Why do you read what you like to read? Is it that the situations appeal to you? Yeah. Is it that you like the genre or genre niche? Yeah. But why do you keep reading, keep turning pages to find out what happens next?
It’s the characters. You get attached to them, you care about them. You fall in love with them. Well, I do, with the heroes. I’ll just “like” the heroines. Sometimes it’s the villains who snag my interest. Or the cast that surrounds the major players.
Hey, I had to write a story about a hero who was a minister because my editor and various readers who wrote in liked him so well they wanted him to have a story of his own. You try writing a story that includes sex with a widowed minister who has written far too many sermons about the “thou shalt nots”! Still, it all worked out and turned into a lovely story in the end.
And why was that? Because Kevin was already a wonderful character. I knew him so well from the story where he’d fixed his twin brother up with one of his parishioners that I knew exactly the type of cast to surround him with.
He wasn’t the only hero to have stepped up from buddy class in a previous book. Deegan Galloway did it too, but he always knew he was hero material. He tried to grab the spot when I was writing the earlier book and I had to mentally sit down with him and promise him his own book if he’d backed off. He winked, gave me a high five (which was totally out of time for him, he was a 19th century man) and backed off. Yet, again, because I knew him so well, the cast in WICKED came together quickly.
But, out of all of the heroes that have walked the pages of one of my books (and those that are still reading Fish and Stream or Sports Illustrated or Golf Magazine in my muse’s reception room), the guy who really holds my heart captive is Paul Montgomery of SUPERSTAR.
Why? Well, because I spend 30 years with him flashing me wicked smiles in my mind’s eye.
And because he was always a hero with feet of clay. He was real.
Oh, I’m not saying he’s based on anyone I ever knew. He’s total fantasy man. He’s got the height, the build, the coloring I prefer in a fellow. He’s glib, he’s talented, he has his own code: do whatever it takes to get what you want most. He wanted to write songs and make it big in the music biz. Sometimes the choices he made surprised the heck out of me. But they were right on the nose for the story.
Could be that code got Paul into the pickles that made the story over 152,000 words long and took me 30 years to finish. As much as I loved him, I bought into part of Paul’s code and put him aside frequently to follow paths that lead elsewhere, that would get me that longed for contract…then contracts.
Paul was patient. I think he was working with my muse on the side because whenever I’d return to him, there were new elements waiting for me to write. In the meantime, he picked and chose from the music I was listening to, telling me which performer’s voice was like his, which songs he would have liked to write. I discovered his regrets, how he got past them, how he never lost hope that he’d get the girl he wanted in the end. Something that was touch and go at times. He always had me though.
And I have him. You wouldn’t believe how often I pick SUPERSTAR up to read…sometimes just favorite scenes, other times from start to finish. It’s visiting the perfect man who isn’t all that perfect, which is just as it should be.
Characters should have foibles. They should have fears, goals, regrets. They need to take leaps that you know are wrong for them (you know the whole story…or sorta do) but let them do it anyway.
It makes for much more interesting characters. Much more interesting reading!
So, where do you find the possible “feet of clay” aspects for a character?
You look to their backstory.
You WRITE their backstory. Just a summary but it should tell you why they act the way they do. Why they can do some of the things they do – like knowing martial arts or being an excellent shot because they were in the military, or being a clever PI because they are the son or daughter of a former police officer who went into the academy and then worked their way up to being a homicide detective. Or they were dumped at the altar and are extremely leery of commitment, particularly if the new love interest reminds them of the person who left them in the lurch at the church. And that’s just a start of possible backstory scenarios.
Look to their goals.
What do they want the most out of life? Is it success in their chosen field? If so, what are they willing to do to achieve it? Go to the dark side and stab associates in the back (not literally…well, maybe in some cases) but by Machiavellian manipulations? Would they resort to blackmail? How important are these goals to your character that they are willing to risk everything on the turn of this particular card? It could – and should – backfire on them at some time in the future. That doesn’t mean they won’t do it earlier in the story to achieve that goal, or get a step closer to that goal.
The temptations that come their way.
I met a man once who had been a city manager, the guy who kept things running in the city for the mayor. He told me any man in a position of power ends up with women throwing themselves at him. Power as the super aphrodisiac. And more so that it was damn hard to turn down those offers…and few men managed to do so. He certainly hadn’t. Cheating on wives or girlfriends was just part of the perks of the job. Well, there are other things that will tempt men and women, too. Find out (or decide which) your character will be up against.
Everyone fears something. It could be spiders, heights, germs, never being loved. These things not only feed foibles into the character’s makeup, they offer scenarios to play out within the story. Let’s face it, Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes and so in every movie he ends up having to do something that will have him needing to get in a pit of snakes or touch a snake to survive a particular scene. Laura Kinsale’s UNCERTAIN MAGIC (from back in the 1990s, but a favorite of mine) has a hero who is afraid of heights so she traps him and the heroine on top of a burning building where the only way to survive is to fly off in the glider she built on the roof. To him it’s gonna be easier to be burned to death than to jump off into space with a set of flimsy looking wings. Still, in the end, he does it. So find out what your characters’ fears are and make them face them. Oh, I don’t think it caused Kinsale’s hero to overcome his fear of heights, but it gave her a hell of a scene to write. And that’s good!
These are all “feet of clay” elements…you know, things normal – REAL – people do. To make your characters “real”, they need a bit of this worked into their scenario, into their backstory to bleed into their current story – the one you are writing.
It’s easy to see these elements working into something that has great drama, a mystery, an action-adventure. But what about romance, or more particularly, romantic-comedy. Let’s face it, “feet of clay” characters don’t often pop up in romantic comedy.
Or do they?
Of course they do! We have one night stands that result in unplanned babies. We have characters who aren’t about to commit to anyone because they had their heart broken in the past, or because their parents were serial weders with multiple marriages to their tally which meant multiple step-parents floating through their lives. We have protagonists who are married to their jobs, or think they should be. Ones who have lost jobs, loved ones, who are enduring crushing financial problems or raising children alone, sometimes not children of their own. Characters who have responsibilities that are weighting them down. All things that make them very like REAL people – except since their story is now going to turn into a romantic-comedy, things are going to come about. Of course, the one thing that characters in a romantic-comedy need is a positive outlook and a good sense of humor…possibly of the ridiculous. They are going to get their happily ever after. You’re going to give it to them.
Actually, you’re going to give all your major characters a happily ever after on the final page. Why? Because we write genre fiction. Even dystopian stories manage a happily ever after by the final page – if not of the book, then of the series.
Now, that all said, I hope you’ll join me October 3rd through October 9th for the WAKE UP YOUR MUSE: GET YOUR WRITING CAREER BACK ON TRACK AFTER LIFE GETS IN ITS WAY workshop. Life does have a nasty habit of hijacking your best of intentions – and schedules – doesn’t it?
Beth Daniels has 29 published romances in various niches under three pseudonyms and a host of fiction writing guides written. Currently she’s working on a historical romantic mystery, an urban fantasy, a Steampunk Weird West trilogy, and contemplating a new romantic comedy. All of which means she’s switching off between being Beth Henderson, J. B. Dane, and Nied Darnell. At times, it’s hard to get her attention because she’s not sure which cap she’s wearing. Fortunately, her fingers know and keep the story at hand tripping along in its chosen niche.
Visit her at www.RomanceAndMystery2.com, www.Muse2Ms.com, and www.WritingSteampunk.com. Or link up with her on Twitter @BethDaniels1, @Beth__Henderson or @JBDaneWriter, or on Facebook at BethHendersonAuthor.