what i’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Part II


I love the way SEP is totally candid about the link between her characters’ childhoods and the adults they’ve become. As I see it, there are two parts to how she does this:

1) She tells the reader upfront what has happened to a character to make them the way they are – strengths and weaknesses.

I find especially in romance novels, a huge part of characterisation is finding out what childhood experiences/traumas have given the characters certain defenses that inhibit them from being open to true love. Most writers will either hint at these or use them as big reveals in the plot.

What I’ve realised is that SEP always (as far as I can remember…) tells the reader quite early on exactly what these experiences were and what impact they had. My instinct would be to say that this punctures the character tension, but actually it’s really effective.

It means that you know exactly what’s driving the characters, so that when they meet you know there are going to be fireworks. The trick is not to make them predictable, of course, which is what SEP manages with such finesse. Just because we know what’s making the characters tick, doesn’t mean we know how they’re going to act.

And maybe that’s why it works; she tells us exactly who they are to begin with – as well as what they will have to overcome to accept love – and then we watch their transformation unfold.

2) Her characters have a lovely habit of trying to obliterate a “shameful” past with their present circumstances. It always comes back to bite them on the bum.

The best example of this, I think, is Cal Bonner’s parents in Nobody’s Baby But Mine (I have, shamefully, forgotten their names, and I don’t have the book at hand!)

Cal’s well-to-do dad falls totally in love with his firecracker of a mum – who also happens to be trailer trash (or was it a redneck hick?) – and makes the “mistake” of getting her pregnant. Dad spends the next few decades growing steadily more bitter at Mum for having deprived him of his real future, and Mum loses all her joy for life in the attempt to become the perfect wife.

When Mum moves back in with her own mother she begins to reclaim who she is, and Dad, seeing her ablaze again, finally realises what an idiot he’s been.

So I think what I’m trying to say is:

2. Don’t be scared of pointing out what’s made a character the way they are (allowing them plenty of room for unpredictable change!) and

3. Characters with a “shameful” past will probably try and recreate the opposite in their lives, only to realise that they have to give up what’s true in themselves to give up their past.

go to Part I here

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