Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 2, 2013

Getting Your Characters to Spark

Before we get to the awesome Shannon Donnelly, I wanted to be sure you all saw the winner of Tiffany Lawson Inman's critique: Angela Quarles!

By Shannon Donnelly

large_6262629758I just finished reading a story that had a major problem—no sparkage between the hero and heroine. Even worse, there was plenty of sparkage between the heroine and a secondary male character. I started rooting for her to get together with that guy, that that started me thinking about sparkage—where does it come from, and how do you get more of it on the page?

The problem with the story mentioned is that while the secondary male character was a jerk, he was a charming jerk. He admitted his flaws, which made him more likeable. He had a past, too, and was trying to do better, which made it easy to relate to him (don’t we all want to do better?). He also had problems that put him in big conflicts with the heroine. Finally, she also didn’t start to drool and fawn over him—they had sparkage going due to rubbing up against each other's personalities.

So here’s my take away for what I like to do to get sparkage. The things I go for are:

Personality conflicts. This goes beyond misunderstandings or mild differences of opinion, or even external conflict. I’m talking  base values that are in opposition—as in the Old Couple. They had sparkage due to one being a neat-freak and the other being a slob. Of course, to set up different values, I have to know their values to start with. It’s no good just having a hero, I’ve got to know his personality (and how it sparks against the heroine’s personality) and how this gives these two different approaches to life.

Flaws that rub. These can’t be random—her flaws have to hit his, and his need to hit hers. I want these two to realize very quickly that the other person does have flaws, and that those are deal-breaker issues. (Having them mirror each other is a great way to do this, too.) This can make for a couple that spark off each other like metal on flint.

The no-way Street. Immediate attraction is overdone these days and almost always comes across as weak. Yes, we’ve all seen someone who gets a second look. But that’s not sparkage—that’s going to end up being description. So attraction needs to be overlaid with a heavy dose of no-can-do (and I’m not just talking a character thinking about the other person being off-bounds, I want to show how these two cannot have a stable relationship at the start of the story. I want them on a 'no-way is this going to work' street so the reader wants to read how this is going to work (that’s the fun.)

Proximity. It’s really, really hard to get sparkage going if you have the hero and heroine in different locales. It’s like putting that flint and the metal in different drawers—the lack of interaction means a big lack in the story. But…here’s the trick—it can’t be contrived. I always want very good reasons for the characters to be together, and those reasons have to make it to the page.

Dialogue. The secondary character in the story I mentioned above had great lines (as did the heroine) due to their conflicting goals, and their personal issues. This made them a lot of fun for me, the reader—I started rooting for them to be together because they were fun together.  The hero also didn’t get to have those great lines since the heroine was tongue-tied around him, which made them a dull couple. Too often I see folks putting all the great lines into thoughts instead of letting the characters say the stuff we all want to say—hey, this is where you want to have more fun so the reader has fun with your characters. I always want my characters talking—a lot!

Awareness. A character’s awareness of another person doesn’t have to be so much them thinking about the sexiness of the other person, but more on the awareness that the other person is a “match” for them. I like the awareness to be on the “personality” more than the “person.” As in I try to make sure my characters don’t want to lose a single point to the other person. In the story I mentioned the heroine and the secondary character were on their best game—they were out to get something, and were willing to do whatever it took to get it. When a character’s awareness is focused on getting what they want (or getting the other character to do what they want) that’s going to make for sparkage.

What all this means is my goal is to set up romantic couples as if it really is impossible at the start of the story for them to have a relationship. Thier personality, desires, and everything else I can think of clashes. It’s not that they find the other person desirable—it should be the opposite, in fact. I want characters who are certain that the other person is the last one they want to get involved with—but the sparkage makes it irresistible not to go back and get the best of that other person. That, in my opinion, is what leads to the start of a beautiful friendship—and then more.

How about you? What do you use to make your characters spark?

Shannon Donnelly

Shannon Donnelly

Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

Her Regency romances can be found as ebooks on all formats, and with Cool Gus Publishing, and include a series of four novellas.

BBB_final_300x200She also has out the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the Urban Fantasy, Edge Walkers. Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes Paths of Desire, a Historical Regency romance.

She is the author of several young adult horror stories, and computer games. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and only one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at sd-writer.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.

Her Urban Fantasy, Burn Baby Burn, is free on Amazon.com from September 1 to the September 5.

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/silverdragonfly/6262629758/">©SilverDgfly</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a>

34 comments on “Getting Your Characters to Spark”

  1. Shannon, awesome post - I learned a lot. Love the 'no way street,' never heard it put that way!
    I had the Proximity problem in my first published book. My H/H were divorced, and she'd thrown him off their ranch (belongs to her family.) That was a tough one to get around the Proximity rule, but I did it! It's always the impossible with me.

    1. Laura, it is always better to leave some challenges on the table so you can focus on other stuff--like the characters 🙂 I learned that lesson a while back.


  2. A lot of this is covered in one of my favorite books: Debra Dixon's "GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict." She boiled that formula down from Dwight Swain's "Techniques of the Selling Writer" which is out of print since his death but still worth finding and reading. Both of these are on my short list of 'books every writer needs on their shelf.' Just mentioning this because there's so much worthwhile material in both books. One of my pet peeves as a reader is the lack of true conflict in so many romances; lack of communication isn't true conflict! If there's no valid conflict between hero and heroine, there's no real tension and no real romance. In any adventure, the chances of a 'happy ever after' must appear hopeless in order to keep the reader hooked.

    1. Yes, Deb Dixon's book (and her workshop) are great, and I love Swain's book. Jack Bickman covers the same ground, too, but it's a matter of what hits you at the time as to what sinks in. I like the desert island test--if a long conversation due to them being stuck there could fix everything, you need to get more issues going. Conversations should make things worse.

  3. I have the problem of being too nice to my characters. How could they not fall in love? Well, no more Mr. Nice Guy! Great post as usual, Shannon!

  4. Great post. In my first novel, it wasn't my intention for the hero and heroine to become romantically involved. However, as the mystery intensified, so did their relationship. It was even fun to watch and write as the captain of the ship and his prisoner gradually let go of their need to be master of their dilemma, and then join forces. These characters grew and matured in each chapter. Their focus on their personal struggle shifted to selflessness, and being completely devoted to the other. It was a surprising ending as in the beginning they were complete opposites. The captain lived by the rulebook and Sidney, a poweful mystical woman, chose to be a free spirit. Like I said, when I started writing this book, I hadn't planned on romance. It just seemed to naturally happen.

  5. Chemistry is tricky, even in one's own fiction. Good posts like this one always make me think back on past stories and realize what I did wrong.

  6. I love romantic fiction where there's that tension between the characters. That's what gives you the tingle when they finally get together. I do have a question though, how do you balance it so that, when they do get it together, it's plausible. I mean, if at your heroine's vey core is a belief that she is meant to be a mother and at your hero's very core is his knowledge that he never wants to be a father, then how can they get together without your reader going, "hang on, how'd that happen?"
    I'm not writing anything like that ATM but I was just curious. Thanks 😉

    1. Great question. I want to hear the answer to this, too. I've read books that had the H and h so far at odds that when they did get together, it made no sense. They were both rotten to each other and still fell in love. I didn't get it.

      1. Karen -- rotten to each other does not mean relationship that works. Think about some of the old Hepburn/Tracey movies--the two always fought fair. You have to give the characters something that pulls them together as well as something that pushes them apart--and you have to have good motivations for the reader to buy into it. If the motivations don't make it onto the page, you've got problems.

        A great example of this working is Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels--the hero is an utter cad! You're glad when the heroine shoots him. But because you know his background you know WHY he is the way he is, and his arc is to learn how to do better (he can't have a relationship that works until he gets that).

        The guideline, too, is the bigger a change someone must make, the greater the motivating factor. Two people who fight a lot have to have BIG changes--and those mean BIG motivations to CHANGE (facing death is a good one on that, to).


    2. You make it plausible with motivations that make sense -- the wrong people get together all the time and still manage to make it work.

      This is where it goes back to good reasons to be together -- you can have someone who wants to be a mother hook up with someone who never wants to be a father IF there's a lot of other stuff balancing the difficulties. (And that's actually a pretty easy one to get past--core issues tend to be stuff like organized compared with a hoarder--those are the really tough issues.)

      But you make it work with core motivations--really, really good reasons to either change, or decided you can live with those flaws.

  7. Great post. I don't think I've written a book where the characters immediately liked each other. They might notice attraction but I like it better if they don't hit it off. It makes getting them together more interesting.

    1. Sharla,

      Yes, there's a big difference between noticing and instant love--I think too many writers these days don't trust themselves or their characters or their readers. They need to have more confidence in making the readers wait (and letting the readers "get" it over time).

  8. Great blog! One of the most enjoyable aspects to writing is watching the characters develop and feeling their conflicts and interactions come alive on the page. When I hate that they're at odds, I know I'm onto something good. If I'm feeling mediocre toward them, it's time for a re-write. Thanks for your great insight.

  9. I like both, Shannon, the protagonists that are friends and get along well together from the start, and those that strike sparks off each other like mad things. I think there is room for both in romance. But I admit I don't want even the 'friends' who fall in love to have it too easy. Even in real life, lovers who are friends often disagree and just plain fight! Keeps things interesting.

    1. The hardest romance to pull off is the "old friends" or "old lovers" -- the reader doesn't get that initial spark or meet, and so you have to use other things to weave in that delicious early stage of romance.

  10. Great post, Shannon, and so true. Perfect relationships in happily ever after land are downright dull and no fun to read. Some of the most beloved couples in history had love/hate relationships. Flaws are relatable, imperfections are endearing, and conflict makes for great stories.

    1. Inion,

      I like the quote from Tolstoy that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That applies to couples, too, which is why folks with problems are more interesting.


  11. Great article. I agree about proximity...I've had to put down a few romances when it took too long for them to get back together...the guy left and...never came back? I know they have to go off and do their own thing *sometimes*, but in one book, more than 50 pages passed before they got back together again! Didn't finish.

    1. Yes, it's really tough in a romance not to have the romance going on front and center. You can get by with a few pages of them being apart, particularly if you have interesting things going on, but 50 pages...I don't know many readers that would put up with that. (And thinking about each other doesn't really count.)

  12. Very thoughts provoking post. It's difficult to figure out how chemistry works between characters, but it is easy to see the difference between it working and not working.

  13. […] I just finished reading a story that had a major problem—no sparkage between the hero and heroine. Even worse, there was plenty of sparkage between the heroine and a secondary male character. I started rooting for her to get together with that guy, that started me thinking about sparkage—where does it come from, and how do you get more of it on the page?  […]

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