Tag Archives: characterization

Alpha hero

the Black Dagger Brotherhood books have gotten me thinking a lot about alpha heroes – and what kinds of heroines they need to keep them readable.

Just to get this out of the way first: Alphas feel a little bit illicit…but we all love them, right?

I read Kresley Cole and J R Ward close together, and they both write men who are compelled by their animal nature to be possessive and protective to an astounding degree. The different heroines they give these heroes makes for some interesting comparison.

For almost all the Brotherhood books to date, Ward’s heroines wait bravely at home while their men go and fight. They worry. To the point where they annoy. But it also worries me that they don’t seem to have power over their own lives.

I don’t mean that they aren’t “strong women” in their characterisation. But when they act against what their men want, they tend to get into trouble. As Ward has written them, they aren’t in a position to make the right choices for themselves.

The one standout divergence is the heroine of the latest Brotherhood novel, Xhex. She not only frees herself and fights alongside the men, she also forces her lover to stay home and wait for her while she’s fighting. He is now the one at home, eaten away by worry.

In Ward’s novels it is the heroes who stick in your mind. They are the main characters, their relationships to each other are of the most interest in the books, and their women are given meaning by being important to them. It’s not that I don’t like the heroines (ok, sometimes I don’t), but I don’t think Ward gives them parity with their alpha males.

That contrasts heavily with Cole’s heroines, who stand beside the heroes as memorable – and very often steal the show. They are strong and they make decisions for themselves. Though they have alphas going after them in a single-minded way, they have the power in their own lives.

There’s a scene that shows this to perfection:

Two valkyrie heroines from previous novels have turned outside their brother-in-law Conrad’s house to find out why their husbands have gone missing. He and his woman are watching them out the window. One of them wants to kill Conrad for information, but the other punches her to stop her from making that mistake.

“Wait a second.” Myst narrowed her gaze. “What in the hell are we doing? We’re Valkyrie – we take what we want.”

“What do you mean?” Kaderin asked.

“Kristoff won’t let our men go? Then Kristoff needs to be taught a lesson. I say we capture the whole bloody castle.”

There was a dangerous light to Kaderin’s eyes. “Fucking A.”

“Go get them girls,” Conrad muttered.

“Those small women couldn’t really start a war?”

“They might be small, but either one of them could lift a train.” His tone absent, he said, “Kristoff’s sitting across the world – with no idea that hell has just been unleashed against him.”

The difference here is that Ward has said her heroines are strong, but she hasn’t given their choices any power. Cole gives her heroines real, operational intelligence, so that their decisions weigh in equally to their males’.

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.

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

Love insinuates its way into your life, and you only recognise it for what it is when it’s suddenly not there anymore.

SEP has a particular kind of hero/heroine relationship that goes as follows:

hero is super attractive, has more money/fame/women – all the outward signs of a successful life – than he knows what to do with. He has issues with his family/hometown and is struggling with his internal measure of success against the external signs of it.

Enter our oddball heroine. She might be a tomboy, a social disaster or just pretty unlucky in life. Certainly, by all external markers, not at all in our hero’s league. Some circumstance throws them together so that she starts tagging along in his life, despite a huge lack of willingness on both parts.

Then something starts to happen. She takes him by surprise. Makes him laugh more than all the women he’s surrounded himself with have ever been able to. And because she’s tagging along and he isn’t trying to impress her, she’s also witness to the more vulnerable aspects of his life: relationships he’s struggling with, his true relationship to his success etc. She becomes the one person who truly understands him, and can truly give him comfort/support.

Likewise, being with someone like him makes her reach for things she didn’t think were possible, and she regains a sense of her true worth, and a taste for happiness.

Then there’s the inevitable bust-up and she’s not there anymore. But the problem is, he’s gotten so used to relying on her that her absence now leaves a massive hole where he didn’t think there was one before. Realisation of true love not too far behind.

Now the whole geeky girl gets rockstar hero thing is a pretty standard fantasy (works both ways, too) – standard but still highly effective. But the aspect I want to talk about is this gradual build-up of love, to the point where it is still unacknowledged but essential.

It’s such a very seductive idea. I remember in high school having some loose grasp on the concept, and spending a negligible few hours trying to make myself present in the eyes of some boy, so that I could then turn around and be horrible. The theory was that he would then so miss my previous presence in his life that he would come to his senses about me.

Not the most successful tactic.

My point is, like most romantic fantasies, I’m not sure this one really works in real life. Or you can’t make it work, in any case.

The steady build-up of real love is a really difficult thing to do in fiction. Attraction is relatively easy (though also not always successful) – really feeling like those characters know and need and are irrationally committed to each other, not so easy.

I think as writers we can learn a lot from SEP’s method. By being witness to each other’s lives the characters gain great insight into each other – seeing the vulnerable, the bad and underneath. Or the true and good nature under a bad boy exterior, as the case may be. The fact that love is gradual and unlooked-for also works really well here; the characters aren’t on their best behaviour – they’re not acting for each other, so they get to truly see each other.

She uses the bond of shared experience to build a truthful sense of love. So the question is: What does your hero/heroine think they want in a relationship? Who do they think they have to be in the perfect relationship? What part of their lives would they never want their perfect partner to see? What kind of person would react with passion and compassion when they saw beyond the act? And what kind of person would your hero/ine never consider being with?

I think this formula is useful for any kind of relationship within writing, not just the romantic ones. The most interesting part of a relationship is the tension between who we are and who we think we should be, and how we react when fissures appear.

So: 4. Show relationship development through characters’ exposure to each other’s lives and through an abrupt change in the building dynamic.

Go to Part I, Part II

For anyone who’s interested, the three novels I’ve had most in mind writing this are Heaven, Texas (one of my holiday reads!), Natural Born Charmer, and Match Me If You Can (my favourite Chicago Stars book, though it’s a very close call).

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.