Welcome to First Monday Mentoring when I answer your questions about writing. Today’s query asks how to make your characters more real?
The common advice – write what you know – works in many ways. One of them is letting the reader glimpse your personal values through your characters. In mine I try to show their good qualities through how they act under pressure. Their defaults are honesty and kindness even if they struggle to live up to these values.
This doesn’t mean that every character is me. Far from it. They are their own people, shaped by the parenting they received, their experiences as they grew up, and the love they did or didn’t get from their adult relationships.
You as their creator give them these backgrounds, but having done so you lose some of your freedom. A character who has a rough upbringing may well struggle to form good relationships later on. One who has been smothered by “helicopter parents” may find it hard to take risks, seeking a protective partner even as it stunts their emotional growth.
It’s important to be consistent. If they try to surmount their upbringing they need to be aware of the struggle. Perhaps they’ve chosen previous partners unwisely and now resolve to do better.
In my Harlequin Superromance, With a Little Help, my heroine is a successful caterer, the odd one out in a family of high-flying physicians. Having experienced how the demands of a medical career can leave children feeling neglected, Emma Jarrett has no interest in medicine but it doesn’t stop her mother parading eligible doctors in front of her. The latest is surgeon, Nathan Hale, someone she shares a history with. Trying to stick to her ideals is hard as Nate’s appeal grows stronger. Being honest and kind is Emma’s default, challenged by what she considers Nate’s unsuitability.
If you give your main characters some of your own values, it’s easier to portray them as real. There were no doctors in my family, formal education stopping as soon as we were old enough to work. But I was the only writer I know about, so can relate to being the odd one out. I also saw patterns in my family that I didn’t want to repeat when it came to romance.
Having Emma resist partnering with a doctor meant she had to learn that not all of them are like her immediate family. On the other hand, Nate had to come on strong as the indispensable man, only learning differently as he faced mounting challenges including how fast he’s falling for Emma. This growth and change is the character arc.
In Crowns and a Cradle, the monarch, Prince Lorne, had an unhappy marriage until his wife died leaving him with their young son. If I’d known this would be the first of twenty-three novels set in my South Pacific kingdom, I might not have made divorce illegal. But Lorne is stiff-necked, refusing to change Carramer’s marriage laws even for his own benefit. The situation cried out for a clash of values between Lorne and free-spirited Alison who literally washed up on his private beach. She fell foul of several traditions before accepting that Lorne was right; he had to set an example for his son and his people. But he was also a man, as he started remembering from the moment they met.
Whether they flout their history or stick to it as rigidly as did Prince Lorne, is up to you. It may help to try different approaches before you settle on what works best for your story. I like to make my characters stronger, braver and all-round better people than myself, why I suggest using your own values – but carefully. You don’t want perfect people who can do no wrong.
Nobility is a value I aim for. Noble is defined as fine, decent, righteous and many other good qualities which must be shown, not told. For example, if your heroine needs to raise money for treatment for her sick child, she must attain it by worthy means. Should she find a bag of money, the proceeds of a crime, say, she may agonise over keeping it but she must choose to do the right thing. This shows us her character so we don’t have to be told. In traditional romances the hero may offer her a solution through working for him, possibly the last thing she wants to do, but this is an honest way to help her child.
Your characters may not achieve their goals but it’s not for want of trying. If they fall short it’s for good reason, such as helping the hero or heroine achieve their goals, and in so doing, find a new goal they can achieve together.
What parts of you go into your characters? What don’t you like to see? Share your thoughts in the box below. Comments are moderated to avoid spam, but your comment can appear right away if you click on ”sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone. Happy writing!
If you’re near Canberra ACT on June 1, join me for a full day of Romance Writing Rebooted. By day’s end leave with a two-page outline of your romance novel. Information and bookings –