Fiction Characters: Do You Need A Mental “No Vacancy” Sign?

Do your fictional characters keep you awake at night?It is 3:57 in the morning. Do you know where your characters are? If you are like most writers, you know exactly where they are because they refuse to let you get a proper nights sleep, or bath, or read, or time alone to enjoy the minutiae of life.

Once you have given life to someone, sometimes they do not shut up. I find this to be true of children, and characters. I rarely get to spend my hour commute listening to the radio, or relaxing with the windows rolled down and my mind on mute. As soon as the fiction characters in my latest story realize I’m alone the chatter starts.

The first time this happened to me, I was sure I was schizophrenic. When I stopped at each red light while driving, I tried to jot down an idea but, by then the characters had told their friends that I was free, and I forgot what I was noting in the first place.

Forget taking a bath. I used to think the kids, and the dog were most deft at keeping me from taking a bath alone. No, it is the antagonist calling to say he is ready to kill my main character, and by the way, …I need to shave my legs.

Sleeping can be like running a relay race. When I sleep someone shouts something into my psyche, and I have to jump up to write. My best stuff comes at 3:00 A M decidedly, because like an infant, that is when my fiction characters are awake. After I have pecked the brainstorm into my computer, I head back to bed. Usually, I can fall back asleep. At least until, the protagonist finds out what his adversary said about him.

When I first started writing, it drove me mad to share my brain with all the people who were crashing my psychological party. Now, when I’m done with a story, and things get quiet, I have let down.

I want to throw up the No Vacancy Sign!I sit in the tub and wait for someone to say something. Then I lay in bed, and listen to the quiet wishing my fiction characters would “throw me a bone.” When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount of jabber going on in my brain, and I want to throw up the NO VACANCY sign, I remember how lonely I am without them.

I just flipped my sign over, reads Vacancy – welcome all night owls. I’ll probably catch you all at about 2:30…in the morning.

Do your fiction characters keep you awake at night? When was the last time you were able to have a relaxing bath or drive from one side of town to the other without their company? How do you deal with the lack of mental vacancies?

Photo Credit: Nathan Barry
Photo Credit: DG Jones

Character Development: When Back-Story Isn’t Enough

As writers, most of us already know that solid character development is key to a solid story. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to go about making robust characters: observe the people around you, create character charts, make sure you know your character’s back-story, etc.

It’s all great advice. For instance, I love filling out character sheets because they prompt me to think up things like nervous habits and identifying marks that I might not have given my character otherwise, but that make them that much more real.

And, of course, you have to know their back-story. If Sally is a runaway in chapter one who’s been homeless since she was ten, you can’t have her talking about the wonderful new bedroom decorations her mother gave her at age eleven.

But what do you do when that’s just not giving you what you need? When all of that planning doesn’t yield a direction for your character? I have two methods I use, and I adore them both.

First, and my favorite, is to imagine what happens to them after the story ends. This is especially helpful when I’m trying to choose from a couple of story endings, but that’s not the only time I use it. It’s an easy past-time: don’t write anything down, just pick a scene in your head and follow it to its logical conclusion. Maybe it’s a love story and two of your characters end up together. What happens when they have their first child? Or your entire star-ship crew just got back from an epic space-battle; how does that impact their view of the world ten years down the road?

My second trick takes a little more time, but can still be just as fun. I write a short story (actually writing this time, not just daydreaming) that places my stubborn character in an alternate universe. I ask myself “what if Conner were born in modern America, instead of ancient Greece, and was the son of the devil?”. All of the basic character traits stay the same, but he has to interact with a whole new set of people and world rules.

Those are just two ways I help give characters more depth – and figure out how they might react in my current story when I’m stuck for ideas. What methods do you use for character development and to make stubborn characters speak to you?

Character Birthdays: Happy Birthday, Heros and Heroines

Happy Birthday Cake for Heroes, Heroines, and CharactersDo you know your when to wish your characters a happy birthday? Many writers neglect the most important day of their protagonist’s life. After all, if she was not born into your imaginary world, you wouldn’t be able to tell her story now. But there are stronger writing issues to consider when deciding your male and female characters celebrate their birthday.

Happy 29th, Again

What is your character’s attitude toward her birthday, and her age? Does she dread every passing year, or does she celebrate with a blow-out party that includes everyone she’s met in her life? When are the birthday’s of your character’s family? If you don’t know, you are missing out on a key area of characterization that you could explore.

More importantly, you may miss her birthday all together! If her birthday falls right into the middle of your story, your character wouldn’t completely forget. At the very least, she would comment to herself about how she is far too busy to go out with her friends this year. Perhaps she’ll miss visiting her parents, because she has now moved halfway across the country to start her new job. Are your character’s kids celebrating their birthdays with a crisis filled birthday party? Her new love interest may forget, and schedule his monthly golf game on the birthday weekend she expected him to take her to his beach side villa. Unless you know, your characters will never age, and gain the wisdom that comes with reflecting over the course of their lives so far.

What’s Your Sign?

Another consideration is that you or your characters may have an interest in exploring what their birthday stands for, in the universal scheme of things. Astrology and Numerology use a person’s birthday to determine their personality traits, and the possible issues they might have to deal with throughout their lives. If you are struggling to flesh out a character, you can look up their birthday, and discover how they might act in their relationships, careers, and home lives. If you don’t like what the results turn up, you can change their birthday to a different sign, and start over. Even if you don’t care about such things, your young college student heroine might read her horoscope every morning, and you ought to have an idea what it would say.

Other uses for birthdays include exploring what happened on that day in history. If your historical hero was born on the day the Civil War started, he would have a different upbringing than someone whose parents raised him during the Great Depression. Many websites and books have such “Day in the Life” descriptions, or you could scan old newspapers near your character’s real world hometown. Even less famous events could play into your character’s life, such as if she were born on the same day the water tower fell and flooded her home.

Planning For Other Character’s Birthdays

Even if your story covers a short amount of time, it is wise to know when all of your characters are born, not just your protagonist. She may be planning a surprise party for her best friend, when she suddenly loses her job and can’t afford to do so anymore. Your antagonist may decide to cause havoc on his birthday every year, because local bullies wrecked his 18th birthday party.

Birthdays are a great rite of passage that everyone goes through each year. It marks new growth, beginnings, and a chance to start life with a clean slate. Your characters could use these same milestones, to take your story in new and unexpected directions.

What do birthdays mean to you, and your stories? Have you explored how your characters react to growing a year older?

Editor’s Note: Know another birthday you shouldn’t forget? Writer’s Round-About! We’re turning 3 this month so come and win some prizes at our birthday bash.

Image credit: Dan Taylor

Piece Together Characters From Family Members

Character Traits Pieced Together From FamilyOne of my favorite aspects of writing is character creation. I usually start my stories due to an interesting character popping into my mind, with a story to share. Often, I’ll know right away what they look like, what their general outlook on life is, and what their goals are.

However, I may not know what their favorite breakfast food is, what nervous habits they have, or their belief system. Some character attributes may not be needed in the preliminary stages of writing, but if I don’t know them up front, it can cause problems later on in the story. If I don’t know that the antagonist killed their parents in a war twenty years ago, then I have no idea why she is so determined to stop his reign of tyranny now.

Borrowing Attributes From Family

If I am unsure of my character’s attributes and motivations, I turn to an unending source of human characteristics – my friends and family. It doesn’t get more realistic than using actual traits and habits that other people have. However, you need to ensure that you don’t make a character who is exactly like your Uncle Bob, and ends up leaving his wife and developing a drug addiction. That could be perceived as slander, and cause ill will and even court cases between family members.

To avoid that possibility, I take observed characteristics and play mix and match. I might take my best friend’s eye twitch, add on my grandfather’s quiet attitude, and place those traits onto my protagonist’s thirty year old love interest. That way, there is no possibility of anyone seeing themselves within one character.

Also, allow the characteristics to change and grow throughout your story. Whereas my friend might twitch her eye when she is angry, my love interest character would twitch his eye when he is lying instead. His silent streak, borrowed from my grandfather, could go away completely by the end of the story, as he opens up and learns to trust the heroine.

Observe People Everywhere

Of course, family and friends aren’t the only possible sources for character creation. Inspiration is everywhere! Take your notebook and go to a crowded cafe, mall, or park. Make notes to yourself about specific attributes that catch your eye. Add these into the mix along with those traits you picked from your family, and you will have a completely different character. Even television, music, and online friends offer more character possibilities.

Once you’ve compiled your character, you might want to write out a character creation sheet, that lists all of the facts about the character that you know so far. This can range from hair and eye color, to identifiable habits, to primary and secondary motivations. Whatever you need for your story, you can outline, and add to or subtract from as necessary.

To further ensure that your character is differentiated enough from your family, write a short story that shows a “Day in the Life” of your hero. Let your family and friends read it, and see if they identify with the hero. If they do, you may need to change a few traits.

Have you ever drawn from real life people to create a character? What are your tips to ensuring you get just the right blend of fact and fiction?

Image Credit: egarc2

Five Traits Your Heroes Must Have

Your Romantic Hero? What character traits does he have?No matter what kind of fiction you write, you have to have a main character, a hero, with various traits. This is especially true in romance writing. Your characters are tall, dark, and handsome. They’re perfect.

Or are they?

Romantic heroes should have great qualities. Here are five qualities your heroes need to be well-rounded, believable characters:

1. Likeability

If you don’t like your hero, your reader won’t either. More importantly, neither will his intended love interest. No interest on the heroine’s part, no story regardless of how much your hero wants to be with her.

Even if he isn’t likeable in general at the beginning of your story, he has to have at least one likeable quality. He also needs potential to grow to be more likeable.

2. A flaw

Let’s face it: People aren’t perfect. Your hero shouldn’t be either. He needs to be flawed.

Give him a physical imperfection. He’s tall, dark, and handsome, with a limp. His face is badly scarred from being burned in a fire.

Give him a psychological imperfection. His uncle is a renegade vigilante who leads bands of clansmen to ambush rival clans as they travel. He’s a womanizer who has been told he has to get married or lose his title and position.

3. A love interest

While your hero could be narcissistic and love himself, he also needs to have an external love interest. What else is a romance but a story between two people, regardless of sexual orientation, as they fall in love and deal with the conflicts that arise as their relationship grows? Well, okay, it could also be a suspense, mystery, or historical, just to name a few. The lover needs to give the hero a reason to grow, to change. He can’t be the exact same person at the end of the story as he was at the beginning.

4. Other interests/events

Do you have one interest and only one interest in your life? I think the answer is no. You have more than one interest. Your hero should, too.

What else is going on in his life that takes his attention away from his one-and-only? War drags him away just as things are starting to get hot and heavy. Hunting takes him away for shorter times. Injury, and possibly near-death, keep him away for longer (but also serves for good growth in their relationship if his love interest is willing to act as his nurse). His job makes him travel cross-country. Football keeps him glued to the television on Mondays.

Give him something else to be interested in. Otherwise, you will have a flat character that no one – including you – cares about.

5. Motivation

What drives your character?

Other than spending time with his heroine, there is another driving force in your hero’s life. Perhaps it is protecting his people, getting a promotion, defending his family’s honor, or making enough money to live comfortably. Without motivation, your character is a dead-beat.

That’s not very romantic.

There are a lot of factors that go into creating a strong character. These five traits, while not exhaustive by any means, provide a good foundation for creating your hero. They are also not exclusive to men. Your heroines also need these qualities, which should complement the hero’s, at least in some ways.

Above all, your heroes and heroines need to be individuals and not cookie-cutter copies of previous characters with different names. Figuring out these main five traits will help develop their individuality. How else can you set your heroes and heroines apart from other characters?

Jen Nipps is a talented romance author and freelance writer/editor based in south-central Oklahoma, USA. She currently spends time in the hands of her love, the hero of her latest historical romance, “Trevor’s Triumph”.

Kat O’Reilly On Writing Romance

Talented romance author, Kat O’Reilly, joins us today to share a little about writing romance.

On Writing RomanceHey Kat, thank you so very much for joining us this month. As you know, we’re all about “Romance and Relationships” at Writer’s Round-About this February and with Valentine’s Day just last Sunday, love is still on many of our minds.

1. You’ve written a series of historical romances already, what inspired you to begin these novels and to write in the historical romance genre?

Honestly? I had a dream that started the first book, “Kiernan’s Curse”. Half of the dream is the opening of the prologue. The other half is later on in the book. That’s really pretty much why I started writing the books. From the way Kiernan was dressed in the dream, I knew it had to be historical, but I didn’t know what era, so I had to do quite a bit of research to find that out.

2. There is at least one key relationship in any romance, what is involved in developing the relationship between your hero and heroine?

Mutual attraction brings them together initially and that does remain, but there has to be something more. And it’s not always about chemistry. No relationship is without conflict, so a big part of why they’re together is how they work things out. It’s different for each one, but the key is that they grow individually and as a couple with each one.

3. What do you think is the most important aspect a character needs to truly connect with your readers?

Likeability. Even the antagonists need to have at least one likeable trait. You hear about characters people love to hate. That’s because there was something the readers identified with that they actually liked in the character even if they (thought they) hated them.

What brings the Hero and Heroine together?4. Do you find this aspect is also what brings your Hero and Heroine together?

Definitely! If the hero & heroine weren’t likeable, there’d be no reason for the story.

5. Although the romantic relationship between your Hero and Heroine is the most significant in a romance novel, do you think it is important for the characters in romance novels to have relationships with additional characters? How do these other relationships benefit the story?

Again, definitely! Without the other relationships, the story is flat and readers don’t really get to know the characters as people. That’s important to me in books I read, so I want to give the same feeling in my books.

6. Recently, you mentioned that your current work-in-progress, “Trevor’s Triumph might be the steamiest of the three…”, what makes a romance novel “steamy”?

I have a friend/mentor who would say the “smut factor” makes a romance novel steamy.

Sexual tension definitely contributes to the steaminess of it. Some romance novels stop there. I don’t. I actually go behind closed doors. In the beginning of the book, if Trevor lived in modern times and were a woman, he’d be called a slut. He meets the woman he’s supposed to be with and immediately gets the hots for her. He respects her father, the head of another clan, so he doesn’t try to get into her skirts (yet), but he goes back home and gives himself a hand-job. That’s in chapter two. (I’ve had another hero do that, but not until quite a bit later in the book.)

I do my best to keep from including such scenes gratuitously, but I can’t give a guarantee that all of them (usually 2 per story, if that many) are absolutely 100% necessary.

7. One of the aspects that make romance novels distinctive is the broad variation of “love scenes“, from the tender caress, to the no-holds-barred sex scene. What do you think is most important when writing these kinds of scenes?

Even with a no-holds-barred scene, you’ve got to leave some things to the imagination. Otherwise, it borders on porn. While I might write erotic scenes, I don’t do porn. Some writers do (and I’ve actually read some that has been done well). I try to be erotic without being too smutty.

The most important thing in these scenes, other than the imagination factor, is if the scene works. How does a love scene work? If you get turned on. At a conference one time, I heard a romance writer (I can’t remember who at the moment) said if you get turned on writing the scene, your reader will when they read it. And you know the scene works.

What is the true purpose of love scenes in romance writing?8. What do you think is the true purpose of “love scenes” in romance writing?

I think it varies. Sometimes it’s meant to show that the main characters are sexually compatible. Sometimes it’s to show some character development. I try to do a bit of both in the scenes I include.

9. Reflecting on the novels you’ve written yourself, which lines stand out the most in your own memory? Why do you think you’re drawn to those in particular?

Do you mean actual lines I’ve written? That’s a tough one.

In “Navajo Rose”, which is a contemporary romantic suspense, it’s during the second intimate scene with Paige and Ricky. The first one, she panicked and made him stop. Here’s the bit from the second one that stands out the most for me:

  • She squeezed lightly and smiled when he moaned. She did it again and sat up to give him a lick.
    He stopped her then. “I can’t do that right now.” It sounded as if someone else spoke. He had never heard his voice so husky.
    “Then what?”
    “If I start, Paige, I won’t be able to stop.”
    She frowned and growled at him. “I’d kill you if you stopped right now.”
    His shaft jerked at her tone. “I don’t have a condom.”
    “I don’t care!” She squeezed again.

The key part of it is where he tells her he wouldn’t be able to stop.

10. Which book do you think has had the greatest impact on your romance writing? Why do you think it influences you so greatly?

I don’t think there’s one book in particular. There are four authors who do, though: Sherrilyn Kenyon, Christine Feehan, Karen Marie Moning, and Katie MacAlister. Each of them have some aspects that I try to learn from. With Sherrilyn & Katie, it’s their immediacy. With Karen, it’s her description. With Christine, it’s the closeness to her characters. (They all have great closeness, but with her Ghost Walker Series, it’s even more pronounced since they’re all somehow psychically enhanced.)

Here’s a little secret: The first sex scene I ever wrote, I read one of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s intimate scenes (I think it was in Dark Side of the Moon) as a kind of guide as to how to structure it. *s*

Thank you again for your time, Kat. I truly appreciate having this opportunity to share in your experiences. Writing for the romance genre can be particularly challenging but it’s a very popular theme and it has universal appeal. We all want to experience a little love in our lives. Writing romance must be a wonderful way to be immersed in the sensation of new love and the roller-coaster of romantic relationships.

What do YOU think makes a romance “steamy”? Have you read a love scene that really turned you on? What do you think is the true purpose of “love scenes” in romance writing? Have you ever written any of your own?