Those Pesky Historical Characters . . .

Have you ever read a work of historical fiction? The setting, the clothes, everything seems okay – until suddenly, the characters do things that you know they’d never really be able to do!

This is one of the reasons why authors who write historical fiction often stay within one era – not only do they have to get the minute details correct (what kind of clocks did they have? What hats would they have worn? Wigs? Shoes? Speech? Table manners? Foods?), they also have to get the characters correct. For instance, your medieval miss isn’t going to go rogue, run out of the church in her wedding dress, and run away with a dashing knight. For starters, she belongs to her father! She can’t marry just anyone she wants!

And nowhere is historical fiction more dominant than in the romance genre.

A couple of years ago at the Rose State College Writing Conference, author Callie Hutton presented a great workshop on how to write historical characters. Callie writes historical romances, so this is something she deals with on a daily basis. She gave us some great hints for how to write good historical characters, and here’s a few of those:

1.) First, you have to think about what your readers want. Readers, she said, want to read about today’s issues in a historical setting. Sounds hard, doesn’t it? But if you want to write about women’s issues, then you could write about a suffragette in the early 1900s, or a young woman rebelling against marriage by entering a convent in the 1300s.

Readers want to read about the following in historical romances:  issues of parenting and motherhood; reproductive rights; different perspectives, especially between the hero and heroine; marriages of convenience and/or strategy. For example, most women in colonial America were terrified of getting pregnant, because they knew the odds were good that they, or the baby, would die. It was customary to not even name a baby until it was a year old, so you didn’t ‘get attached to it.’ What if your heroine just watched her best friend die in childbirth . . . and her new husband wants a family right away?

2.) Second, you have to consider what you readers don’t want Callie said the #1 thing readers hate is language that isn’t authentic to the time period. (There’s a famous example from a Neanderthal series that said something like “the mastadon moved towards him like a freight train.”) Accents and dialect can be used as long as they don’t distract the reader. Along with that, inaccuracies in clothing, word use, etiquette, etc. Assume the reader knows all about this era. That’s who you’re writing for. Now, having said that, too much information will stifle the story.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy23.) As in any kind of fiction, one-dimensional characters are NOT to be tolerated! ESPECIALLY those that ‘buck the trends’ and do their own thing and step outside the bounds of society – and yet don’t pay a price for it. If your characters do this, they have to do it for a really good reason, they have to face the consequences, and you have to ground it in reality. There are people in history like this – Hildegarde of Bingen, for example, who was a well-educated nun who wrote music and advised popes – but they’re rare. Very rare.

4.) Readers despise heroines who depend on the hero for rescue. Modern women want to read about historical women with some backbone. We want heroines who know how to think for themselves, how to extricate themselves from situations, and who can make choices and decisions.

5.) That said, modern readers actually want alpha males. We want the strong, handsome guy on the proverbial white steed (mostly because we never get that in real life!). We want a guy who can command a room – BUT, we also want a hero with compassion and smarts.

So how can you accomplish all this with your characters? It’s really kind of simple:  human nature just doesn’t change. This is one thing I always try to get through to my students, too. Romans were just like us. The Greeks were just like us. So were 12th century Chinese and 17th century Germans. Human nature does not change. Societies do. We don’t. You encounter the same archetypes no matter what. You will always find inventors, explorers, artists, bullies. You’ll always find the cruel – and the good. Human weaknesses – and strengths – are the same. How society deals with that is the crux of your story.

silent in the grave6.) Readers do NOT want:  ‘too-stupid-to-live’ heroines (like Bella Swan); racism; discrimination or non-acceptance; sexual abuse or rape; violence (especially violence created by the hero or heroine); and stereotypes. (I know! I just told you to go out and create an Alpha Male, and then turned around and told you readers hate stereotypes. So how can you make your Alpha Male different and well-rounded? A great example is Deanna Raybourn’s Nicholas Brisbane, a societal outcast due to his Gypsy heritage. Another is my favorite, Jamie Fraser – Diana Gabaldon gives us so much about his upbringing and life that we can’t help knowing him inside and out, and knowing that whatever he does, he does for his own reasons. (This is why Facebook always lights up with fury every time the show’s writers get Jamie wrong! We know him. Better than they do!)

7.) Callie gave us one final great tidbit:  what is acceptable to editors. Editors, she said, will accept:  feminist slants, older women as protagonists; series (they want them!); and diversity – in race, society, age, body size, etc. Readers want to read about real people. Don’t go for the seventeen-year old blond beauty with lavender eyes and a 17-inch waist; go for something slightly more real. Is your heroine widowed at the horribly old age of twenty-six? Or was she basically sold into marriage, but knows now that she’s not pretty enough to attract another husband – so she turns instead to studying a skill that can bring her income, something that will bring her into contact with the hero of your story?

Remember, romance is the #1 selling genre in today’s publishing world. But the rules have changed since the ‘bodice rippers’ of the 1960s and 70s. Then, rape was a perfectly acceptable thing to have in your romance novel. Not anymore. Then, heroines didn’t have to think for themselves or save themselves. Not anymore.

So if you’re thinking of writing a historical work, or historical romance, you might keep these things in mind. Read some primary sources – not only will they give you a feel for how your characters should think and speak, but they’ll clue you in to the fact that that humans remain the same over time, no matter what.

Then, harness that in your writing.

Red, White, and Royal Blue: A Review

Imagine with me, for a moment, that in 2016, an intelligent, strong, Democrat woman was elected President of the United States. She has a son and a daughter, and an ex-husband who is a Senator. The country is safe. The country is happy. This woman will not drop nuclear weapons into hurricanes to see if it stops them. She is smarter than that.

Her children are likewise highly intelligent, ambitious, driven. But they are in their early twenties, and sometimes do things that this first female President might wish they didn’t.

Like fall for the Prince of England.

red white royal blueThis is the premise of my new favorite romance/alternative history/fairy tale, Red, White, and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston.

Very rarely does a book come along that makes you drop everything to read it. That makes you think about it all day while you’re at work, and devour it the first thing when you get home. And even more rare is a book that is super-smart, super-sexy, and super-funny.

This book had popped up on my social media all summer. I kept seeing it recommended by Goodreads (I know I hate them, but let’s see what they have to say . . .) and on a couple of Facebook romance pages I follow. I hesitated, because frankly, I’d never read anything quite like it before, but the reviews were so great, the premise so intriguing, I finally downloaded it to my Nook – and then got totally lost in the absolutely wonderful alternate reality McQuiston has created.

Before you run out to read this, be aware:  this is a ‘gay romance.’ And I’m going on record right now as saying that I HATE that term. It’s a romance. The main characters happen to be gay. The trajectory from meetcute to happily-ever-after isn’t any different that that of a traditional straight couple. There. Soapbox Rant over. Thank you. 

So yes. The child of President Claremont who falls for the Prince of England is her son, Alexander.

When the First Children are sent to attend a royal wedding. there is a debacle with the wedding cake, which is Alex’s fault, which means that he and Prince Henry need to become BFFs in order to get the media off his back – and repair relations with Britain. From there, they are forced to attend events together, text back and forth, and friend each other on social media. But as Alex and Henry get to know each other, they find the superficial ‘for the media’ acquaintanceship deepening into a real friendship – and from there, into something a lot more.

One thing I love about this book is that the relationship feels so real. I hate – hate, hate, HATE with the fire of a thousand suns – romance novels that have the couple meeting, falling in love, and ending up in bed all in one day. There is no such thing. But Alex and Henry’s relationship evolves naturally, sweetly, depicted partly through text messages, emails, and group chats with their siblings and friends, and partly through their meet-ups – which, of course, have to be kept absolutely secret. Because it’s Election Year in America – and the media is watching. Always.

Alex and Henry are perfect foils for one another as well. Alex – hotheaded, outspoken, obnoxious, eloquent – is the only one who can bring reticent, closed-off Henry out his shell. But it’s Henry who offers the first kiss, taking the lead, being the bold one. They are perfect complements to each other, a wonderful yin-yang.

Another thing I loved about this book is the funny. God, I needed the funny! Part of this is the good-natured jabs Henry and Alex throw at each other, making fun of each other’s titles and countries, the sexy banter that is going to be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship. Part of it is from the situations they find themselves in. Part of it is the political references. (It really does help to be a history nerd and politico to read this. Seriously. As Henry says in one of his emails to Alex, “The phrase ‘see attached bibliography’ is the single sexiest thing you have ever written to me.”) And when Alex’s Secret Service agent catches him in bed with Henry, his mom puts together a PowerPoint discussion entitled “Sexual Experimentation With Foreign Monarchs:  A Gray Area,” with bullet points like, “Federal Funding, Travel Expenses, Booty Calls, and You.”

And the fact that these two young men are quoting Virginia Woolf and Henry James and Alexander Hamilton . . . (I swear to God, I did not know there would be Alexander Hamilton references in this book. I didn’t. I swear. It just was a totally happy coincidence. I swear.)

But another thing I loved is the wonderfully rounded secondary characters that populate this book. Not a single one is superfluous. Every single one is wonderful and necessary and interacts perfectly with Alex and Henry, and it’s a joy to watch them. Alex’s mother – even though she’s the President, even though she’s up for re-election – stands by her son no matter what, a strong and unswerving presence. His sister is ready to take a bullet for him. His Secret Service agents don’t take his crap – but they also aren’t going to stand by and let him be ripped apart from Henry, either.

But I think what I loved most about this book is that it was just escapism at its best. The tension and trials that Henry and Alex go through are real – but again, this takes place in this wonderful alternative universe where everything went right in November 2016, and where there’s still hope and good people and sanity. Tension? Of course there’s tension, from all sides – from the media, from their families, from the consequences of being found out, from the very real possibility that the royal family will not allow the relationship to continue. Tension between all the characters. Tension from an evil Republican candidate, too. But you know it’s all going to be okay, in the end.

Fair warning, just in case you didn’t get the memo from reading this:  there is language, and gay sex (not 100% blatant, but you’ll definitely get the drift), and unapologetic liberalism. If that bothers you . . . well.

Read it anyway. 🙂

 

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!