Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

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The Flawed and the Vulnerable: why characters need to be both

Have you ever read a book and about halfway through – for some reason you couldn’t quite put your finger on – you started to feel bored?

There’s a lot of reasons for this:  lack of forward momentum, too much backstory, poor writing, not enough tension, nothing big for the characters to do, no important stakes. But there’s another reason that could underlie all these things:  boring characters. I don’t mean characters that do nothing, or have boring dialogue. I mean characters that are too perfect.

In writing, there’s an axiom:  give your characters flaws. Or more accurately, give them vulnerabilities. No one wants a hero that can’t be stopped. Where’s the fun (and tension) in that?

Imagine if we’d known Harry couldn’t be defeated by Voldemort. Would anyone have bothered to read the last book, let alone 8.3 million of us in the first 24 hours? Nope. The tension lies in the not knowing. If the reader has doubt your hero can really pull it off – whatever ‘it’ is – then they’re invested. They’re rooting for your hero. They want to see him succeed – but it’s up to you to make sure the reader is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, turning the pages long past the time they should have gone to bed.

I’ve been reminded of all of this in the past week through my new favorite TV show, Lucifer, as well as the latest installments of two of my favorite book series.

luciferIf you’re not familiar with Lucifer, it’s a fantastic show, and the main character, played by the devilishly handsome Tom Ellis, is Lucifer. In the flesh. Got bored with Hell and decided to go to Los Angeles and get a life. Though truthfully, it’s much more complicated than that, and the writers really should get Emmys for how well they’ve done with this material.

Lucifer is a tortured soul, mischievous and charming, the consummate bad boy – but beset by his own demons (both literally and figuratively). As an angel, he can’t be harmed, except by a heavenly weapon – but then he meets Detective Chloe Decker, and for some inexplicable reason, if she’s around . . . he’s mortal.

This instantly raises the stakes.

Add in the fact that he’s always with her on cases and in shootouts and the stakes are raised even higher. Let’s face it:  a hero who can fall off a ten-story building without a scratch is, well, a bit boring. Put him in proximity to Chloe, though, and suddenly there’s tension, because there’s real danger.

51gpkfudefl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Now. If you’re not familiar with Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series, you’re in for a treat. Charley is a private investigator, but she’s also the Grim Reaper. She’s shiny and bright and spirits from all over not only see her, but cross through her to the other side. She was born that way. She’s also smart, sarcastic, and funny as hell even when the situation doesn’t call for it. For instance, in this book she went to rescue a client, got caught, and now they’re both about to die:

“He must be returned to the earth,” she said. “He must learn from his mistakes and be allowed to grow again.”

“You’re going to replant him?” I asked.

“And you as well.”

“Can I come back as an azalea?”

I love Charley. But I admit, this book is slightly on the boring side for one reason:  Charley can’t die. We didn’t know that until a few books ago. The first few books in the series are fantastic because Charley can’t help but put herself in harm’s way; sometimes it’s to help someone, and sometimes it’s just because she’s That Kind of Person, but we’re always on the edge of our seats because we know something bad is coming. She can heal fast, but she’s not immune to pain, torture, or dying. But now we know she’s a god, and she can heal herself. There may be a few things that can kill her, but not many. So we no longer have the great tension we once did of ‘how will she get out of this?’, because we know she can.

But by this time, Jones has created an entire world of secondary characters that are almost as endearing and fun as Charley herself – and they’re almost all mortal. She’s fiercely loyal to her human family and friends, and will do anything to save them. So we do worry for them, and for her daughter Beep, who is in hiding. But as I was reading the ending of the most recent book tonight, I realized that I was a little disappointed – because I knew Charley could get out of it any time she wanted, really. The tension of that scene was gone.

bjfioefvegrhthtThe other book I’m reading is Feversong, the last book in the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning. I. Love. These. Books. In the world Moning has created, everything has limits and rules.

Basic premise:  MacKayla Lane can see the Fae. The walls between Fae and mankind have crashed, and Mac needs to put it back up. Not easy, but she has help from the other sidhe-seers, as well as Jericho Barrons and the rest of the Nine. We don’t know exactly what the Nine are, but we know they can’t die – well, there is one way, but let’s not go there. If they do die, they just magically go back to an original starting point, heal, and then come back to Dublin.

The rules:  Mac’s human. To defeat the Fae, she can use one of two weapons that can kill them. She can also snack on Fae in order to gain their capabilities, but if she does, she’s vulnerable to her own weapon. The Nine can regenerate, but it takes a while, and in the interim, they’re gone. Sure, they return eventually, but will it be in enough time? That’s the question. So there’s built-in tension with the rules, especially before Mac knows they come back. They are vulnerable. Plus, we really like them and don’t want bad things to happen to them, either. 🙂

This is why, when you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, or – well, anything – your hero must be flawed and vulnerable. Vulnerable is the key, though. Lucifer is flawed, but without Chloe, he’s not vulnerable on any level. She makes him that way, both physically and emotionally. Charley is flawed, but again, not very vulnerable. It’s the people in her life that are her Achilles’ heel. Mac – and the Nine – are both flawed and vulnerable in certain circumstances.

Flaws make us human. Flaws lead to downfalls. Flaws lead us to make irrational choices, to do things we’d normally not otherwise do. Flaws in your characters do the same thing – they become overconfident, overlook things, get hurt, cut people out of their lives, make mistakes. In a truly good, character-driven book, it’s the flaws that help drive the narrative.

Flaws  and vulnerabilities are what we identify with as readers. Who wants a perfect main character?

That’s just boring. 🙂

A Love Letter to my Novel

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about a million things (how should I refinish the vintage end table I just bought? Do I have to go back to work? So stressed . . .) But one of the things going through my mind was the problems I’m having with Nicky.

Nicky is the protagonist of my young adult novel. I’ve been writing this for about three years now, and while sometimes I think I’m getting closer to finishing – sometimes it also seems that the end is further away than it was three years ago. I’ve been struggling with the plot (there isn’t one), the secondary characters (they’re not doing enough) and a ‘middle’ that has zero forward momentum. It’s become a nightmare, a quagmire of doubt.

But once – once I loved this novel.

So while I was awake anyway, I started reading Author in Progress, a collection of essays by authors on how to get past some of the major issues we all face as writers. And then this little scrap of advice leaped out at me:

Write a love letter to your story and characters. Capture the feeling so you can use it later for fuel. You’ll need it!

I’ve been thinking about that all day. A love letter to your novel. 

So here goes:

Dear Nicky and the novel you’ve helped create: 

I remember the first time I ‘saw’ you. It was late October, 2014. I was on a walk, on a crisp, sunny fall day. I was taking that Young Adult Fiction class from Oxford and that week, our tutor had asked us what we would never want to write about, and I’d answered “History and racism – because I spend all day teaching history, and racism is so emotionally draining for me. I need the escape of magical realism and urban fantasy, so that’s what I want to do.” 

And then you arrived. That houndstooth driving cap and the matching coat that just about dragged the ground, with your pants legs rolled up and held in place by suspenders that had holes stabbed in them – I knew those weren’t your clothes! That spattering of freckles across your nose and those green eyes – but I barely noticed they were green. What I saw was the challenge. The certainty. The dare. And I heard you, loud and clear “Hey you. Lady! Yeah. You. Write my story.” 

Five minutes later, I knew enough to run home and get started. I knew what drove you – love of family, a need to take care of them and to make your dad proud, and an intense fear of losing it all and being sent to the poor farm, of being separated from your twin siblings and of having your mother locked away. I knew you’d do whatever it took to keep up the facade that everything was all right – even something illegal. I knew you’d take it as a challenge. 

And paired with what I knew of the 1920s and race relations and Prohibition . . . 

This novel has challenged me in ways I never thought possible. The research has been intense, and if I’m honest, it’s not done yet. That could be part of the reason why I’m not able to see the way out of the woods yet. But I know the bigger problem is this:  I want to protect you. I want to keep you safe, because I know the beginning and the ending of your story and I hate it. You’re too damn smart, and at the same time, not smart enough. You can’t turn away, and  you can’t keep your mouth shut, and I adore that about you. You are the me I wish I was. 

But you’ve got your own problems and relationships to deal with, and I’m not trusting you to navigate them on your terms. And this novel can only be written on your terms. I know that. I knew it from the moment you came to me. I have to let go. I have to trust you. I have to let you be yourself. Whatever comes – I have to let it happen. 

As for Hargrove – I know I’m not being fair to him either. Not letting him do what he should be doing. Simon, too, and Bobby. Simon’s conflicted. He doesn’t tell me about that, but he is. Letting you go running all over, risking your life week after week – he knows, Nicky. He knows, more than you, what the dangers are. He lived through Tulsa. To you, it’s just a story. To him, it’s the thing that wakes him up in a cold sweat night after night, his throat raw from screaming. How can he do this? He asks himself that night after night. How can he let the son of his best friend risk his life for money? He’s gotten you into this. He asked you to run for him. He helped you build Abby. He makes the whiskey and the deals. If he quit that, you’d have no choice but to quit, too. Pastor John asks you once, how much money is enough. Simon asks himself that, too. 

But for both of you, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the freedom. Independence. Simon’s his own man; no white man can tell him what to do in his own house, or with his own business. And you, Nicky – all you’ve ever wanted was to be able to save your family, to be seen as the adult you think you are. Running gives you that. And there’s nowhere on earth you’re happier than when you’re behind the wheel, outrunning whoever thinks they can catch you this time. 

I do love this novel. I know it has issues, but the issues are mine. I need to give you all – ALL – more freedom. I need to have more trust that you all – ALL! – know what you’re doing. I have to get back to why I started this to begin with – which was simply to tell the story. Your story. Crashing a Klan rally. I haven’t written that yet, because you already crashed one Klan lecture and frankly, I’m not sure how many you can get away with. But this seems important to you, so all right. We’ll do it. I have to tell this story on your terms, not mine. 

Even if it breaks my heart. 

 

Here’s a link to Barnes and Noble’s site for Author in Progress:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/author-in-progress-therese-walsh/1123233497?ean=9781440346712

Outlander: Monsters, Villains, and Redemption

(A note:  I drafted this some time ago, when the second season of Outlander was wrapping up on Starz. But as the new season has started filming  … I thought I’d go ahead and publish it, as it contains what I think are some Rather Important Points.)

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Tobias Menzies – Parade.com 

A few weeks ago, I made an impassioned plea to the writers of the series Outlander to get to know the characters a bit better before they started to write about them willy-nilly. But this week’s episode left me particularly disappointed and dismayed.

Outlander, to recap, is the first book in a series by Diana Gabaldon. The series focuses on the story of Claire Beauchamp, thrown back in time from 1945 to 1743 Scotland. There, she’s forced to wed young Jamie Fraser for protection, and quite against her intentions, falls in love with him. She chooses to remain in 1743, forsaking her 20th century husband Frank Randall, and she and Jamie start a quest to stop the Battle of Culloden Field, the last gasp of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 – and the event that destroys the Highlands and the clans.

As I’ve said before – YES. I know that adaptations have to be slightly different from the books for various reasons, including time constraints, money, etc. But the characters? They have to remain the same. HAVE TO. Otherwise, why are you bothering to even try to create a television series from the book? Millions of people love these characters, and are expecting the writers to Get It Right.

Nowhere is that more important than in the main antagonists, though. Take away their characters, and what do you have? No one for the protagonists to go up against, to react to.

Such was the case this week with Captain Jonathan Wolverton Randall, of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons.

Masterfully played by Tobias Menzies, Randall is the one character – as Diana Gabaldon has often said – that people simply cannot quite grasp. They constantly ask how did this awful, evil person come out of YOU?! How could you write him like this? What was your inspiration? And as she’s also often said – a writer has all their characters inside them already. Randall is as much a part of her as Claire and Jamie are. What makes him so awful, you ask? Well . . . for starters, he’s a sadist. The very first time he meets with Claire, he attempts to rape her; the second time, fed up with Claire’s inability to answer his questions, he hits her hard in the stomach (“I trust you are not with child, Madam,” he said in a conversational tone, “because if you are, you won’t be for long.”). The third time, he tries to rape her in front of her new husband. The fourth time . . . well.

And yet. Gabaldon takes pains to paint him as a full, nuanced man. Take for instance this scene from Outlander (which also highlights Claire’s sarcasm, notably absent in the TV series, too):

“Don’t tell me,” I said finally. “Let me guess. It’s a new form of persuasion you’ve invented – torture by bladder. You ply me with drinkables until I promise to tell you anything in exchange for five minutes with a chamber pot.”

He was so taken by surprise that he actually laughed. . . . Having let the facade crack, he didn’t stifle the laugh, but let it go. Finished, he stared at me again, a half-smile lingering on his mouth.

“Whatever else you may be, Madam, at least you’re a diversion.” He yanked a bellpull hanging by the door, and when the orderly reappeared, instructed him to convey me to the necessary facilities.

As readers, we need this three-dimensionality. We need to see Randall as more than a caricature, more than the ‘mwa-ha-ha’ villain. Sure, he’s a sadist, but he’s a sadist with a sense of humor.

However, to understand how truly depraved he is, you have to know that in the end, he forces Jamie, already in prison, to trade his body for Claire’s – and Jamie has to prove the point by allowing Randall to nail his hand to a table. By the end of the first book, you know one thing about Randall:  he is evil, pure and simple. Even a demon can have a sense of humor.

Had Gabaldon left it there, that would be one thing. But she didn’t. No. Because she’s a better writer than that. In the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, we learn that Jack Randall has a younger brother, Alex, who is quite ill. When Alex loses his job, Randall steps in, paying for his room, his medicine, and in the end, tracking down Claire in Edinburgh to request her help. No, it’s not entirely without benefit to him:  part of their unholy deal is that he is able to relive Jamie’s rape at leisure with the one person on earth who knows him the way he does. “We are linked, you and I, through the body of one man – through him.” But Randall is willing to trade British Army secrets – turn traitor – in exchange for Claire’s medical skills. Because there is one thing in life he loves – his brother. So much that he even marries Alex’s pregnant sweetheart, at Alex’s request.

In the book, you understand that whatever else Randall is – and he’s quite a lot of Really Bad Things – he has one redemption:  his love for Alex. It is these final scenes, more than anything else, that ’round out’ Jack Randall, making him fully human. In real life, there are true monsters – but in fiction, unless you’re writing some Die Hard fanfic, even your antagonists have to have a redemption. Gabaldon made the difficult and correct decision to allow Randall this, so that we might see both sides to him.

But in the show . . . OMG.

I’ve been disappointed in a lot of episodes, but this one truly disgusted me on several levels, not the least of which was the utter lack of redemption Jack Randall was given. Throughout the show he’s been portrayed as nothing other than a sadistic, evil rapist. And in this episode, nothing changed. Alex made the request; Randall denied him and stormed out. We got one small glimpse – early in the episode, Randall found Claire and asked her to tend Alex, and she made the bargain:  she’ll care for Alex in exchange for intelligence on the British Army. Rightfully so, Randall was infuriated. So was I. This is a man willing to turn traitor if it will help his brother, and yet, the show’s writers can’t even give him that?

But wait, it gets worse! He refused to marry Alex’s sweetheart, Mary; when Claire tracked him down and demanded he reconsider, he basically said, “You know what I am and what I do. You’d turn a sweet, innocent girl like that over to me?” He is given no redemption. Ever. Not even in those final moments when Alex dies . . . rather than weep at his bedside, he jumps on the bed and punches Alex’s corpse. Not once, but several times. And makes no apology for it. (If it makes you feel better, he won’t be alive much longer anyway. At least, if the writers don’t screw that up, too. However, I have little hope of that at this moment.)

Let me be clear:  Diana Gabaldon doesn’t go too far with trying to redeem Randall. She remains true to his sadistic nature throughout. But.

Jack Randall is a complicated character, as all great antagonists should be.

At least, in the books, he is.

Outlander – In Which a Small Complaint is Made

Okay. I’ve been trying not to do this, because I really hate when people bag on things just to bag on them. There are, of course, exceptions. Twilight. 50 Shades of Grey.  Donald Trump.

But I have to say this, because it’s bothering me, and because it’s important to me.

Writers of the Outlander TV show, STOP CHANGING MY BOOKS!!!

Outlander-1991_1st_Edition_coverI first picked up Outlander when I was in high school. 20+ years ago. (Never mind the exact number of years; not important.) My mom ordered it, along with Dragonfly in Amber, from Doubleday, and I devoured them both. I’d never read anything remotely like them, and I was a voracious reader – I’d gone through the Shannara chronicles, and Dean Koontz, and there wasn’t a moment of the day when I didn’t have a book to hand. I fell in love with Jamie and Claire and the Scottish Highlands, and the use of the first-person narrative. I fell in love with Diana Gabaldon’s writing style, her attention to detail, the smallest little turns of phrase that snagged me deep inside and stayed with me, long after the covers were closed. I loved that every small thing led to something else. I loved that they were character-driven. I loved Claire’s sarcasm and her refusal to relinquish her 1945 sensibilities and independence, even in 1743 Scotland.

And like most readers, I’d spent years wondering:  if these were ever made into movies, who would play the characters? Likely someone I’d never heard of, I was sure. And honestly, I have no issue with any of the actors. They’re marvelous. Especially Tobias Menzies, who does such a fantastic job portraying Jack Randall that I was actually having flashbacks in the Season 2 premiere when he was playing Frank.

No, I’m good with the actors. It’s the writers I’m having trouble with.

Yes, these are incredibly long books. Outlander is 627 pages (the 20th anniversary edition); Dragonfly in Amber is at least twice that. So I understand that some scenes need cut, and others merged. That’s okay – as long as the characters stay the same.

But they’re not.

1376218157DragonflyhbDelacorteTake, for example, the first few episodes of Season 2, where they are trying to stop Charles Stuart from raising the funds he needs to invade England. In the books, this is as much Jamie’s idea as it is Claire’s. He’s not being dragged along for the ride; he’s convinced that this is the best thing possible, the only way to save Lallybroch, the clans, and the Highlands. Does he doubt? Of course. He wants to see an independent Scotland as well, but he’s also convinced that Claire knows what she’s talking about. But in the show? He acts like this is all Claire’s idea, and he’s just doing it because she says so. It’s maddening.

Still, I could forgive that, if Claire was who she’s supposed to be. I feel the writers understand every other character in the books are are being truly faithful to them – but not Claire.

And. It. Drives. Me. Nuts.

Take, for example, the scene in Outlander where she and Geillis Duncan are tried as witches. In the show, Claire is a victim, pure and simple. She never fights back; she never even really defends herself. In the book, though . . .

“So I’ve the choice of being condemned as a witch or being found innocent but drowned, have I?” I snapped. “No thank you!”

The judge puffed himself up like a threatened toad.

“You’ll nae speak before this court without leave, woman! Do ye dare to refuse lawful examination?”

“Do I dare refuse to be drowned? Too right I do!”

Does it cost her in the end? Yes, a bit, but we’re right there with her, cheering her on anyway, because we get it. We’d do the same thing. Or at least, we want to think we’d do the same thing. But in the show she’s – so quiet. So passive. So . . . boring. We get flashes of her true self, but only flashes – for instance, when she’s trying to bind Jamie’s shoulder in the first season, by the side of the road, and cusses when the bandage slips. That’s from the book. So is the wonderful line, “You can bloody mind your own business and so can St. Paul!” I think it’s because we can’t get into her head in the show the way we can in the books – but still, there are ways to do it and the writers are simply not getting it done.

There’s another key scene, left out of the show, that I adored and wish had been put in. It was, in fact, the scene I was most looking forward to seeing. When Claire is first taken to Jack Randall at the fort, she goes through the office before Randall comes in, and  . . . I opened a small cupboard behind the desk and discovered the Captain’s spare wig . . .Carrying the wig stand over to the desk, I gently sifted the remaining contents of the sander over it before replacing it in the cupboard.

A small, spiteful bit of revenge, but I love the visual.

There’s other things that bother me, too – not scenes missing, exactly, but scenes made up.

I was fully expecting the Season 2 premiere to start off with Roger and Brianna, in the 1960s. Not a long-winded thing in which she basically forgets Jamie in a week’s time. Having been there and done that, I can tell you flat out, no one recovers from losing someone who was your world in one week. Not one year. Maybe not one lifetime. And especially when Gabaldon had done such a masterful job of portraying Frank and Claire’s marriage after her return as one full of tension and mistrust – he never full forgave her, nor did he ever truly understand or believe her – it was disappointing to see Claire throw Jamie aside so easily in the show. Not just disappointing:  practically treasonous.

Likewise, there wasn’t any need to lie to Jarrod about why they were in Paris and why they needed access to the Jacobite leaders. In the book, Jarrod hires Jamie to oversee his business while he’s out of the country; what Jamie does while he’s gone isn’t his concern. Jamie himself, as Lord Broch Tuarach, is able to gain access to the Paris nobility, and as a fellow Scot, gain the trust of Charles Stuart. No problems.

These books are beloved by millions. They shaped my writing. I’ve read them dozens and dozens of times. These characters live and breathe in my imagination. I’ve walked the Hopital des Anges in my mind, and Lallybroch. I probably know them better than the show’s writers do.

I truly believe Caitriona Balfe is doing the best she can with the material she’s being given. The problem is, the material she’s being given just isn’t the Claire we know and love.

So please, writers, get it right.

A Tale of Two Romance Novels

Once again, over the past few weeks, I was reminded that in novels, characters are the most important thing.

I used to read romance novels all the time, especially historical and Scottish romances. Then I got into my paranormal phase – which I’m still not out of yet, so maybe it’s not a phase – and discovered urban fantasy (though paranormal romance just doesn’t do it for me; when a dust jacket makes inane statements like “Just as Laura realizes the only thing she wants is to live with Luke and his pack in the Grand Canyon and have his little fur-covered babies, an old enemy comes to call,” I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that).

But it’s been a while since I’ve read a straight historical romance. So this past month, I downloaded two on my Nook:  The Turncoat by Donna Thorland, and The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan.

The Turncoat is set during the Revolutionary War, and it’s not your typical romance (for starters, it’s way over 80,000 words . . . or at least, it felt like it). For another, this could have been another trope-ridden romance, with a splash of history thrown in. Instead, Thorland makes it more of a trope-ridden history book with a splash of romance thrown in. She’s clearly done the research, though I have to take issue with her insistence that all Redcoats and Hessians were awful, degraded, vicious creatures. Sure, you had the rare one like Banastre Tarleton (“Tarleton’s Quarter” was anything but) – but most of them were decent guys. Just doing a job. In fact, I’ve read reports of Hessian soldiers, forced to quarter with families, who ended up on babysitting duty!

But I digress. This novel focuses on the romance between Kate Grey – patriot and good Quaker lass – and Peter Tremayne – dastardly Redcoat AND nobleman. Double strike! Kate becomes a spy for the colonists, embedded with the British in Philadelphia. Peter must figure out where his loyalties truly lie – with his country and army, or with a girl he’s only met once but can’t get out of his head? When his cousin decided to pursue Kate himself, Peter’s decision is pretty much made for him.

This is the thing I really, truly hate about romance novels. The couple meets once – ONCE – and falls madly in love. Lust. Whatever. Never mind that they’re usually on opposite sides of a war, or they don’t even know each others’ favorite color. No. Forget such banalities as that. SHE’S PRETTY, DAMN IT, I MUST HAVE HER! Can she speak? Who knows? SHE’S PRETTY, I MUST HAVE HER!

The fact is, the lead characters let this novel down. I never liked Kate. I never liked Peter that much, either, and I truly despised him when he decided to abandon his post and go join the freaking colonists against Britain. Sure, he became an emissary to France, but face it:  he became a turncoat. Hence the title. The main characters should change in some way, yes; that’s part of the story, that journey towards change. But once Peter chucked it all in for a girl – particularly Kate – I was done. I had zero sympathy for him at that point. I never felt that Kate and Peter had true lives of their own; they always felt like cardboard cutouts, being marched across the pages by the author.

MUCH better is the second one (to be honest, I’m not quite done with it yet), The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan. I chose this one because the female lead is – guess what? – a suffragette in Britain, which sounded interesting.

And it is.

Milan has also clearly done her homework when it comes to this time period (the late 1800s and the early suffrage movement). Free Marshall, the FMC, runs a paper ‘by women, for women’ in which she’s basically Nellie Bly, having herself put into mental wards and prostitute hospitals, going into mines where women are forced to work fourteen-hour days, and enduring all sorts of horrendous abuse from the men of London – and Greater England – for it. I like Free. She’s smart and tough and takes crap from no one, and she’s funny.

And her life takes a turn for (hopefully) the better when a mysterious man named Edward Clark shows up to ‘protect’ her from her worst enemy, the soon-to-be Viscount Claridge, James Delacey. Clark makes no bones about it; he’s a forger and a thief and a scoundrel, and he’s not to be trusted.  But he’s the only thing standing in the way of James Delacey’s plans to destroy Free. As it turns out, he’s also the only thing standing between James Delacey and the Viscountcy.

I adore this book, because I adore the characters. Sure, Edward rambles on too much and he’s too willing to just jump into love with Free even though he’s spent his entire adult life avoiding entanglements, but I can live with that. He’s got real issues in his past that affect – that dictate – what he does today. Abandoned by his family, forced to endure the siege of Strasbourg and tortured afterwards, wandering the Continent trying to find himself . . .Unlike Peter, who is driven purely by lust for Kate and some ridiculous thing about he and his cousin really being brothers or something (I admit, I got lost there), Edward is three-dimensional, real, believable. His motives are real. His problems are real. His solutions will also have to be real.

In all honesty, I never felt that Kate and Peter had any issues. Not real ones. They both seemed whiny, self-centered, and one-dimensional to me. (And it’s a romance novel, so let me just say that the sex scenes were not just boring, but weird.) Kate was certainly not a heroine worth throwing away your career – your honor and title – your life – for. I never got a sense of chemistry from them either. But Edward and Free are all that can be right with a good romance novel. (And the sex scenes? Not bad!)

As always, it boils down to the characters.

  • Will your readers care about them? Are their problems real and believable and most of all, can readers relate to them?
  • Have you given them pasts that affect their presents in genuine ways?
  • Have you given them a pathway to change in your book – to change in a meaningful way? Meaning they may have to sacrifice something in order to be with their beloved? (Or, in not-a-romance-novel, change that’s necessary for them to achieve their goal?)
  • Do they take on lives of their own? Do they, at any point, take over the story? Because if they don’t, you’re just pulling strings. You’re not writing real characters. And readers will know it.

All the research in the world can’t make up for lack of good characters. If there’s no chemistry there – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a romance novel or not; imagine Harry Potter without Fred and George! – then you can’t force them together.

Characters are the most important part of your novel. They’re the driving force behind your novel. Make sure they’re characters your readers will like and care about!

Character Descriptions

Last week, I discussed setting descriptions (sort of; there’s an entire book there!). This week, I want to look a bit more at character descriptions.

Most writers have drafts sitting on their hard drive or in their desk drawers in which they describe characters by having them stand in front of a mirror and contemplating the way they look.Something like this:  “Petra stood in front of the mirror, contemplating her long blond locks. Her blue eyes stared back at her; she could count the five freckles dotted across her nose.  The high aristocratic cheekbones were a gift from her mother, while her heart-shaped mouth was from her father’s side. When she wore white, as she was doing now, it made her look even paler.”

WRONG. In most cases, WRONG. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

But why? you ask? Veronica Roth did it in Divergent. Yes, she absolutely did. And she got away with it – but just barely. The reason Roth gets away with it is that she’s using Tris’ mirror-gazing as a microcosm of the larger whole, as a way to introduce us to the dystopian world we’re about to enter.

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair. . . . I look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention – not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose – I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen.

In reality, .Roth’s goal here isn’t so much to describe Tris – we don’t even know what color her hair is, or her eyes – but to describe Tris’ world. Factions? A mirror hidden behind a panel? She doesn’t know when she had her birthday? This evokes questions in the reader. And remember, the goal of your first sentence, first paragraph, and first page is evoke questions that the reader MUST have answered.

So why is it so bad to sit your characters in front of a mirror and describe them? Because every single word counts. And you need to do a lot more with your descriptions than convey what someone looks like. If all they’re doing is sitting and staring, that’s boring. And when readers are bored, readers stop reading. Your descriptions need to evoke emotion, feeling, atmosphere, what era your character is in, what their social status is, and who they are.

Last week, I said the best way to describe your setting is to have your character interact with it. And this extends to character description as well.

I have to go back to Diana Gabaldon here – she’s the queen of this. And she does it mostly by weaving the descriptions seamlessly into the conversations. Like this example from Outlander:

“You’ve the loveliest hair,” Jamie said, watching me.

“What:? This?” I raised a hand self-consciously to my locks, which as usual, could be politely described as higgledy-piggledy. . . . “But it’s so . . . curly.”

“Aye, of course.” He looked surprised. “I heard one of Dougal’s girls say to a friend at the castle that it would take three hours with the hot tongs to make hers look like that . . .”

Of course, if your main character is as vain as the day is long, maybe they do spend countless hours in front of a mirror, contemplating their own beauty, counting the pores on their faces, making sure they don’t have any new blemishes threatening to erupt. If they’re that vain, though, they better have some really good redemptive qualities, because no one is going to care about them. You could, perhaps, pull a Sunset Boulevard kind of thing if your MC is older, looking back on her life, and wondering where she got all those wrinkles and age spots. But I would find a different way to do it.

You can always have other characters describe each other, and in romance novels, this is usually how it goes. We see the heroine’s POV in which she sees the dashing hero for the first time (usually shirtless), and then we switch POV so we can get the hero’s reaction to the ravishing beauty he’s just been introduced to. Readers have come to expect this, in fact, so if there’s a way you can mix it up, do so.

Here’s an example from my own work in progress, from the point of view of Kai, who died more than 250 years before Erin shows up at his door. So I wanted to be sure to spin his reaction in that direction.

But then the car door slammed, and if he’d had any breath in him, the sight of the girl standing in the drive would have taken it away. She was tall. Nearly his own height, in fact. Her long blond hair was pulled away from her face, and she wore clothes that left little to the imagination. . . He watched as she struggled to pull a large bag out of the car, displaying attributes no single woman ought to display so well.

Later, he – not in a creepy way! – sneaks up to study her:

She rolled over in her sleep, one long leg slipping off the edge of the sofa. He stared at her toenails, fascinated. Since when had women bared their toes long enough to need them painted?

I wanted my descriptions to highlight the differences between them, to show as much about Kai as they do about Erin. Your character descriptions should not focus solely on the physical; they need to also show the things that cannot be seen easily.

Some authors – especially in literary fiction – seem to have no character descriptions at all. I hate this, personally. For one, I really want to know what the characters look like. For another, one or two GREAT choices can always remind the reader exactly who this person is and what they look like. I know this is weird, but think for a second about Adolf Hitler. Think of how he’s portrayed in movies. Let’s face it, all you need is an actor who is kind of short and has beady little eyes. Give him that mustache and the Nazi uniform, and everyone knows immediately who this is supposed to be. Same thing with your characters. Jamie Fraser’s slanted, blue cat-eyes and knife-edge nose – not to mention his red hair – are forces to be reckoned with. Claire’s riotous hair and gold eyes (YES, in the books she has gold eyes, Jamie says they’re whiskey-colored) set her apart instantly.

In Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels, Russell has very long, straight hair, even though she’s a modern girl – she’s reading theology at Oxford and owns a Morris – and it’s 1915 when we first meet her, just on the cusp of the women’s lib movement. King has an unusual task in her novels, though:  not only does she have to create Russell, but she also has to remain faithful to one of the most iconic fictional characters ever, Sherlock Holmes. And she does, magnificently. Russell’s long hair is at first a source of confusion for Holmes. Later, when Holmes has been taken prisoner by a maharajah in India:

And then the maharajah said to me, ‘Do remove your topee, Captain Russell; you’ll be able to see better.’ Holmes tensed, his hand making a fist, his eyes darting to the guards as he prepared to fling himself to my protection.

But a topee is not a turban, and I had been my teacher’s pupil before I became my husband’s wife, learning to my bones that half a disguise is none at all. I lifted my topee, smoothed my regulation officer’s haircut with my other hand, and bent forward obediently to witness the lack of tricks up the magician’s sleeve.

The moment my short-cropped, pomade-sleek, unquestionably masculine hair passed beneath his nose was the closest I’ve ever seen Holmes to fainting dead away.

Character descriptions are just as important as any other descriptions, and just as tricky to get right. They need to convey more than the physical; they need to convey emotions, time period, changes in your character .  .  . It’s a tall order! But with practice – and lots of reading! – you’ll get there.