I write romance, and that means my stories are, by necessity, character driven. That doesn’t mean I ignore plot or story — my books have plenty of plot, and storytelling is my favorite thing about writing. But in a romance the story should grow out of the struggles of the characters. More important, the love story in every romance requires the characters to grow. The hero and heroine need to learn something by the end of the book that allows them to have their happy ending. The bigger the transformation the more satisfying the ending.
Coming up with ideas for that inner character arc is not easy for me. I can come up with ideas for situations and story lines and conflict, but figuring out what a character has to learn before he or she gets to the end of the story is really hard. I need all the help I can get.
Otherwise I’m liable to find myself in the middle of a story and suddenly realize that the characters are two-dimensional and don’t really have any significant barrier to their love story. When that happens, major revisions are usually required.
I hate major revisions. Like the plague. Unfortunately, when I was first learning how to tell a story, this happened all. The. Time.
And then, one day about ten years ago, I went to a plotting workshop put on by my local RWA chapter. And, of course, the instructor started out by telling us that we needed to know our characters in order to tell a good story. I knew this, but I was clueless as to how to actually accomplish that.
And then the instructor did a remarkable thing — she brought a bright red box out of her bag that looked like a box of tarot cards. “These might help,” she said.
They weren’t tarot cards. They were “archetype” cards developed by the self-help guru, Caroline Myss.
I don’t know a whole lot about new-age self-awareness, but I recognized a good thing when I saw it. Right after the workshop I rushed right out to my local bookstore and found a deck of these cards for myself. I’ve been using them ever since. (Follow this link to a full listing of all of the Caroline Myss archetypes, along with detailed explanations of each of them.)
There are many archetype systems that authors can use, but I love playing with my cards. They make it fun. But they are also so useful because each of of these archetypes comes with a list of positive and negative attributes. The negative attributes are particularly helpful when it comes to figuring out what lessons a character needs to learn before he or she can find love.
Let me give you an example of how I used these archetypes in the novel I started writing yesterday.
My heroine is a “beggar.” The card gives me a few clues to this archetype, but a further exploration on the Caroline Myss webpage leads to the understanding that: 1) a beggar is starving for love and attention, and 2) a beggar doesn’t feel self-empowered. She has to rely on others for sustenance for her self-esteem.
Okay, that immediately gets my brain working. What kind of character would match that archetype? I came up with a woman who set off to change the world only to have the world throw her back. She’s lost her job, her home, her life savings. She’s come back to town to live with the mother who never really gave her the attention she craved. And she has to face a community who expected great things from her and who now sees her as a failure. There is a job opportunity in town, but she’s going to have to beg someone for it. She desperately craves validation from the people around her, but of course they are not going to give her what she craves. (But they might just give her what she needs.)
Okay, so far so good. Now comes the fun part. What does this archetype need to learn in order to have a happy ending? The answers come pretty quickly: 1) confront and/or reconcile with the mother who neglected her in some way, 2) take control of her life in some way by finding a job that no one expects her to succeed at, and 3) develop a relationship with a hero who refuses to do the one thing she thinks she needs — validate her existence. (To be a fully realized person, she’s going to have to validate herself.)
See what just happened? Not only did the card help me find a character, but it gave me the beginning of a story line, complete with built in conflicts. Of course I’m not done yet. I need a hero for my beggar.
Off I go to the cards again, and I find the one for “hermit,” an archetype that has withdrawn from the world because of his own fears. A hermit also refuses to help those in need.
Wow, that immediately generates a ton of ideas. I used this archetype to come up with a hero who has withdrawn from society because his wife has died. Now he is intently focused on trying to keep his dead wife’s memory alive at the expense of everything else in his life, including his daughter. (Who is starving for attention, which harkens back to the heroine’s own backstory.) In withdrawing from the world, the hero has turned a blind eye to the people around him who are in need, especially his young daughter, but also other members of his family. There is a business that requires his attention, or it’s going to fail. His friend is in the middle of a legal battle, and the hero is a lawyer. And since he doesn’t give a darn about anything but his own sorrow, he’s not terribly interested in helping any beggars who ,might show up, especially if the beggar in question is his wife’s best friend from high school.
Obviously my hermit needs to have something my beggar desperately needs (a job perhaps, or money to accomplish some end, or legal advice). They are going to fight about this for the first third of the book. (I’d tell you what it is but that might spoil the read.) The bottom line a beggar heroine a hermit hero immediately generate conflict, which is always good for storytelling. Equally important, I can now brainstorm a list of things that could happen that would either 1) force the hermit to deal with the people around him, or 2) force the beggar to fend for herself and improve her self-esteem, or deal with her residual issues with her mother. Believe me I have a long, long list of what ifs now — many more than I need to tell a good story.
So, how do you come up with characters who drive your stories? Since we’re all feverishly writing as part of the Winter Writing Festival, I’m sure that brainstorming ideas would be welcome by all.
Okay, I admit it; I am a Science Fiction geek, and I loved Farscape. The whole premise excited my imagination —which is normal, considering I write futuristic Sci-Fi Romance when not dealing with lords and ladies. However, as much as I enjoyed the show, it’s the beginning—available in the music video above—that really spoke to me.
“Look, I can’t be your kind of hero.”
“No, you can’t be. But each man gets the chance to be his own kind of hero. Your time’ll come, and when it does, watch out. Chances are, it’ll be the last thing you ever expected.”
Nobody wakes up one morning and says, “I’m going to be a hero today.” Heroism tends to be the product of unforeseen events, unplanned incursions of circumstance, or simple happenstance (being in the right place at the right time). When any of those things occur, ready or not, the truth of a person’s character is revealed. There is no time for prevarication, dissembling, or projecting the desired image. There is only now. And a hero does what the now demands without regard for anything—or anyone—else.
In the now, a true hero has but one goal: Save the maiden. Rescue the colonists. Protect those within the fort. Brave the fire. Face the bullet. Find the threat and eliminate it—or die trying.
Heroism is about risk. Whether that risk is physical, psychological, or emotional is irrelevant. Whatever the root, the perception must be one of threat or danger.
Heroes put themselves in harm’s way for others. Were there a handbook for heroes, that would be Chapter One.
As writers, we write all kinds of heroes, and in doing so, must escalate the risk, elevate an ordinary man to heroic heights. How much is our hero willing to give? What is he willing to lose? His life? His heart? His beliefs? To be a hero, he must be willing to disregard something he believes necessary to his existence. The numismatist who has dedicated everything to procuring a unique coin only to sacrifice it to ransom a kidnapped child, or the accountant who, despite fears of professional suicide, ferrets out the truth about his crooked boss so the innocent bookkeeper won’t go to jail is just as much hero as the brawny Scot swinging his bloodied claymore to defend the lady he is sworn to protect.
It’s how we write him that gives him his chance to be his own type of hero.
Of course, most of us would prefer the brawny Scot—at least between the covers (that’s book covers, ladies). Still, the most unassuming person, given the right circumstances, can be a hero, while those to whom our perception ascribes innate heroism can turn tail and run.
Along those lines, the first movie that comes to mind is The Incredible Mr. Limpet—which could easily be subtitled Casper Milquetoast Saves the World. No, I’m not kidding, and here’s the original movie trailer so you can see for yourself.
Among types of heroes, one can’t forget the unwilling hero, thrust into a situation better avoided but doing what’s necessary because there’s no alternative. Atticus Finch is a good example of an unwilling hero. A quiet man, he goes about his life without raising much dust until he’s forced to choose between his preferences and his principles. Principles win, and as a result, he, his daughter, and his entire community discover his innate strength, courage, and conviction.
Then there’s the anti-hero, cynical and self-serving, forced by circumstance to do the right thing. Rhett Butler anyone?
There are other types of heroes, of course, but I’ll let you fill in the blanks while I give you one more video. (You really didn’t think you’d get away without something historical did you?)
Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite type of hero? Alphas? Betas? Gammas? What do you think makes a good hero? Have you ever read a book with an unexpected type of hero? Is there any one thing that makes you fall in love with a fictional hero? Do you have a favorite hero? Anything you want to share about heroes, feel free. Let’s celebrate heroes!
Everybody excited yet? I hope so. This is one of my favorite subjects, so I can’t help but want everyone to love spreadsheets as much as me. Seriously, though. Even if you’re not a spreadsheet lover, I hope you find something here you can use in your own character development even if it never makes it inside the cells of a spreadsheet!