March 5th, 2014

What’s Love Got to Do with It? – Part Two

Fae on a camel in Egyptby Fae Rowen

This post isn’t just for romance writers.

As a genre fiction writer you know that to be drawn into your story, your readers have to care about your characters. This is true of all genres-women’s fiction, historical, mystery, thriller, science fiction and all the rest, including the new “hybrid genres.” As authors, we set the stage for our readers to fall for our characters. True, they don’t have to fall in love with our fictional heros and villains, but it sure helps us sell books when our public connects with our characters.

However, when the reader doesn’t believe the transformation process, your book may get set aside unfinished or, worse yet, be tossed against the wall. In this second of a three part series (you can find Part One here), I’ve got more tips for tying backstory to your plot and characters to create difficulties that can be realistically resolved for a satisfying ending.

Today we’ll deal with a character with any combination of the following traits:

  • Lack of awareness of her own needs
  • Experiences chronic anxiety, frustration and despair regarding his relationships
  • Lives with depression
  • Feels undeserving, inadequate or unlovable
  • Disruption in relationships
  • Futility at work
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Insecure about whether her needs will be met
  • Fear that having his needs met will result in abandonment
  • Accepts what is given instead of asking for what she truly wants
  • Anxious to please, to the detriment of herself
  • May “give to get” and feel resentful that others don’t give as much

Select four (or more if you’re diabolical) that fit with your story. Now imagine your primary character arriving with this baggage.

I don’t want to be that person any more than you do, but the truth is, we all have some of this stuff in our suitcases and so do our readers. They’ll recognize and connect because of our common human experience–and you won’t have to work that hard because these traits are psychologically connected.

And so are the behaviors connected to them. Here are a few:

  • She sometimes try to “buy” love,  but the other person resents being manipulated.
  • When he has a close associate or partner or love interest, he becomes unavailable  and sabotages the possible connection.
  • Although she may feel the current relationship, she always worry about tomorrow.
  • His fear may push push his partner away.

How can you create organic growth in the character arc that your readers feel? Feel in such a way they experience the pain of growth and the satisfaction of challenges overcome?

You show the behaviors connected with these traits changing throughout your book.

  • Show her learn to recognize and receive love, caring or true support when it is present
  • Show him maintaining contact himself. Show his growing sense of connecting with his emotions–after he realizes he has emotions, of course.
  • Show her learning to differentiate between the past and the present so that what happened before doesn’t steal her future.
  • Build acceptance that relationships change and sometimes end.
  • Give opportunities for growing understanding of what is real and what is realistic.
  • Show him accepting love or kindness or help rather than deflecting them.
  • Have her clearly communicate her needs, wants and desires in dialogue or through actions
  • Show his lessening obsessive focus on others. This means he has more time to be himself and participate in cool (or dangerous) activities.
  • Show her lessen and finally stop her compulsive worry about what other’s think of her, whether it’s her past, her clothes, or her present circumstances.
  • Show them actively considering how their words and actions will affect other people.

And always, always dribble specific backstory details like a very, very hot sauce. (Okay, I know some of you like spicy things. Think ghost chilies here. Really hot.)

So, I’ve got this Navy SEAL who has no needs (he’s a SEAL!). He’s feeling inadequate because he thinks he’s responsible for the failure of his team’s last mission. He’s obsessing with how the tactical error occurred and what to do to make sure it never happens again. And he has to please his commander, because our SEAL is up for a promotion. All this inner turmoil makes him a difficult man to be around and his team starts to pull away from him socially.

My genre and his backstory will determine how the plot unfolds–whether a security leak caused the failure of his mission and puts him in jeopardy, he sees the tactical problem during training for the next mission, or a love interest throws a wrench in all his plans. (I’d usually opt for all three, but then, I love complex plots.) The genre will determine the strategies I chose for his character arc to reach that satisfying conclusion.

But beware. None of the previous “bullets” are genre specific. In fact, if you like surprising readers with twists, revisiting your choices above could supply just what you were missing in that believable character arc.

In April, we’ll visit another type of character’s backstory and arc. And we’ll take a look at characteristics of the perfect character.

Do you have trouble building a believable past that can act as a springboard for growth for your characters? Have you used backstory to supply a twist that will thrill your readers? Are you feeling generous and have your own tips to share?

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19 comments to What’s Love Got to Do with It? – Part Two

  • LOVE this, Fae! It reminds me of a Margie Lawson class – it not only teaches you something, but breaks it down to elements, then shows you how to use them. What makes it MOST powerful though, is that it’s not a ‘formula’ – you could choose many different characteristics of those listed, and the backstory of how the character got those could be many, many paths!

    This is great stuff – thanks for sharing the wisdom!

  • Brilliant post, lots to think of. Using the backstory is something I’ve seen used well, but never attempted. Maybe I’ll give it a go next time, I feel kinda inspired now 😀

  • Thanks, Fae. Actually thanks for both parts (even though I missed commenting on Part One). I love the flawed character, the way we can weave in the backstory of how they became flawed, injured … how they carry that hurt with them and how trusting again can change all of that … if they let it. Wow … once more your posts are like taking a writing workshop. Wonderful 🙂

    • Thanks for your kind words. It’s amazing how much I’ve learned about writing over the years. And to think that I aggressively tested out of every writing course that was required in college and grad school because I was so focused on my mathematics I didn’t want to take a writing class!
      -Fae

      • I actually think math geek are very creative. You need a good math head to write music. My brother the math geek and teacher is the most creative among us. So it was your destiny 🙂

        • I’m a great believer in destiny. But it would have been nice to learn the lessons in those creative writing classes “back then” and not have to scrabble to catch up during the writing process. Oh well, everything in its time. Thanks for the support.
          -Fae

  • Fae, I love these blogs! Very insightful and they explain what we as writers should be asking ourselves about our characters.

  • Fae, I love the post, but I’m adoring that photo of you on the camel. That rocks!

    • Well, it was a very interesting ride around the Giza Plateau. Let’s just say I made a lot of deals with that camel.

      And it’s not the first time I was on a camel. Can you say Outer Mongolia in the ’80s, when a camel was how you got from one yurt village to another while Russian MIG’s streaked along the border?
      -Fae

  • The tricky part to me, when I take 3 or 4 of the options, is that I’m faced with a distant and/or needy, unlikeable character (really: I’ve been putting “low-level” mental/emotional illness like this in my characters, and my first beta insists they’re “not likeable.” I realize this means I need to have a larger sample-size, but it was still unnerving).

    Other than (convenient) “chemistry,” do you have suggestions for preventing these challenges from growing too off-putting? How do I convince the reader (let alone the people dealing with one another in the story) that these unfinished people are worth watching? (I recognize this is the question of real-life, too, but I’m curious what your story-angle is.)

    • Thanks for the puzzle opportunity, Amy.

      I like to “build” my characters first with what makes me fall in love with them. Let’s say mental strength and physical strength. Throw in a little, okay a lot of, tenacity. And a soft spot for something, perhaps music. Now I wonder why my character has such a need for physical strength. What if s/he were abused as a child and couldn’t fight back? What if when s/he was finally old enough–strong enough–the abuse stopped? What if the mother was a nurse and patched the child up but did nothing to stop the abuse? The child would need mental strength to survive, to plan, to dream about an end to the abuse in one way or another. And tenacity for doing what had to be done to stay alive. What if music, a particular song or type, either played in the house during the happy times or became a solace after the abuse? Or played during the abuse?

      Would you root for this character? Could there be other “forgivable” flaws related to this backstory? The trick is not to download all the backstory in the first or even first three chapters. Treat backstory as a spice, just a little will do. “Her boss’s expression triggered that run-run response when her uncle used to steam toward her. The old, familiar hateful cramp slid down her throat.” We know her uncle did some bad stuff to her, but we don’t know the whole story. Not yet.

      Hope this helps.

      -Fae

  • Carlyle

    Great post! Bookmarking this. Thanks. 🙂

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