Tag Archives: character

doctor fever

I have officially caught it: I love Doctor Who. Or rather, I love Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.

He’s an odd hero. The only superpower he seems to possess is his brain – and the centuries of info that have gone into it. Oh, and he has a sonic screwdriver. (I can’t decide whether this is brilliant or silly. It’s a small instrument that seemingly does everything.)

That’s what makes him, though, I think. He talks and thinks his way out of everything and anything. He lives with a kind of infectious enthusiasm.

As Rory says to him, “You make people a danger to themselves.” It’s his volatility and his brilliance that make him a dangerous person to be around, more so than the time-travelling thing.

There’s a big win for character, if ever I saw it.

novel/alien/attention to detail

today was my last day of school for the year, and I am preparing myself for the re-emergence of my novel. I am looking at three months of full-time writing, and I could cry from happiness.

The timing is…good.

I am coming back around to writing what I love first, and applying technique later (the Write Out Loud thing). So for the last few weeks I have been feeling my novel shyly emerging from the husk of Draft Zero. It’s a different beast – more complex and compelling and with much more at stake.

It’s a bit like an alien bursting out of the belly – mine or the manuscript’s…not quite sure.

I’m not a big one for writing up character sheets and interviews and biographies, or doing the same for plots and worlds. I tend to create as I write, from the back of my brain. But with this emerging second-life/alien-baby novel, the time is ripe.

I have begun to write my first ever truly comprehensive character sketches, and I’m loving it. I love the freedom to ramble however I like, I love the ridiculous, gorgeous lengths I can push them to without fear of retribution, and most of all I love the world of details that are emerging.

I don’t think this work always has to be done first. For me, these characters didn’t exist until I had met them through the first draft. But I am discovering the real joy and benefit of doing character work.

And lastly, Donald Maass has written a beautiful post about the importance of detail.

in the name of research

It recently came to my attention that I don’t have a good enough mental image of the hero I’m currently writing to describe him with any conviction. All I really know is that he is huge (muscles, not fat, of course), generally golden in colour scheme and with very short hair. This man doesn’t need to hide his face, which doesn’t mean said face exactly invites you in.

So I decided to find an image and work from that. Turns out that it’s nigh on impossible to get anything sensible out of google images when you type in things like “beautiful man”.

When I poured out my problems into special k’s ever-ready ear, he said “Well, what does he look like?”

“He’s a big, buff, Scottish dude.”

And here’s to my husband: he typed that straight into google.


A while back I wrote a post about the way Susan Elizabeth Phillips is right up front with her characters’ motivations. You meet a character and you learn very quickly what’s happened in their past to make them the way they are.

I was very interested to realise this, because I’d always assumed anything about your character should be below-the-surface, slow-reveal kind of stuff. But SEP makes it work. Big time. I think also in the romance genre you find this method a lot.

So I had decided to take the lesson on board and have my character motivations well-explained. Until my writing teacher pointed out that if my character is unaware of why he’s chosen his particular bride until it’s too late, the tension and drama are much better served.

Luckily I came across Julie Anne Long. Whilst I raved about her book The Perils of Pleasure I left out the most perfect detail from it.

*spoiler alert* ish

Normally when a romance heroine has been married before there are two options: 1. it was an amazing marriage and she struggles with her guilt over finding love again (plus the new love normally gives her slightly better orgasms than the old one did) or 2. it was awful and her new love is a revelation – though possibly she can’t trust it at first.

JAL’s heroine has been married before, as we find out in snippets. But she never, in the entire book, does a big reveal about that marriage. We get this detail, though: the heroine still carries around her dead husband’s pistol, which has mermaids on the handle. The hero thinks “She’s just the kind of woman who would marry a man with mermaids on his pistol.”

And isn’t there just a whole world in there, that you would pop by trying to describe it more closely?

I think both methods are effective, but I feel like there’s the next level of craft to be learnt by JAL’s very clever reveal. As my writing teacher’s always trying to drum into us: Reading is only enjoyable when the reader is productive.

The Perils of Pleasure review

I still don’t know what I really think about this book.

The writing was an absolute revelation – beautiful, unique and interesting by any standards, not just “for a romance novel”.

But soon she would be on a ship, a speck ploughing through the Atlantic Ocean, and some weeks after that she would land, tiny and anonymous as a seed, on American soil, and grow her life all over again from the ground up.

I think one reason her writing is so startingly original is her choice of metaphor and simile. Our writing teacher is always telling us to be absolutely critical of our word choice, to interrogate over and over again whether we have used the most precise word to evoke an image.

She asked us to consider the following completions of the sentence “black as

cart grease

her heart

Tommy’s left eye after I kicked his head in

the C minor concerto.

Every version is no more or less a true description of the colour black, but it gives tremendous insight into the character. Julie Anne Long doesn’t resort to the obvious trimmings of Regency life for her metaphors. She reaches for the most precise image to invoke her particular characters. They are wholly unique and themselves.

One effect of this is that the world feels current. I absolutely love when books or films manage to do that – to make you feel like people didn’t live back then with the consciousness that they were living “back then”, in a different time. Her characters think about clubs and parties in a way that I can relate to. They have genuine desires for themselves that have nothing to do with a kind of melancholy self-consciousness.

Another effect was that I believed absolutely in these two falling in love – and in their initial indifference and resistance to it (which is so, so hard to do). And here’s one of the things that confounds me about my reaction to the book: On the one hand the love story is absolutely convincing. On the other, they are so very in love – these two, specific people who couldn’t be replaced with Hero/Heroine figureheads – that it almost felt intrusive to be in there with them. Like I had stumbled on an intensely private moment.

Hey, this isn’t by any means bad. It just meant that at the same time as enjoying what is a curiously unique experience in romance writing, I also didn’t get much of the vicarious thrill of the genre. The obliqueness of character that allows you, as a reader, to fall in love as well.

I also felt that the writing, beautiful and surprising and joyful as it was, was not edited to my tastes. Her style can very easily fall into melodrama – which I absolutely love, but which has to be doled out in just the right amounts, at the very moment of emotional piquancy – and was at times allowed to unravel a bit with word repetitions and sloppy word choices.

I felt that with just a small amount of tightening and interrogation, the writing would serve the story as a whole much better. It is such fresh, talented writing, that I think it’s a shame not to push it that bit further.

Another disconcerting element was the plot, which doesn’t follow the normal genre lines. The narrative is split between a number of voices at different times – not just that of the protagonists. The protagonists themselves don’t even begin to really fall in love until well into the book.

I loved the detail of her plot though: A woman mercenary steals the darling of society from the scaffold on the day of his hanging and they spend the next week running about London and the countryside trying to stay alive and clear his name before his brother marries his sweetheart. Their adventure takes the oddest turns – again, she doesn’t resort to Regency cliches. Among other things they meet a doctor who tries to justify to them his use of stolen cadavers – a world of detail and interest and moral ambiguity arising from the conversation.

The one truly disappointing part of the novel was the moment of capitulation. This is hard for any romance novelist. I know for me it’s by far the hardest part of the book. How do you convincingly have a character who has resisted love as though their very life depended on it decide to risk everything for it? For such a great writer who obviously knows her characters inside-out, Long gave lip-service to the moment in this book. It didn’t really matter though, because all the hard work had been done.

I loved this book while I was reading it, because it surprised and delighted me – and I could respect the characters and felt that my intelligence was respected in the writing of it. But still I can’t declare it one of my favourite romance novels. And I still don’t know why.

lessons in vulnerability

In my last post I applauded Gaelen Foley for her brilliant use of vulnerability. I’ve read on since then and somehow an incredibly promising book just sort of fizzled out. So I want to explore how she used and abused the vulnerability card and see what can be learnt from it as a writer.

what worked:

Our hero, Billy Blade, is a dangerous and dangerously intelligent gang leader in the rookeries of London. He ran away from his aristocratic home at the age of 13 because his father regularly beat him up and made him feel that he was worthless and unlovable.

What I would expect from a hero like this is that he’s morbidly suspicious of anything tender he might feel for someone else. But Foley allows Blade an immediate and yearning vulnerability. He longs for a less desperate life, for Jacinda Knight, and for the possibility that she just might like him.

This immediately endeared him to me. It made me realise I feel a little bit contemptuous of heroes who are so woefully stupid when it comes to their own feelings. And when Blade returns to sophisticated London and braves the contempt of his fashionable peers just to be near Jacinda, he becomes even more endearing. He was powerful and potent in the rookeries but his vulnerability turns him into something of a beta-hero, or the out-of-place underdog.

(That being said, I think you can also make it work to have a hero so distrustful that he obstinately refuses to understand his feelings. Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is a brilliant example of this. Her hero won’t admit how he feels, but he is undone and made vulnerable nonetheless.)

what didn’t work:

I’ve thought about it quite a bit and come to the conclusion that the story fizzled because Blade gave in too absolutely to his vulnerability. He follows Jacinda back into society, and because he is so desperate to be with her and to be worthy of her, he submits to her attempts to civilize him and becomes the perfect gentleman.

In doing this he was following his secret yearnings/longings, but as a character he became indistinct and, dare I say it about what was an enormous character, boring.

In the last few chapters he redeems himself somewhat, bringing the two sides of himself into accordance with each other. But by that time I didn’t care as much, so it was a bit lost on me.

So annoying! I was 100% with them at the beginning.

Vulnerability works so well to create an interesting character. It complicates them; it divides how they perceive the world and how they act from what they really desire/fear; it makes them unpredictable; it makes them human.

But I think it only works in glimpses. Think about how you feel without your defenses. It’s incredibly powerful to be vulnerable, but also damn uncomfortable and not, I think, sustainable over long periods. We have certain defenses for a reason, and I think it’s important to know when it’s more dramatic to use the power of defenses or of vulnerability.

Also, those defenses we build that come to define who we are are what gives character.

erm, and the lesson?

What I take from this as a writer is that vulnerability needs to be used in the way I imagine painters use highlights or those certain colours you don’t even necessarily notice in a painting that bring out everything else more vividly. I think that if a character is too comfortable with being open and vulnerable for prolonged periods, or if their life comes too perfectly into line with their secret fears/desires, they become unbelievable or at least they lose all dramatic interest.

It could be useful to think about what you want a character to achieve/feel in any given scene and whether being powerful or powerless serves this, and whether that feeling comes from vulnerability or from long-held defenses.

rogue character hijacks novel

I was busy writing my new novel today, enjoying being inside Regina Victoria’s very well-bred mind (she never, ever listens to sarcastic Regina who sufaces every now and then) when all of a sudden Hetty Oswald turned up and took over.

Regina can’t have a best friend. It buggers up all of her motivations. Then the butler brings her this letter over breakfast:

Queen of My Heart (tell me, do I not already exceed all your suitors in poetic flattery? I have also managed to highlight the royalty of your name. A happy opening, indeed!)
But I must oblige my dear aunt this once and be serious. A quick note to tell you that you needn’t walk into the lion’s den alone (though to be quite fair my dear, I don’t think anyone would call Amess a lion, do you?). Apparently Avery has managed to secure an invitation through Miss Amess, who once held a flame for his father or some other such nonsense, and he, knowing it is to his advantage that your dearest friend (oh happy day, that is I!) enjoys his company (she only pretends to enjoy it, between you and me, because it gets her such boons as this…) he has also managed to secure an invitation for Aunt Elise and me!
Your ears do not deceive you, fair (only fair, mind, you mustn’t let those foolish men convince you of your great beauty!) Regina. I will be accompanying you to Hampshire! Grandfather has even been so good as to lend us his travelling coach, so I expect to arrive in even more style than you and the duchess.
Until we meet again on the bonny, bonny lawns of Bramwell,
yours forever,
Hetetia Roman Augusta Oswald, Lady Billingsworth

It’s seriously difficult to ignore a character that lively just because she doesn’t serve the plot. So I’m keeping her in, but she’s going to be Regina’s great rival until the moment when they come to understand each other.

Here’s hoping she doesn’t steal the show.