Friday, June 3, 2011

The Surprising Truth About Romance Characters

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!


  1. Great thoughts. Series novel call for less character growth than a stand alone. Mysteries call for less character growth. High action thrillers call for less. That's why it's important to read our genre and know what is expected.

  2. Yikes! This is definitely challenging! I tend to error on the side of too many flaws.


    I'm really curious to see what my content edits will be for the heroine of my contracted book. And the hero of my second contracted book.

    The hero is a bit cocky. Gives the heroine a hard time. We'll see if I keep him the same, or if my editor wants me to change him!

    Great post, Jill. :)

  3. Women's fiction.

    My readers want strong women. Women who overcome.

    I need to ask that question likable are my characters.

    ~ Wendy

  4. Good morning!

    Laura: Very true. And series also take multiple books to show character growth too. Great point!

    Katie: Flaws are good--we can relate to characters who aren't perfect! It really depends on how we as authors have handled the characters.

    Wendy: Well, women's fiction doesn't require the same likability that romance does. :) But I do think readers of any genre want to connect with the MC.

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. Thought provoking! Great tips. I like the idea of having the problem fixed before the book then dealing with moving on.

    I'm printing this post. Lots to go back and look at. Thanks, Jill.

  6. Great post, Jill!

    i write romance so yes, it's kind of tricky--readers want a heroine that they want to be and they want a hero they want to fall in love with. Yet, they can't be perfect. :) So yes, I try to give them faults but realistic faults we all have and can identify with.

  7. The book I'm working on has a self-centered cocky hero, and I don't like him until about chapter 5 or 6...what to do? what to do?

    At that point, I fall in love with him...with her.

    Weird, huh?

    Great post, Jill. Lots to think about.

  8. Jessica: Thanks! Finding an internal conflict that resonates with readers but doesn't turn them off is something I struggle with. I try to give them sympathetic conflicts!

    Jennifer: Right on. It is tricky. You said it well--give them faults but not too many!

    Loree: You write historical romance, and I've found that historical romance readers (myself included) love alpha males. So if he's cocky, counterbalance it with protectiveness. If he's self-centered, show his generous side. You can make a character likable with little tweaks. :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  10. I've been working on creating likable characters. When I first sent my story to my agent, I learned that my hero was "too perfect" and my heroine was "whiny" and clueless. Not good. During the rewrite I gave my hero a flaw that creates some fun interactions. I performed a major overhaul on my heroine, who is now a a strong, determined woman deserving of the hero and who is the right partner for him.

  11. Thank you for your advice, Jill! Pretty soon, I'll be in the revision stage of my WIP, so I'll be looking to see how my characters' traits have progressed from start to finish.

    I write historical romance, and I believe that readers of this genre are looking for accuracy. I love writing about strong, independent heroines. My goal is to make that fit within the setting's time frame.

  12. I'm writing YA, but my protag has to be likeable...and most importantly she has to be believable. My antag is likeable too, but as my story unravels the reader sees a darker site that he's hidden from the world. I have no idea if this is what the genre expects, but it's what I'm going with.

  13. Women's Fiction, too.

    My readers will want characters filled with flaws that look like the everyday woman. They will expect supernatural results in their circumstances, that likely mirror their own hopes for the turmoil in their lives.

    Hope I can deliver:)

  14. What great tips. I write series supernatural mystery. Even so, you still gave me some stuff to think about. Yes, less character growth may be expected, but don't put protagonist in situations that make her unlikable. I'm bookmarking this.

  15. There is a lot to think about here. In a few mysteries, a main character sometimes was made to be different than what was mentioned in the beginning, so you wouldn't suspect him. That's not a very good red herring.

    One of the reasons I can't get excited about Gone With The Wind is that I don't care for Scarlett or Melanie. Sometimes that happens, women are too goody-two-shoes or too selfish.

  16. Jill, these are great points and you give me a lot to think about. I tend to not make my heroines strong enough and while they have likable traits, they're always letting life happen to them instead of taking action. Some of my favorite romances have heroines who are constantly going somewhere, making choices that may cause more conflict but still show me they're working toward something.

  17. Keli: It's so helpful to have outside eyes on our work, don't you think? I don't always see how my characters are coming across until a cp points it out!

    Brandi: Congrats! Yeah, historical writers have an extra burden. How to make the heroine believable for the time and still likable. I get turned off by overly independent heroines in Regencies but the same character would thrill me in a contemp!

    Tiffany: Sounds like a winner to me! And, yeah, the main character in YA has to resonate with the reader.

    Tamika: I'm sure you will!

    Catie: Welcome! Your genre intrigues me! Good luck with it!

    Nancy: I could go on and on (and on) about Gone with the Wind. I did like the book, but I agree-- Scarlett and Melanie irritated me. I wanted to slap them both. Maybe even knock their heads together? :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  18. Cindy: Well, you know all about my "jerky" hero that I got a resounding "no thanks" from editors on! I love your characters. You're right, though, that it's thrilling to watch a heroine step out of her comfort zone and take on conflict!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  19. My protagonists are always strong but I don't think they are overbearing. I struggle giving them flaws and always have to really think about what they will be. I write mostly in the overall mystery genre, but with a healthy dose of romance thrown in.

  20. Good post! Lots of character food for thought. :) I just finished a book where I was drawn in immediately. I finished it in record time!

    Have a great weekend!

  21. I like to give them one big flaw that everyone can relate to. For example, not knowing when to keep your mouth shut. Is it a flaw? Yeah. But it makes them more loveable, because they aren't being evil. And then make that flaw bite them in the ass repeatedly, until it ultimately saves them. Great post!

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  23. Jill, thanks for this post. It's rare that I come across writing advice that's completely new to me, and this was.

    I write women's fiction with strong romantic elements, and this advice rings true for me. I like characters who are strong and self-aware, and who are actively pursuing the goals that they believe will bring them happiness. I don't write about doormats and I don't write about jerks. I don't want those people in my life, and I don't want them in my fiction. I prefer to see well-rounded, fully developed characters stepping out of their comfort zone and taking risks.

    If someone's miserable, and they take a risk, well, what have they got to lose? But if a person is generally happy and comfortable, and they take a risk that could cost them their happy, comfortable way of life, the stakes are much higher and, I think, much more interesting to the reader.

  24. Great post with lots to think about. I agree that sometimes we are so invested in our characters that we can't see if they are too flawed or perhaps not flawed enough.
    It is so valuable to have that outside opinion that smacks us in the head and says--whoa, this girl is too perfect, or, perhaps, whoa this girl isn't perfect enough!

  25. Carol: Your characters sound like the kind I like to read! And throw a little mystery in--all the better!

    Karen: There's nothing better than when a book grabs us and doesn't let us go!

    Mary Kate: Love it! And it's fun to watch the flaw play out throughout the book!

    Andrea: Excellent point. When a book starts out with a happy (or at least they think they are) character, the reader can empathize that much more with them when everything falls apart. :)

    Maggie: Oh boy, have I needed outside eyes! I'm getting better about recognizing good/bad traits in my characters, but my cp's help more than anything!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  26. Excellent post. Far too many pieces fall into the traditional trappings that we are so used to seeing. Just because we're used to seeing them doesn't mean that they are any more relatable. It's a very solid point to have the elements of change take place before the narrative. This is also where it's better to realize that the narrative is just taking place during a segment of the characters' lives. They had lives before and will have them after(or not).


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