe a year ago, he lost his job after punching the boss. Now, when the story starts, he's learned how to rein in his anger, but his lack of recommendations keeps him unemployed. His internal growth will be honing his patience and proving he can be a trustworthy employee as opposed to controlling his rangy temper. Who knows, maybe the heroine is his new boss? Hmmm....must write this down...
Readers will love John if he already dealt with these issues before we meet him. They will sympathize with him having to deal with the repercussions of his past.
Do you see how tweaking the main internal conflict can create a swoon-worthy character?
As I said earlier, different genres call for different character conflict and growth. If you write romance, strive to create believable characters who readers can fall in love with. Tweak their growth arcs until you find one that casts your characters in the most sympathetic light.
What genre(s) do you write? Do readers of your genre have specific character expectations?
Have a fantastic Friday!