This post first appeared Feb 14, 2017, for our Valentine’s Day special. However, I thought the lessons were worth repeating. Here’s to growing your characters from nothing, to well-developed “real” people!
by Jacqueline Diamond
Take one handsome hero with a shadowed past and a touch of arrogance, toss in a feisty heroine who hates men because she’s had her heart broken, and—according to cliché—you have the makings of a fine romance.
But what you’re likely to encounter is a predictable journey that lacks depth and spark. Why? Because these qualities, in addition to being overused, aren’t complex enough to create believable conflict that unfolds past the first few chapters.
Creating characters who hold the reader’s interest requires developing qualities that are specific and multifaceted. Whether you’re writing romantic suspense or comedy, erotica or inspirational, the hero and heroine need to grow through interaction with each other until they are able to give and receive love.
Let’s begin with the physical description. Avoid writing paragraph after paragraph about his perfect muscles and mouth, and her beautiful hair and eyes. Try studying a photo of an appealingly flawed model or actor instead, but don’t simply say that the hero looks like Brad Pitt or the heroine like Jennifer Lawrence. This detracts from the sense that they’re individuals and misses the mark completely if the reader isn’t familiar with or dislikes that performer.
Also, each hero and heroine should have a personal history that’s truly personal. Not only an occupation, but a reason for choosing it and the stumbling blocks they encountered along the way. Not just parents and siblings, but how their family situation helped shape their identity. If there were former love interests, why didn’t these work out? Avoid making the other person entirely at fault.
List each character’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals. These should have a major impact on the storyline and conflict with, but ultimately support, the other person.
The Would-Be Daddy
In my medical romance The Would-Be Daddy, Dr. Marshall Davis is a perfectionist in the operating room who’s just learned that his parents lied to him about his real identity, throwing his self-image into question. The heroine, hospital psychologist Franca Brightman, has lost custody of her beloved foster daughter, whom she was trying to adopt.
Former college friends who believed they were incompatible because of their sharply different views about families and children, Marshall and Franca turn to each other for comfort. Their connection leads to passion and an unexpected pregnancy.
When Franca gets a second chance to adopt her troubled foster daughter, they’re thrown into conflict. While she’s empathetic and adores kids, especially the “broken” ones, Marshall believes children require strict discipline. He sees the little girl’s tantrums, coupled with Franca’s unwillingness to set boundaries, as dangerous for their baby-to-be.
Here are some of Franca’s qualities:
Greatest strength: Ability to care for and relate to others
Greatest weakness: Assumption that she has to be the strong one who supports others, and therefore hides her emotions.
What does she need but isn’t aware of? A man who provides a good counterbalance.
Greatest fear: Failing those she loves, especially a child.
Mistaken belief about the hero: That he’s too rigid to be a good husband and father.
What she needs to learn: Protecting her vulnerabilities actually cuts off intimacy.
How she changes (her arc): She has to accept that she’s stronger with his love and support.
Now, to the hero:
Marshall is organized, intense and perfectionist. He has a warm, loving side, but believes that yielding to his emotions will lead to chaos. His adoptive parents raised him with impossibly high standards in an attempt to compensate for character flaws they believed he had inherited.
Greatest strength: Brilliance, kindness, caring
Greatest weakness: Deep-seated sense that, when he’s most himself, there’s something wrong with him and that he doesn’t deserve to be loved.
Greatest fear: Yielding to the chaotic side of himself and losing everything, including self-respect.
What does he need but isn’t aware of? Someone to love him for who he really is.
Mistaken core belief about Franca: That her spontaneity and soft heart will bring out his weaknesses.
What he needs to learn: To trust his instincts.
Not Just for Romance
This approach to delving into a character’s specific qualities is useful in other genres as well as romance. Recently, it helped me launch the Safe Harbor Medical Mysteries, featuring Dr. Eric Darcy. A young, widowed obstetrician, he assists his best friend, a homicide detective, and his sister-in-law, a private investigator, in solving murders that affect his patients.
Not only does Eric care deeply about his patients, he also travels an emotional journey over the course of several books, recovering from the death of his wife and regaining the ability to love. It’s a longer arc than in my romance novels but follows a similar pattern of self-discovery.
By the way, I’m self-publishing the mysteries, using the fictional hospital and town from the Safe Harbor Medical romances I wrote for Harlequin. Featuring a new hero as well as considerable medical and forensic research, it’s a cross between a traditional mystery and a cozy. I bring to it a romance writer’s sensibility, both in creating my characters and in my policy that the murder victims are never babies or pregnant women.
Fundamentally, my characters become real people to me. And I hope they do to the reader, too!
For her 101st novel, USA Today bestselling author Jacqueline Diamond launched the Safe Harbor Medical® Mystery series with The Case of the Questionable Quadruplet. A former Associated Press reporter and TV columnist, Jackie has sold mysteries, medical romances, Regency romances and romantic comedies to a range of publishers. A member of Romance Writers of America’s Orange County Chapter, she has been honored with a Romantic Times Career Achievement Award. Her next mystery, The Case of the Surly Surrogate, is due in April 2017. www.jacquelinediamond.com