Friday, January 18, 2013

Fifty Shades of Character







“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
Kahlil Gibran







                                             Yes, I'm going to talk about it. THAT book. You know the one. I wouldn't have read THAT book at all, not even out of curiosity, had I not received a late night phone call from Paris, yes THAT Paris, not long after THAT book hit the lists. Someone whose opinion I trusted told me I had to read THAT book. So, I did. And when I finished the first one I immediately downloaded the second one and then the third.

WHY?

It took me a while to discern that as well. And it all boils down to CHARACTER. The books were not well-written. The author broke all sorts of rules. Now anyone who knows me knows I am not the biggest fan of rules myself. But, if you're going to break them, especially as a debut author, you should at least pace yourself. This author did not. She used cliches like my brother uses barbecue sauce. She ran over the rules like a Crimson Tide defensive lineman through a Notre Dame offense. But the one thing she did that drew me in and would not let me go was this. She created a character I could not let go. I was at once fascinated by and repelled by Christian Grey. As I got to know him I wanted to know more. I began to feel for him, to root for him, and in the end I wanted to know he was going to be alright.

 
 CHARACTER

 
 How do we go about creating characters so memorable, so mesmerizing that readers cannot bear to look away not even to sleep? I've been mulling this over for a bit and here are a few of my thoughts on character.


BACKSTORY                                


Speaking of breaking the rules, Loretta Chase started Lord of Scoundrels with a prologue in omniscient point of view - something THEY (whoever THEY are) tell us is a big no-no. But in this prologue we meet Dain, one of the most unique, rude, overbearing romance heroes ever written. We find out about his childhood, about the things that made him who he is and we hurt for the little boy and want the man to find love, after the heroine shoots him to get his attention, of course.

Give your characters a unique backstory. Make them interesting. Evoke a reaction in the reader. Introduce them in such a way the reader loves them, hates them, is intrigued by them, can't look away, wants to find out what makes them tick. You, as the author, know their entire life story. Not all of us are Loretta Chase. We can't present a character's entire life story at the beginning of the book, but we can sprinkle the bits that will grab the reader onto every page. Train wreck or abs from 300, make it something the reader simply cannot forget about the character. They will keep reading.


BEHAVIOR


"Lucinda," she finally returned most cordially, "if I were to be marooned on a desert island for the remainder of my days and must needs choose between your company and that of an organ-grinder's flea-bitten monkey, I should not hesitate a moment before opting for the latter. If I could not be assured of intelligent conversation, at least I would not be subjected to your aping recitations that ceaselessly roam between the boundaries of the Land of Idiots and the Kingdom of Twits. Besides," she added glibly, "if pressed, at least I could eat the monkey."

From - The Tenacious Miss Tamerlane by Kasey Michaels










If you haven't read this book you are missing a real treat. Each and every character is an absolute gem of quirks, foibles and idiosyncratic mayhem. Just the quote above lets your know the speaker is a no-nonsense lady who refuses to mince words. Put your characters in situations everyone can relate to and then let them handle said situation in a way that makes the reader laugh out loud, cry, scratch their head or gasp in surprise. We all know how we would behave in any given situation (most of the time,) take the expected response and give it a twist. The reader will keep reading to see what said character is going to do next. 


RELATABILITY

Any Southern woman who has read Lexi George's DEMON HUNTING IN DIXIE cannot help but relate to Addy Corwin in a BIG way! Are you kidding me? Southern belle, marriage or death Mama, witchy with a B enemies, eccentric relations and a brother with issues - not just Southern families, but all families have these. We can relate to Addy Corwin. We want to hang out with her. We want to see what she is going to say or do next. That's relatability. 

We don't want to read about ourselves. We want to read about the people we might be if we lived in the worlds of Dain and Jessica or Addy and Brand. So as unique and quirky and glorious as the best characters are there has to be something that connects the reader to them, some common ground. We want to see ourselves as these characters or sometimes we imagine ourselves as the sidekick - you know, we go along for the ride with none of the danger and heartbreak. Take the relatablity and make it extraordinary. Or make the extraordinary relatable.

 
WALKING THE LINE

Now with all of that said, there is one more thing you might want to try to create characters that will live in a reader's mind long after they have read the last page. It's a tough one though. Anna Campbell's Regency Noir CLAIMING THE COURTESAN caused quite a stir when it debuted. The hero, Kylemore, is one of the most irredeemable men to pop up in romance for a long time. And frankly the heroine, Verity, is no peach either. They are both scarred, selfish, greedy, petulant and their relationship isn't a train wreck. It's the Hindenburg. But readers couldn't look away. They had to see how on earth these two people could be redeemed let alone end up happy together. Campbell walked that fine line and won. The book was nominated for a Rita. And it remains one of my favorite romance novels of all time.


This sort of characterization is risky. You have to walk a fine line between making the characters damaged and broken or completely irredeemable. It's a tough job. I can think of at least one much-touted romance novel (And no, I am not going to name names.) which, for me, did not succeed. By the end of the book the hero was redeemed in my eyes, but I was screaming at him "Run, buddy. You deserve better than her!" Not the way a romance should end.


SO, those are my thoughts on how to make unforgettable characters, the kind of people readers want to imagine themselves as, or hang out with, or cheer for. What about you? What ideas do you have for creating amazing characters? Do you think characters make the story or is it the other way around? 

38 comments:

Anna Campbell said...

Wow, Louisa, what a fascinating post. Loved your take on 50 Shades (which I have to say I haven't read)- and hey, thanks for that lovely shout-out for Courtesan! When I run writing workshops, I often say to the participants who are whingeing about why some particular bestseller is on the lists and it's not well written or it breaks rules or there's some other problem, take another look at the book and see WHY it's a bestseller. Yes, the faults are often pretty apparent but if you look with an intelligent eye, the reason readers find the story utterly compelling is apparent too. And that's something that can help you sell one of your own books!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thank you, Anna C! Wish I could attend even ONE of your workshops! You are so right. There are some books blazing the bestseller lists that I just don't get, but I will read them to discover what that one element is that makes them work. If you stop learning in this business, you don't stand a chance. Thanks for stopping by!

Carla Swafford said...

Great post, Louisa. I agreed totally. And to answer, I love a book that has great characters who are having their world turned upside down.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Carla! And you would know about books with great characters who have their world turned upside down! You write some of the best of them! Nobody quite turns a character's world upside down like you do. I think you enjoy it in a twisted sadistic sort of way. LOL

Carla Swafford said...

LOL! You know me so well.

Kim Law said...

Great post! And yes, characters most definitely make the books for me! I read one the other day, it wasn't anything extraordinary plot-wise (which I happen to prefer), but something about the characters have stuck with me for days. I LOVE THAT!!!

And it's funny because I just finished reading the Kindle sample of 50 Shades and was sitting here trying to decide if I want to spend $9.99 for the full book. I often refuse to pay that much for books, even for Nora's (though I do give in for her sometimes), so I'm not sure if it's worth it. But there has to be something there, right? Something that's made it what it is. And I kind of want to find out.

Also, she did kind of pull me into Christian already. I don't like him. And I can't tell if she's good enough to be doing that on purpose, or if I'm just going to hate him the whole time. Because yeah, the writing isn't that great so far. So I'm not sure if it's talent and I'll love him in the end, or if I'll just hate him.

But I think I have to find out. And I think you just convinced me :) Guess there goes that $10! *sigh*

Thanks! :)

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kim! And like you I LOVE it when characters just won't let me go! I had the same trepidation about Fifty Shades, trust me. And like you, my first thoughts about Christian were "What an a+* !" But he is intriguing and I had to know more. Can't wait to hear what you think after reading the whole book!

Suzanne Johnson said...

Great post, Louisa--I agree that characters make the story and the difference between a great book and a good book. I tried to read 50 Shades but couldn't get past the writing to care about the characters, but I know I'm in a minority on that one.

Lexi said...

Louisa, you always write such great, insightful blogs, and you always make me laugh. This time, though, you had me in tears. Can't tell you how thrilled I am at the mention of Demon Hunting in Dixie. You've totally made my day. ;-)

P.S. Tears of happiness!

Louisa Cornell said...

Suzanne, I have to agree the writing was not stellar, but I had been told going in that it was not. I guess I am just a big sucker for a wounded hero. And you are so right - great characters do make the difference!

Louisa Cornell said...

Aww thanks, Lexi! The thing about Addy and the whole series is you have created a world and characters that make a reader feel SO at home and then given it that twist that makes the reader think "I HAVE to see what happens to these people next!" Each book is like going home for a visit and sitting down to find out all of the gossip.

Lexi said...

Thanks, man. I needed some water in my bucket!

Robin Delany said...

Great post, and excellent examples, Louisa. I agree with you about the rules, and I agree with Captain Barbosa, "The rules are more like guidelines."
The rules keep us from falling of the edge into terrible writing, but breaking them, in the right way, can make your work great.

Robin Delany


BTW, I recently tweeted some quotes from authors and an editor who agree.


https://twitter.com/Robin_Delany/status/291574151892844544

Louisa Cornell said...

Ooh, Robin! I love that Captain Barbosa analogy! Good one! Thanks for stopping by. I'm going to check out those tweets!

Julie Johnstone said...

This could not have come at a better time for me. I'm right at the beginning of a new novel and wanted to make me hero have a careless attitude about seducing women but worried anout giving him such a nasty flaw in the beginning. I think I'll go for it because redeeming him will be so much fun! Thanks, Louisa!

Aileen Fish said...

I love your line about the BBQ sauce! And I agree wholeheartedly with your supposition that character is what pulled readers into THAT book. I haven't read it, couldn't get through the sample, but when my niece went through it like a tube of Pringles I had to know why. She said the same thing - she had to know what made Grey tick and kept going until she found out.

Samantha Grace said...

Louisa,
Great topic! I was mesmerized by the characters in 50 Shades, too. Totally hooked me, even with broken rules and cliches. I think it just goes to show that interesting characters have the biggest impact on a story. Perfect writing alone? Not so much. :)

Unknown said...

I read the Kindle sample of 50 Shades and was just not engaged by the characters or story. The trilogy is available thru my library, but my TBR pile is so high I don't want to invest the time to read any more of it. Great post Louisa!

Marie Higgins said...

I will never read 50 Shades, but I totally love your post! Thank you for writing this. More newbie authors need to learn this!

Louisa Cornell said...

Yay, Julie! Go for it! Redeeming a REALLY bad boy can be fun!

Louisa Cornell said...

LOL about the barbecue sauce and I can relate to the tube of Pringles. Love those things! I'm with your niece. The more I found out about Christian the more I had to know the WHY. I think that is the key. You can make a character flawed as can be if you can come up with a plausible and relatable WHY.

Louisa Cornell said...

Well then you've got it made, Ms. Samantha Grace! Your books have fabulous writing and some really intriguing characters! If you haven't read them, folks, you need to check out Samantha Grace's books! FUN and SEXY!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks "Unknown" ! Now I'm intrigued. But I know what you mean about the TBR pile. Mine is monumental!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Marie! I agree that learning the importance of writing intriguing characters is a big one for writers!

Lynn Raye Harris said...

"She used cliches like my brother uses barbecue sauce."

Louisa! You kill me! I loved this line. Great post, and I definitely think characters make a story. Plot is secondary to character in my world. And it's literally secondary in the line I write for! Character is everything!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Lynn! And trust me when it comes to cliches in Fifty Shades I felt like was walking through Dreamland! (For those of you who do not know, Dreamland is one of the premiere barbecue establishments in Alabama and has been frequently mentioned on ESPN!)

And you are so right about character being everything in your line! Man, what hot, hot heroes you write! Some of those Spanish magnates of yours require oven mitts to handle! Muy caliente!

M.V.Freeman said...

Louisa--fascinating and fabulous post.

I love characters--especially anti-heros the ones that are hard to redeem, but you do--at least for the heroine.

I read fifty shades, and I liked that she played with these concepts of hero--and I wanted to explore more of it. It has inspired me in many ways--but just like you said--it relates back to the character.

I confess my favorite of all dark heros are written by Anne Stuart. ;)

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Mary! Like you I do love a good anti-hero. Anne Stuart writes some of the most devastating anti-heroes around, doesn't she!

Ella Quinn said...

Wonderful post, Louisa. You've made some very good points. I tweeted.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thank you, Ella! And thank you for tweeting! I cannot wait for your books to come out! You write some of the most endearing and charismatic characters around! Have to love a girl who plants an earl a facer for being drunk AND forward as Phoebe does in The Seduction of Lady Phoebe.

Chris Bailey said...

A post worth studying, Louisa. Thank you!

Cari Hislop said...

For me, Character development is the whole point of any story (though I understand that for some readers it's all about what happens). I write to discover who the characters are and I'm constantly surprised.

I finally finished writing (and nearly finished editing) the story I've been working on for five years. Plot wise, not a whole lot happens over 140,000 pages. The story is about the hero and heroine healing and growing into their hearts (and conversely how their actions and changing effect other family members). When I start wondering...where's the plot? The characters tell me to shut up and stop trying to meddle.

Memorable characters are always flesh and blood. They have strengths and weaknesses, handicaps, scars. There are times they're wise and times when they're foolish. They have core values which may or may not be shared by the majority. They have their own opinions, interests, pet hates, fears and dreams. This afternoon I finished the BBC 1973 version of Jane Eyre. Jane and Rochester are so real I'd invite them to dinner, but I was born in the wrong century!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thank you, Chris! I appreciate your kind words!

Louisa Cornell said...

What a great take on character, Cari! Writing to discover who the character is!! And kudos on finishing your book!

I haven't seen the 1973 Jane Eyre, and I thought I had seen them all. Talk about a story that is all about character development!

Darynda said...

What a fantastic post, Louisa!!!! It's all about character. When I first started writing, I didn't understand that. I thought it was all about plot. I mean, that's what happens! How can anything be more important?

But I think deep down I knew it was about character. I've always strived (striven? lol) to make my characters unforgettable. Someone you can really root for, at least by the end of the book.

Love this post!

Louisa Cornell said...

Oh, thank you, Darynda! I know exactly what you mean. When I first started writing I spent so much time on the plot, on what was happening, I nearly forgot about the hero and heroine's emotional journey.

You have definitely learned the importance of character! Charley Davidson of your Charley Davidson Grim Reaper series is one quirky, funny, kick-butt, intriguing character! For those of you who haven't read these books get thee to a bookseller and snap up First Grave on the Right! It is a wild, good time from start to finish with a character you will not forget!

Cari Hislop said...

Louisa: The BBC '73 version of Jane Eyre is definitely worth a watch. I think the guy who plays Rochester is a perfect cast (and a brilliant actor). The script writer mostly sticks to the book. The woman who plays Jane has that annoying breathy voice (a strange phenomenon I've noticed in period pieces. Maybe the actresses wearing corsets aren't used to less air!) You can watch parts of the production on Youtube. Type in 1973 BBC Jane Eyre and you'll find quite a few clips.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Cari! I'll check it out! Cracked me up about the breathless corset wearers! I used to have to wear corsets when I sang opera, but they were made especially for singers - all the look and help of a corset and none of the bone crunching agony!