Developing Your Romance Characters
Too many romance novelists pluck their characters straight from a trope. You’ve undoubtedly met these cardboard-cutouts: the mysterious, grumpy loner with the heart of gold. The sweet-but-spunky small-town girl. The couple from opposite sides of the tracks who fall madly in love after one panty-melting, smoldering eye-lock.
Meh, right? Do we really care about these paper-people and their struggle to find happily-ever-after? Not so much. We already know their whole story, after all, because we’ve read it so many times.
Letting a trope populate your novel is an insanely easy trap to fall into, though. Why? Because coming up with fresh, breathing, believable characters takes serious work and imagination. Plucking a stylized, pre-formed character from a familiar romance trope is so very much easier. It’s not so satisfying for your reader, though, who’s already “been there, read that.”
So, what’s the trick to creating believable, three-dimensional characters for your novel? In a nutshell, it’s this: Work extra-hard on the back-story.
Your grumpy hero didn’t emerge into the world fully-grumped. No, it took years – and it took people – to make him that way. What got that grump-train rolling? Who broke his heart in the past, and nearly broke his spirit? Who stirred the sugar into that sweeter-than-pecan-pie girl? And who (or what situation) added leavened the mix, adding a bit of steel to her spine?
While you’re at it, watch out for easy answers. The first backstory ideas that pop into your brain are probably the trite-est ones. Ditch those. Dig deeper.
Here’s an amazingly helpful character-creation tool. Early in his life, Benjamin Franklin sketched out a list of what he felt were the most important human virtues, the traits he most hoped to nurture in himself. Take a quick read through, and then let your imagination take wing; imagine how the opposite trait might appear in your book’s characters:
- Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
- Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
It’s a fascinating way to work real, human traits into your book’s characters. And it’s a great tool to help develop backstories for them, too.
Take ‘temperance,’ for example: maybe your grumpy hero once battled a drinking problem. Or ‘justice’: perhaps his father secretly committed a crime, and expects our hero to stay silent about that horrifying knowledge. There’s ‘order’ and ‘frugality’: your cheerful, idealistic heroine might keep the messiest house on the planet. Or she could be so determined to “waste not” that she stuffs the back of her Subaru with recyclable, flattened milk cartons. Add in a deceitful relative; a family doctor who flips out over trifles; and an anything-but-humble best friend, and you’ve got the makings for a very fun story, populated with real-human-size, fleshed-out characters.
Try it yourself! Pick any one of the virtues above, and imagine someone who’s the opposite. Then think about how you might work that less-than-perfect (but oh, so human!) character into your story.
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