Anne M. Marble, Associate Editor, Romance
Issue #1: 01/01/01
Your Characters Are Not Puppets
By Anne M. Marble
Anne M. Marble
your heroine behaves a certain way, your readers shouldn't mutter,
"She went through that doorway only because that's what the author
told her to do." Weve all read books where the characters acted
illogically. Dont you hate it when you feel as if the author is a
puppeteer, pulling strings to make characters behave in unbelievable
ways simply to propel the plot forward?
of the biggest problems in romance novels stem from illogical
characters. Plot and characters depend on each other to function. Yet
many romance writers forget this. When they want the plot to go a
certain way, they force characters to do something that goes against the
grain. This might make the writing process easier, but it will make it
harder to sell your book.
Silly Big Misunderstanding Plot
"Admit it, Jane! You were hugging your lover."
"Rafe, that wasn't my lover. That was my beloved stepbrother!"
If that exchange sounds familiar to you, then you've come across the silly big misunderstanding plot (SBMP). This type of plot is particularly notorious in romance. It is found in everything from historicals to Harlequin Presents.
Some writers can take a big misunderstanding plot and make it into a powerful, emotional drama. In the wrong hands, however, this plot can easily become absurd. The characters act like marionettes, not like real people.
What are the signs of a silly big misunderstanding? A crisis that could be solved with a few minutes of talking, and characters who have no logical reason to keep the information from each other.
The silly misunderstanding can be sustained only through illogical behavior with coincidences thrown in to boot. The hero walks in just in time to see some jerk manhandling the heroine. While a normal person would realize the woman was being harassed, the hero decides she must be a tramp. To make matters worse, the heroine becomes so angry with the hero for being distrustful that instead of telling him the truth, she pretends that she was having an affair. Oh, brother!
Let's create our own SBMP. Linda is a best-selling novelist who is traveling incognito while on vacation. Sam is a famous publisher who meets her during this vacation. Later, when Linda tells him that she is a writer, he assumes she was after him only because of his position, and he calls her every name in the book. She stalks off, upset, angry, perturbed... (She had a thesaurus in her luggage.)
This plot stinks. Why? Because the characters don't behave like real people; instead, they behave like marionettes strapped inside a bad plot.
Let's try to make it work by providing motivations. Why would a best-selling author lie about her identity? Lets try this plot for size. Linda is an agoraphobic. She travels under an assumed identity to avoid crowds. Because she is embarrassed by her condition, she doesnt tell Sam. Next, why would Sam be so distrustful? Maybe he recently divorced his wife after learning she married him because of his position. This plot still needs a lot of work, but at least it doesn't need a defibrillator.
How can you make a big misunderstanding plot work? Give your characters logical reasons to hide information. Dont rely on coincidences. Most of all, don't make readers feel as though your characters acted this way only because the book had to be 250 pages long rather than 10.
Stupid To Live Heroines
Jennie knows outlaws are hiding in the hills surrounding the cabin. The
hero has warned her against leaving the cabin until he catches the
outlaws. But Jennie needs to milk the cows. Besides, she can take care
of herself. So Jennie picks up her shotgun and goes outside. Only when
the villain spots her does she realize... she forgot to load her gun!
wrong with this picture? This is exciting, isn't it? After all, Jennie
is about to confront the bad guys. Surely this is suspenseful.
for one major thing: The suspense wasnt created by a logical
unfolding of events. It was generated because Jennie acted like a silly
can this plot be fixed? We want Jennie to confront the bad guys. Still,
we don't want this confrontation coming about because she did something
inane. We need a logical reason for Jennie to go outside. Why not force
her to rush outside to save her daughter? Even better, why not force
that confrontation when she has to save the hero from the bad guys?
heroes act as if they should be in counseling instead of in a novel. For
example, I read a romance novel about a hero who decided the heroine
must be loose because she wrote sexy romance novels. He had no real
evidence other than seeing her come home late a few times. Its one
thing to create conflict between your main characters. Its another to
make the hero act as if hes on another planet.
who are tortured by their past are often popular with readers. Heroes
who are distrustful because of their past are a thing of the past. If
you think you can make this kind of character succeed, however, go for
it. Whatever you do, give him a background that explains his distrust.
make sure the heroines responses make sense. How would you react if
your attractive neighbor decided you were a tramp simply because you
were a romance writer? Right. Your heroine shouldnt grin and bear it
unless you have established a good reason for her to act like a doormat.
the characters become embroiled in distrust, their relationship
shouldnt proceed as if it were normal. Eventually, they should repair
their relationship, but this part shouldnt be too easy. This is an
important part of the plot and is often ignored. Dont relegate the
heros healing process to the final chapter.
You've probably seen these mistakes in novels by best-selling authors. Don't think that gives you an excuse for getting away with them in your novels. You havent built a loyal readership yet.
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