Creating Characters You’d Like to Be

Celeste Davidson
Transform your writing, one email at a time
Jan-13 - Romance
Plot Your Way to Romance
Romance - Jan 19, 2022
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If the reader doesn't care about the characters, doesn't have a hollow spot in the pit of her stomach when things look bleak, doesn't feel a thrill as they tumble into love, the book will fall flat.
— Julia Quinn

Last time, we talked about how characters move the plot of your story forward. Today, we’ll discuss how to create great characters, and make them sizzle.
There is no more important element in romance writing than character development. A romance novel is all about the emotional journey of two characters. That journey will bring your story to life and propel it to an exciting, satisfying and oh-so-happy ending.

This post is part of Bardsy's free ​Romance Toolkit, which includes plenty of resources and videos. Click here to see all the pieces:

Romance Toolkit
Emotional journey, or narrative arc, is what romance readers crave, and that's why developing rich, layered characters is essential when writing within the genre. Traditionally escapist (read: bodice rippers), romance has evolved over the years. In contemporary romance, for example, heroines come in all shapes and sizes, and often enjoy aspirational careers in historically male-dominated professions.
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Today’s heroine is smart, capable and "feisty." More and more, she reflects the hopes and dreams of a diverse, sophisticated readership.

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Whenever I read a Nora Roberts novel, for example, I learn about some fascinating career (Roberts does her research!) and the woman who rides roughshod over it. In fact, Roberts pioneered the "contemporary" heroine and says:
I was like, I don't want to be the secretary, I want to be the boss... I started to write the kind of stories that I wanted to read. It was very instinctive.
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I didn't want to write the kind of story where the man treats the woman like shit for the entire book and in the last chapter he tells her, "I treated you like shit because I love you."

We'll discuss writing the stories we want to read in a bit, but for now, let’s discuss how to develop those sizzling characters. As a storyteller you must put yourself and your audience in your characters’ shoes: flesh out their physical characteristics, personality traits and backstory, or history. We've included a character brainstorm template in this section of the tutorial, to help you do that.
Backstory is especially important as it provides context: it helps establish characters' motivations and influences the way they approach conflicts within the story. Julia Quinn, who thinks deeply about her characters' backstories before beginning a novel, says this:
I have adopted this [backstory] in my prewriting. I’ll spend several pages talking about who these people are…because we are all shaped by our experiences. Does this person have brothers and sisters? Are they the oldest? Are they in the middle? Many of [these details] never show up in the book. But it means that somehow, in some amorphous, creative way, I know the character better. And I think that comes through.
While fleshing out the characters’ physical characteristics, personality traits and backstory is requisite for any good story, I’ll let you in on a secret: writing romance characters is also a kick! Why? Because you have license to create characters that you’d like to be, and that you’d like to fall in love with. What a great opportunity to explore your ideal self and relationship, without the fear of rejection. And oh, the possibilities!
Even in escapist sub-genres, such as fantasy and paranormal romance, the power dynamic between the sexes is more balanced and satisfying than ever before, with nuanced, independent heroines and refreshingly mature (or redeemable) men.
Regarding male leads, it's pretty much a given that the "hero" in romance is physically attractive. He may not be traditionally so, but you can count on him being relatively fit (no beer belly) and pulled together (shoes and shirt required).
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Most importantly, the hero must be attractive to the heroine, and therefore, to the vicarious reader.

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Quinn has some thoughts about what attracts heroines:
A guy simply cannot be sexy if he doesn't respect women. If you want to be a hero in one of my books, you have to believe in the heroine and respect and cherish her strengths and abilities. It doesn't mean he can't get all protective and macho from time to time—I mean, who doesn't love that? But ultimately, he's got to think she's the bomb.
Cue the boom!
Having said that, your characters shouldn’t be picture-perfect, either. New York editor Marla Daniels adds this:
While it is fiction, the couples and your characters still need to be relatable. Sure, they can have sculpted bodies and perfect meet-cutes, but some of the baggage they bring to the relationship needs to be something your readers can identify with. Think an overbearing, meddling mother, trust issues from a past relationship, monetary issues, stuck in a job they hate, etc.
The point is, if your heroine and hero come to the story airbrushed to perfection, they will have little to no internal conflict to resolve. Each has a character arc that must evolve over the course of the story. Furthermore, their personal growth should not develop in tandem.
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It's the ways the lovers’ arcs fold together and pull apart over time (think taffy-making machine) that provide tension, and suspense.

So, get to know your heroine and hero. Intimately. What do they want? Why? What holds them back? How? It might be that your heroine harbors a general mistrust of men or a fear of commitment. Maybe she's a workaholic or has low self-esteem. How might you show these? Then there are the hero's issues. They might be similar but manifest differently.
The ways in which the heroine and hero’s goals and motivations spark conflict, then resolve it as they evolve, creates the combustible chemistry between them.
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Put yourself in your characters’ shoes and take a walk on the wild side. It doesn’t get much better than this!

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For more great specifics on creating your characters, click on our Romance Toolkit, which includes a nifty handout and video. Click here: Romance Toolkit
Stay tuned for Part Three, where we’ll create an out-of-this-world setting so your characters can do a bit of sightseeing. Caution: stilettos and cobblestones don't mix!
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