It’s that time of year when NYT Bestselling Author Brenda Novak hosts her annual online auction for Diabetes research. I donate to this auction every year because diabetes is a disease that has struck those I love. So far Brenda and her efforts have brought over $1 million to research and she hopes to tip that past the $2 million mark after this year’s auction. There are so many items up for grabs, so please take some time to take a look at what might strike your fancy. 

And here are the two items I have donated. 

The complete set of my Forbidden Love seres: A Little Bit Wicked, A Little Bit Sinful and A Little Bit Scandalous. 

~and~

One on one Character mentoring – get personal assistance with creating your characters from the GMC to character arcs to how to use your characters to grow the plot of your book. **If you’re attending RWA National this summer, we can meet for coffee to get the ball rolling. 

Today I asked my critique partner, bff and writer extraordinaire, Emily McKay, to share one of my favorite writing articles here to y’all. 

 

EVERYTHING I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT WRITING

In the weeks following the national convention, I found myself seated on my sofa, barely recovered from my post-conference, knowledge ‘hangover,’ watching rented movies I’d seen several times before. I was about halfway through a bowl of popcorn and just starting to appreciate how good Brendan Frasier looks covered in a fine film of dust when it hit me. Everything — well, nearly everything — I’d learned at the conference was right there in the movie.

I don’t mean to imply that The Mummy is a classic, though it is certainly enjoyable. But watching The Mummy allowed me to piece together some of the concepts I’d either recently learned or recently heard reiterated.

Newly enlightened, I’d like to talk about foreshadowing and goal/motivation/conflict. More importantly, I want to talk about how both concepts work together.

Foreshadowing

First off, let’s talk about why our readers read our books. If you think it’s because their lives are filled with fun and excitement and they just want to escape into our stories for a moment of peace and quiet, you’re wrong. That’s why people listen to new age music. That’s not why people read our books.

People read books — and go to movies — because their lives are stressful and they want the catharsis of watching as characters they love experience danger and come out okay. The characters can be at physical risk, emotional risk, or simply at risk of not getting what they want …. but they must be at risk.

Furthermore, the audience wants to see the danger coming from a mile away and relish it as it approaches. The audience wants to wallow in impending danger. Foreshadowing allows that.

The Mummy uses foreshadowing to build suspense from the moment the movie starts. As the movie’s ‘prologue’ comes to an end, the voice over tells us that should Imhotep (the antagonist and the titular Mummy) ever be released from his sarcophagus “he would arise a walking disease, a plague upon mankind, an unholy flesh eater with the strength of ages, power over the sands and the glory of invincibility.”

Let’s face it, with a warning like that, there’s no one in the audience thinking, “Well, thank goodness that’s never going to happen!” Instead, we’re probably all thinking “Ooh, that sounds bad! That sounds dangerous! I wonder who he’s going to kill?”

Just in case there’s anyone in the audience who didn’t get the message right off, the movie is filled with characters who issue warnings like, “Many men have wasted their lives in the foolish pursuit of Hamonaptra [the fabled city of the dead]. No one’s ever found it. Most have never returned.” And just in case that’s not enough, there’s a band of creepy, tattooed fellows called the Magi, who skulk around dressed all in black, ambushing the heros at every turn and saying things like, “Leave this place or die.”

There’s even a curse that reads:

He [Imhotep] will kill all who open this chest and assimilate their organs and fluids and in so doing, he will regenerate and no longer be the undead, but a plague upon this earth.

The foreshadowing escalates throughout the movie, becoming more and more specific. By the time the mummy actually does rise and begin sucking the life force from his victims, the audience knows exactly what to expect. We know he’s going to be a plague upon mankind. We know he’ll be a ‘flesh eater’. We’re even pretty darn certain he’s going to start with the four guys who opened the chest and were foolish enough to walk off with his sacred canopic jars.

We’ve spent the first half of the movie anticipating the moment he wakes up and now we’ll spend the second half anticipating the nasty things we were told about. That’s what foreshadowing does. It allows the audience to anticipate.

Think back to your prom, to the first time you saw your favorite band in concert, to your last big vacation. Chances are, in each of those cases, the anticipation you felt in the days and weeks beforehand was just as much fun as the big event itself. The same is true for fiction. Anticipation really is half the fun. So let the audience have fun. Let them enjoy waiting for disaster.

Which leads me to my second point …

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

Let me begin by saying that if you don’t already feel like you have a working understanding of Goal, Motivation and Conflict, I highly recommend Debra Dixon’s definitive book on the subject.

But maybe you’re like me — you’ve got a handle on the theory, but you’re not sure you really know how to subtly intertwine GMC into you story.

Well, that’s your problem right there. You don’t need to be subtle about GMC. You don’t need to be sparing either. The audience needs to know what’s at stake for your characters. They need to know what your characters want and why they want it. If you don’t let your audience know what’s at stake, the audience won’t get to enjoy anticipating everything that could go wrong.

In the Mummy, we know what Evelyn wants right from the beginning. She wants to be a Bembridge Scholar. Her application has been rejected again, because she doesn’t have enough experience in the field. So we also know that she wants field experience and adventure, because she thinks that will help her achieve her main goal. Of course, what she really wants is recognition. She wants to live up to the legacy of her parents who were both great Egyptologists.

Keep in mind, a character’s goal and motivation will change and evolve as the story progresses. When we first meet Rick O’Connell, his only goal is to stay alive. Once Evelyn saves his life, his goal changes. Because he’s an honorable man (which another character tells us right off — “His word is his word.”), he wants to protect the woman who saved his life. As he grows to love Evelyn, his motivation changes, but his goal (to protect Evelyn) stays the same.

If you have a heroine who wants adventure and a hero who wants to protect her, you’ve got the start of an interesting story. You’ve the got the seed of conflict between them, but for an action/adventure movie you’re going to need more. That’s where the other characters come into play.

It’s not enough to have a good GMC for two characters in the story. You need GMC for all of them. That’s what gives you conflict. (Remember the C in GMC?) Characters who have opposing goals come into conflict with each other. And conflict is the key to interesting fiction.

If this still doesn’t seem like enough conflict for an action/adventure movie, well you’re right. That’s because I haven’t even gotten started on the villain. That’s right, your villain does need his/her own GMC. In fact, second only to protagonist’s, your antagonist’s GMC is one of the most important in the story.

Of course, in The Mummy, the antagonist is, you guessed it, the mummy, Imhotep. Because his GMC is as important as Evelyn’s, it’s stated just as clearly, maybe even more clearly. He wants to resurrect Anck-Su-Namun. Why? Because he loves her and wants to be with her. Everything he does in the story, all the flesh eating, all the sand storming, all the plaguing of mankind, he does not because he’s evil, but because he’s trying to achieve his goal. He’s trying to resurrect the woman he loves. Gosh, if he wasn’t releasing hoards of locust, you’d almost feel sorry for the guy.

All the things the mummy is willing to do to reach his goal create conflict for Evelyn and O’Connell. It’s important to note that as soon as Evelyn realizes that she’s the one who woke this “unholy flesh eater” her goal changes. Suddenly, her goal is to find a way to kill or incapacitate Imhotep, because there are things Evelyn isn’t willing to do to achieve her initial goal. She sets aside her goal of becoming a Bembridge scholar in favor of trying to save the world.

Her new goal (save the world) is in conflict with Imhotep’s goal (resurrect Anck-Su-Namun). Since Imhotep is going to use Evelyn as a human sacrifice to resurrect Anck-Su-Namun, he is also in conflict with O’Connell. And there you have it — characters the audience cares about in conflict with each other. Instant story.

It’s crucial to remember that the audience needs to know what the characters’ goals are. Once the audience knows a character’s goal and motivation, they can usually see the conflict coming from a mile away. Which, of course, is your goal.

Never make the mistake of thinking that because you don’t write Suspense, you don’t need to have suspense in your romance. The Mummy is certainly a suspenseful movie. The sweeping music, dim lighting, and creepy fellows skulking around dressed in black all add to that suspense. But the true suspense in the movie comes from wondering how the characters are going to reach their goals. That’s equally true in a romance novel.

You also want to make sure that you deliver exactly what you foreshadowed. Foreshadowing is all about letting the audience know exactly what the worst case scenario is for the characters. At the climax of movie, we’re not worried about whether or not someone will accidently bring him back to life. We’re not worried about whether or not he’ll manage to regenerate. At that point, we’re worried that he’ll manage to sacrifice Evelyn and he’ll become all-powerful in the process.

If, in your romance novel, the heroine’s goal for ten years has been to hide the existence of her child from hero, then the worst case scenario is going to be that the hero find out about the child they created together. You need to state the heroine’s goal, you need to foreshadow the conflict (the worst case scenario), and you need to deliver the pay-off.

Don’t cheat the audience out of the thrill of seeing all their worst fears come to fruition. That’s what they enjoy. Your story is only as good as your character’s GMC and your protagonists are only as strong as the antagonist they overcome.

Remember, GMC and foreshadowing work hand in hand. You use your characters’ goals and motivations to foreshadow the conflict. Without foreshadowing you have no suspense. And suspense makes great fiction.

Archetypes

Let me start by saying there’s no shame in relying on the tried and true. In fiction, in character development in particular, the tried and true are character archetypes. For more information on character archetypes, see The Complete Writer’s guide to Heroes & Heroines, by Cowden, La Fever, and Viders.

Using archetypes for character development works because it helps the reader know what to expect. Keep in mind, that reading fiction should be easy for the reader. They should be able to slide right into the story. The transition from their world to the fictional world you’ve created should be seamless. You do that by using characters archetypes, by letting the reader know what to expect. Making it easy on them, allows that seamless transition.

When using archetypes, it’s important that your characters really be that archetype. Their archetype should be obvious from the moment they walk on scene. It should be obvious in the way they act and the things they say. Don’t be wishy-washy with your characters either. If there’s information the audience needs to know about your character, then let the audience know right away.

Remember Evelyn from The Mummy? She’s a Librarian. That’s her archetype as well as her profession and we know it from the minute we see her, perched on a ladder shelving books. We know it from the way she’s dressed in prim Edwardian clothes, hair knotted tightly at the base of her neck. We know it from the ease with which she rattles off the names of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. And from the way she talks to the books, gently chiding them for being in the wrong place.

Within five minutes of screen time, we know everything we need to know about Evelyn. We know she’s librarian. We know she often gets herself into trouble — her single-minded focus on the task at hand (shelving books) causes her to knock down all the book shelves. Finally, from her interaction with her boss, we know she’s under-appreciated. He tells her the only reason he puts up with her is because her parents were great Egyptologists. Our first impression of Evelyn is as complete as it is strong.

The same is true for Rick O’Connell, the movie’s hero. He is a Warrior. We know he’s a Warrior from the first moment we see him, rifle aimed at an unbeatable enemy. A moment later, when his commander runs away while O’Connell stays to lead the men under his command, we learn more about him. By the time that first scene ends, we know everything we need to know about Rick O’Connell. He’s a warrior, a bit of a swashbuckler, but a man of honor. He’ll stay and fight when other men turn and run.

“But,” you may protest, “I want to write multi-dimensional, fully-layered characters.” Of course you do. We all do. And the truth is, most characters, O’Connell included, are more complex than even a strong first impression allows. And make no mistake, the first time your characters appear they will make a first impression. You have plenty of time to layer your characters later in the story. Your job as an author is to make sure that first impression is the right one. If your hero is a Warrior, then the first time the reader meets him, he should not be doing research in the library.

Think about Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is a Swashbuckler through and through. Ironically, he also happens to be a professor. But professor is his profession, not his archetype. Who can forget that image of Indiana Jones racing through the ruins of an ancient temple with a giant ball of stone rolling after him? That opening scene in the jungle has very little to do with the plot of the movie but everything to do with establishing expectations.

Imagine how differently the movie would play out if our first impression of Indiana had him standing in front of a classroom of students. Interestingly enough, the second time we see Indiana, he is in the lecture hall. Because we’ve already seen him racing through the jungle, we know there’s more to him than meets the eye. We’re in on the joke. Therefore, when the men from Army Intelligence come to ask him to find the lost ark, we’re not shocked and confused — or worse, skeptical. Because we already have that first impression of him in our mind, we know he’s up to the challenge.

So remember, never be afraid to make a strong first impression. Furthermore, never be afraid to reinforce it whenever necessary. It’s even a good idea to give your characters a talisman, some physical object they carry with them that represents who they are. (Remember Indiana’s hat and whip?) After all, your characters exist in a physical world. They need objects to clutch when they’re nervous or stroke when they’re contemplative.

O’Connell’s talisman is his guns. He uses them to defend himself not only from physical danger, but from emotional intimacy as well. Once he’s cleaned-up and well-groomed, O’Connell feels nervous around Evelyn. After all, he’s a man of action and doesn’t quite know what to do with this intelligent, cultured, beautiful woman. Around her, his easy confidence slips. How do we know? By the way he handles his weapons. It’s no coincidence that before he’ll even sit down at the table with her, he rolls out his bundle of guns between them. Those weapons are his talisman; they make him feel safe, even when he’s not using them. In fact for most of the movie, his guns are useless against an immortal enemy. The Mummy obviously is not suseptible to bullets. Nevertheless, O’Connell’s always armed.

Evelyn’s talisman is her books. Makes sense — she is a Librarian. She’s surrounded by books throughout the movie, from the books she’s shelving when we first meet her, to the book she uses to save the world. Her books give her the same confidence that Rick’s guns bring him. After her first intimate conversation with Rick (the same one that made him nervous) she feels so rattled when she goes back to her room, she tries to read, but can’t. Like Rick, the way she interacts with her talisman shows us how she’s feeling.

In the case of both Rick and Evelyn, their talismans are related not only to their archetypes but also to the lessons they have to learn.

None of this is an accident. It’s just great fiction. Which is what we aspire to write.

Let’s face it, we all want to write a really great novel–the kind of novel that lives on in people’s memory long after they put the book down, the kind of novel people love without ever really knowing what made it so good.

To the reader, a wonderful novel seems like magic. We sit in the audience, amazed by the tricks and illusions being executed on stage by the master magician. Yet, we have no notion of how those tricks are performed.

To the writer, what was once magical can become merely frustrating. We want our own work to appear as seamless and wondrous. But how?

One of the ways is to have a well-developed premise and theme. I’m sure there are people out these who can write magical novels without know squat about premise or theme. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.

The good news is, if you’re not one of those people either, then understanding premise or theme can give your writing an extra edge. That magical glow.

It can tie together your prose and add resonance to your words. It may even make the difference between writing a novel people enjoy and writing a novel people love.

Premise

According to James Frey, in How to Write Damn Good Novel, a premise is “a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in the story.” In other words, it’s the lesson the audience or reader can learn by watching the movie or reading the book. It’s the point that’s proven by the events in the story. Most stories (certainly all the good ones) have a premise. For example: there’s no place like home (The Wizard of Oz), it’s a wonderful life (It’s a Wonderful Life), beauty is only skin deep (Beauty and the Beast), freedom is worth dying for (Braveheart).

You may have noticed in the examples above, that the really clever writers work the premise into the story so that it’s kind of hard to miss — if you’re looking for it. Most people aren’t. The average reader will probably never know you have a premise in your book — but they’ll enjoy it more.

The premise in The Mummy is that everybody gets what they deserve. The premise is illustrated most clearly through the character Benni. If you remember him from the movie, you’ll remember that Benni is a bit of a weasel. In fact, all through the movie people are saying things like “You’ll get yours Benni!” and “Nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance.”

Just as everyone predicts, Benni does indeed get his. By the end of the movie his self-serving greed leaves him trapped in the treasure room of lost city of Hamonaptra. Though he’s surrounded by the gold and treasure he couldn’t leave behind, he’s also surrounded by flesh-eating scarabs. After betraying all of humanity, he has gotten exactly what he deserves.

What is true of Benni is equally true for all of the other characters. They too get what they deserve.

Anck-Su-Namun gets hers fairly early in the movie. Because she is the pharaoh’s mistress, her body is not her own. In the first scene of the movie, just before plunging a knife into her belly she says “My body is no longer his temple!” With her death, she gets what she never had in life–control over her own body.

Imhotep gets what he deserves as well. After spending over three thousand years as the undead, Evelyn removes the curse and O’Connell stabs him. Wounded and dying, he staggers backwards and falls into the well of souls–the same well Anck-Su-Namun’s soul rose out of when he was trying resurrect her. Ultimately, he has gotten what he deserved, death.

Of course, Evelyn and O’Connell get theirs too. Evelyn gets to use her intelligence to save the world. Thus she gets the adventure and the recognition she deserves. O’Connell, a self-proclaimed treasure seeker, gets the ultimate treasure–love.

Theme

Ah, theme. The bane of high school students everywhere.

For writers, theme is often both harder and easier than premise. A theme is woven through a story with more subtly than the premise. In Sound and Sense, Laurence Perrine defines theme as “the central idea of a literary work.”

Common themes, particularly in romance novels, are trust, self-acceptance, faith, and forgiveness. The easiest way to figure out your theme is to go back to your premise. Premise and theme are usually closely related.

A couple of quick examples: The premise of The Wizard of Oz is “There’s no place like home.” The theme is home. The premise of Braveheart is freedom is worth dying for. The theme is freedom.

If you’re having trouble with theme and premise, it may be easiest to decide on your theme first. Figure out what big issue you want to deal with in your book. Let’s say you want your book to be about Trust. Then decide what it is you want to say about Trust. Do you want to say that ‘Once trust is lost it can never be regained’? Or that ‘Without trust, love is meaningless’? Or maybe that ‘Love never really exists without trust’? What do your characters need to learn about Trust before they can have their happy ending?

The beauty of having a clearly defined theme and premise is that you’ll be able to use them to guide your story. Once you know what your theme is, you’ll want to make sure the every scene and character in the book reflects that theme. If you have a great scene that’s poignant and touching, but you’re not sure whether or not to keep it, ask yourself, “What doesn’t this scene say about my theme?” If the answer is “nothing” you’ll need to cut or rewrite the scene.

Which brings us to The Mummy. If the premise is that everybody gets what they deserve, then the theme is justice (Not in the Criminal Justice System sense of the word, but in the ‘the world is a fair and just place’ sense of the word.)

I’ve already talked about how all of the major characters get what they deserve, so you can probably see how they all reflect the story’s theme and premise. What you may not have noticed yet is how the writer uses even the minor characters to reflect the theme as well.

Remember the drunk British pilot? He’s a small character, on screen for mere minutes, but he serves an important function in the plot. O’Connell and the others are in Thebes and they need to cross the desert to Hamunaptra quickly (earlier in the movie it took them days to get there). A plane is the obvious solution to this plot problem, but plot demands a new character to fly it. It can’t be any of the other characters, because if they had access to a plane, they would have used it the first time they crossed the desert.

Enter the drunk British pilot. He shows up just in time to fly O’Connel and the others to Hamunaptra. But remember, he has to do more than that, otherwise, it would be lazy story telling.

Every character and scene must serve multiple purposes. So instead of just being the guy that flies them across the desert, his character must also illustrates the theme (justice) and the premise (everybody gets what they deserve). ‘But he’s a minor character’ you say. ‘How do we know what he deserves?’ Well, minor though he is he still has goal, motivation, and conflict. And the audience knows what his GMC is right from beginning. As soon as his character enters the story we learn that he’s last surviving member of the Royal Air Corp and he wishes he had died a glorious death along with the rest of his companions. So when he dies, we know he’s getting what he deserves–a glorious death.

Remember, in fiction, every scene, every character, every moment is precious. Your story needs to be tightly woven. You have to make every character work for his or her place in the story. So if you need a character to move the plot along, make sure you use that character for something else as well. These minor characters are perfect for illustrating your premise and theme.

In short, a well-defined premise and theme are like the wires the suspend the magician’s assistant three feet above the floor–the audience probably never sees them, but they’re crucial to the success of the trick.

You can find out more about Emily and her fabulous books at her website

Character growth is one of those nebulous concepts that writers seem to struggle with, yet it’s necessary for those of us writing character-driven fiction like romance. It occurred to me in the car the other day while I was listening to music that songs are often a great peek at character growth and it happens in a matter of minutes whereas it can be far more subtle in books. Here’s a great example:

“Stay” by Sugarland

I’ve been sitting here staring at the clock on the wall
And I’ve been laying here praying, praying she won’t call
It’s just another call from home
And you’ll get it and be gone
And I’ll be crying

And I’ll be begging you, baby
Beg you not to leave
But I’ll be left here waiting
With my Heart on my sleeve
Oh, for the next time we’ll be here
Seems like a million years
And I think I’m dying

What do I have to do to make you see
She can’t love you like me?

Why don’t you stay
I’m down on my knees
I’m so tired of being lonely
Don’t I give you what you need
When she calls you to go
There is one thing you should know
We don’t have to live this way
Baby, why don’t you stay

You keep telling me, baby
There will come a time
When you will leave her arms
And forever be in mine
But I don’t think that’s the truth
And I don’t like being used and I’m tired of waiting
It’s too much pain to have to bear
To love a man you have to share

Why don’t you stay
I’m down on my knees
I’m so tired of being lonely
Don’t I give you what you need
When she calls you to go
There is one thing you should know
We don’t have to live this way
Baby, why don’t you stay

I can’t take it any longer
But my will is getting stronger
And I think I know just what I have to do
I can’t waste another minute
After all that I’ve put in it
I’ve given you my best
Why does she get the best of you
So next time you find you wanna leave her bed for mine

Why don’t you stay
I’m up off my knees
I’m so tired of being lonely
You can’t give me what I need
When she begs you not to go
There is one thing you should know
I don’t have to live this way
Baby, why don’t you stay, yeah

 
We start the song with the “other woman.” The woman a married man is obviously having an affair with. It’s safe for us to assume the affair has been going on a while and the man has made promises to his mistress, promises no doubt that include him leaving his wife for her. Yet that doesn’t happen. The mistress is distraught, she loves him, he says he loves her, yet he keeps returning home to his wife. She begs him to stay with her, but again and again he returns to his wife. Finally though the mistress comes to her senses, she realizes that she’s been doing everything she can to keep a man that clearly has no intentions of ever staying forever. She acknowledges that she deserves more, that she wants more, that he can no longer give her what she needs/wants. So she ultimately gets up off her knees, stops begging and tells him to stay with his wife. In a little over 4 1/2 minutes we have a “character” grow and change and end up a better person. That’s character growth or a character arc, if you will. 

Today I thought I’d share some of my favorite books that I go to again and again for writing assistance, whether it be for characterization, creating emotion or plotting. 

Admittedly this is a tome, and it’s dry. But it’s brilliant and full of
wonderful gems. So do yourself a favor and wade through it. 
No doubt you’ve heard of this, hopefully you already own a copy. Mine is highlighted and flagged.
Covers the basics of creating GMC for characters as well as tips on crafting scenes. 
Fairly certain that since I bought this copy, I haven’t written a book without it. My entire
publishing career, for sure. It’s a wonderful starting place to creating believable characters. 
My second favorite book to use for creating characters. This one is about the Myers Brigg
personality types. It has cartoons and bulleted lists so you don’t get mired in the unnecessary details. 
This is a great book if you’re struggling with getting emotion on the page.
It’s taken more from a literary bent, but it’s very helpful. 
Great book with all kinds of gems. This really should be in every fiction writer’s library. 

We’ve discussed several elements to creating great characters, everything from the elements to creating believable characters to character arcs. And I suspect that many of you have read through those posts wondering why I haven’t yet mentioned backstory. Backstory is often where some of you start when it comes to creating your characters, it’s how they become real to you, and that’s great, you just need to make sure that all of that great backstory you came up with makes sense with their GMCs and character arcs. This is why I do backstory last, sometimes after the first draft of the book. Oh I’ll know a little bit, enough to get by, but mostly I just figure it out as I go along, or rather I make it up as needed.

Five myths you don’t have to believe:

MYTH 1: My characters come to me with a full history.
MYTH 2: Once my character has a backstory, it can’t change.
MYTH 3: I should know everything about my character before I start writing.
MYTH 4: The best way to learn about my character is to fill out a 16-page character interview.
MYTH 5: A character is what his backstory makes him.

I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, these people aren’t real. I know they often feel that way, and that is a good thing, but you also need to remind yourself that they’re fiction because it gives you permission to be more flexible with your story elements. You can change things around to fit your story and to make things stronger and better.

Okay so what is backstory, well, I believe it’s the pertinent events from your character’s past that cause, create or complicate their goals, motivations and/or conflicts.

So what does this new definition mean? It means that you, the author, and the reader only need to know the events that are relevant to the action of your story. You must change the way you see your characters and be willing to change or create what is necessary for the story you’re telling. You must be willing to sacrifice something if it is not needed or does not enhance your book.

When coming up with backstory I always consider five key questions.

QUESTION 1: What incident or incidents in your character’s past motivates or explains their external goal?
QUESTION 2: What incident or incidents in your character’s past motivates or explains their subconscious need?
QUESTION 3: What incident or incidents in your character’s have contributed or created their patterns of behavior?
QUESTION 4: What incident or incidents in your character’s past caused their error in thinking?
QUESTION 5: If your characters have a past together, what was it?

And then finally there are three things you need to remember about backstory, it needs to be relevant to the plot, it should be very specific and use the rule of three. This is a litmus test to see if you have enough to fully motivate your characters. You want enough events in your character’s past for their error in thinking to be believable. For example, if the hero was betrayed by his mother, that only may not be enough for him to believe all women are evil. He has to have met other women in his life who have reinforced this belief.

Next up you should consider the 3 F’s, fears, flaws and foundations. Think about the character you’ve built using the tools we’ve already talked about, now decide on a fear for that character. Like the heroine who doesn’t trust herself, perhaps a fear for her is that if she makes any big decisions for herself she’ll end up hurting someone else or hurting herself or she’ll make a fool of herself or maybe she’s just afraid to speak in public. Just an added element you can use in a scene or two to make her all the more real for us, afterall we all have fears that we deal with. And we writers I think have a double dose of fear than regular people otherwise we wouldn’t be so damn neurotic. Now think of a flaw or two you can give your character, this works really well too if you can make that flaw the counterside of a strength. For example if your hero is loyal, he can be loyal to a fault, that loyalty can get him into trouble when he makes a business deal with his best friend and then his best friend borrows money from the wrong people and now the hero has a bounty on his head by the local mafia. Foundations is simply beliefs and values, things your character stands for. Now again you don’t want to just randomly tack things on to them. Think of foundations in terms of clichés if that helps you, beliefs like money doesn’t grow on trees, home is where the heart is, your past can never catch up with you, things like that. If you give you heroine a foundation that she believes family is important above all things, but the book takes place in the middle of the ocean where it’s just her and the hero and a mysterious villain then that family thing probably isn’t going to matter much to the book. Unless she’s trying to get back to save her son. So make the foundation matter.

I’m back to Writerly Wednesdays now that my latest book has been turned in. Today I want to talk about all the elements that go into creating 3-dimensional characters – at least the way I do it. Last time I wrote about character arcs and frankly I probably should have done this one first because it leads nicely into it. But well, here you go.

Have you ever read (or even worse, written) a book that still left you feeling unsatisfied? Ever wondered why some romances have an excellent ‘sigh’ factor, but others have you betting the couple won’t make it past a year? The key to a satisfying romance is vivid characters.

Many writers—both new and seasoned—struggle to create character-driven books that deliver the powerful romance that readers crave. After all, it’s easy to get caught up in Mary Jane’s struggle to raise the money to save the ranch and Detective Jones’ quest to identify the serial killer. We forget that while the twists and turns of an external plot may keep the reader turning the pages, they might fail to deliver the satisfying emotional punch readers expect.

So often writers mistakenly believe that an interesting or complex background and childhood equals a three-dimensional character. We’re led to believe that unless we know every tiny detail of our characters’ tortured childhoods, then the reader will think them cardboard. When in fact what makes interesting and memorable characters is the way they act on the page, not who they were before the story began.

There are plenty of ways to go about creating those characters – I mean who here hasn’t heard of a character interview or questionnaire. The ones I’ve seen and tried to use have like 180 questions ranging from what is your character’s sexual history to what is their favorite ice cream. When I was first learning my writing process I worked on these things for hours and presumably they work for some people, but I just found them to be really frustrating and frankly not very applicable. I write historicals, my characters don’t eat ice cream. And knowing about my hero’s 3rd grade teaching isn’t going to help me make readers fall in love with him unless that 3rd grade experience was substantial in making him who he is in the book.

I can’t really say there is one key to creating great characters because I think there are several, but one of which is is that all really matters is who your character is within the pages of your book. Let’s be real, unless you’re writing a biography these people aren’t real. Yes, they might feel real, but they aren’t they’re just bits and pieces that we make up. So with that thought in mind I implore you to work on your characters with an open mind. Don’t get so settled on your heroine’s backstory because that’s what really happened, cause it didn’t, she’s not real. What matters is who she is on the page and in so much as it affects the story, how she became that person, that’s where your backstory comes in. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Okay so let’s get into some of the tools. Now I should give you a caveat, this is how I go about creating characters and while I can stand up here all day and tell you it’s the right way to do it, there are probably half of you in here that this won’t work at all. And that’s okay, chances are you’ll learn something and if not just smile and nod and I’ll never be the wiser. Alright so onto those tools. When I start work on a new book idea, I start with the characters and because I’m a heroine-driven writer, I start with her.

ARCHETYPES
The first thing I do is pick a name. There’s nothing magical about this process for me, sometimes the name pops into my head and sometimes I sit and look at a baby naming book until something strikes me. Once I’m satisfied with a name something interesting starts to happen, she begins to start to form into a person, or at least a shape that sort of resembles a person. So next up I jump to the archetype book. Now there are plenty of character and pop psychology books out there that you can use. This just happens to be one that I think is brilliant. I was in the workshop in Chicago many moons ago when they first presented this material and I couldn’t take notes fast enough. It just really resonates with me. Now one thing I’ve learned from using this book again and again in my own writing is that I tend to gravitate towards the same archetypes over and over. So I start with those, read through them until something grabs me.

MYERS-BRIGG
Once I’ve got my archetype down the feel of the character, her personality begins to take shape so it’s time to start digging in to see what issues she might have to be dealing with, emotionally speaking. That’s when I pull out the Myers Brigg book that I use. What I like about this book in particular is that it’s not very complicated, much of it is done in bulleted lists. And there’s a great chart at the beginning of the book that gives a quick & dirty summary of each type so you can read through them and know which ones to read more of. Another thing I like about this book is that there’s a section of things that type might need to work on, this is a great jumping off place for internal conflict issues. All of this work helps me bring my characters big emotional issue into focus for me. Cause remember they’re not real so we’re just making this stuff up, if you want a heroine who has trust issues, give her trust issues, make up a background that fits with that.

ENNEAGRAM
But for starting off points you can also use the Enneagram, which I have a book I use on occasion if the Myers Brigg isn’t working for me, it’s actually by the same author so it’s in the same easy to read format. And these are just the tools that I use, I know there are plenty of others out there. What you want is to just use these to brainstorm directions you can take your character. Because the thing to remember about characters in a book is that everything has to be properly motivated and their behavior needs to be consistent. We know that there are people all around us that don’t behave consistently, they have medications for this. Well, and clearly it’s not always a medical issue, people do crazy things because we have knee-jerk reactions to emotional stimuli. Characters can’t really do that or they come across as being false or melodramatic. So you have to be careful. That’s one of the reasons I use these pop psychology tools b/c they were designed for real people, but they have a way of outlining the usual behaviors which is where the consistency comes into play.

OTHER TOOLS
I know other writers use all kinds of other tools. There are books on birth order that are very interesting, you can use books on the astrological signs or use tarot cards. There are tons of other resources out there that might work for you, just the ones I listed are the ones that I think work particularly well.

GMC
Okay so let’s move onto to the nitty gritty stuff. Now I’m sure that most of you have heard of Deb Dixon’s GMC. That’s kind a biblical text in RWA. And if you haven’t read it, you’ve heard a workshop or your critique partner has explained it to you. And well, Deb didn’t actually make that stuff up, she just put it in easy to understand terms. Dwight Swaine has a lot of the same material in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer – now I don’t know how many of you have tried to read that book, I can say it’s worth the time and effort, but it is very dry.

But I think the thing about GMC is is that we all get it, we understand it. If writing a book involved taking a multiple choice text or even fill in the blank on the components of GMC, we’d probably all get A’s. The thing is though, the concept is easy to grasp, but applying it into your book is a whole ‘nothing ball of wax. So here’s the way I like to explain it.

Goal – what do they want?
Motivation – why do they want it?
Conflict – why can’t they have it?

You could sum up GMC in the following sentence: Character wants (blank) because (blank) but (blank). The blanks are the three elements – the G, the M, and the C.

GMC is essential to good fiction, and I always like to start with the M, which I realize is a bit unorthodox, but bear with me. The M, the motivation is what makes your fiction readable. It’s like the secret decoder ring that comes in cereal boxes. This is the element you use in order to effectively communicate with the reader – what they’ll use in order to understand why our characters do and say the crazy things they do. If a character is properly motivated, a reader will follow them anywhere no matter how improbable their actions may be. In the GMC equation, the motivation is why the character wants their specific goal – why they want to open that bookstore or why they need to trust others and why they act the way they do throughout the story.

Take a familiar scenario of the clichéd woman in a horror movie who runs out into the darkness in her pajamas, or equally silly, goes into the basement, all because she hears a noise. And let’s not forget that she knows very well that there is a madman on the loose and he’s got an ax with her name on it. It’s a funny situation and it makes us roll our eyes or yell at the screen.

But why is the above scenario humorous? Character motivation. Or rather the lack of character motivation. Most of these movies are shot with one thing in mind, to scare the movie-goer, so they get their characters in scary situations no matter how poorly motivated said character is simply because it suits the plot. But in romance, we don’t have that luxury. We simply can’t stick our characters in Idaho because we need them to be there for chapter seven. We have to give them legitimate, believable reasons for going to Idaho in the first place or for going into the basement.

Haven’t you ever read a book that wasn’t that exciting or perhaps wasn’t that well written, yet the characters were so compelling you couldn’t put it down? More than likely motivation played a big role in why you loved those characters. Likewise the lack of proper motivation can ruin even the most well-written prose.

Let’s go back to our woman from the horror movie; investigating a noise is not enough motivation for most people to go out into the night when a crazy murderer is on the loose. What if the noise she hears is her dog that’s outside tied to the swing set? Is that believable? To serious dog lovers it probably is. Let’s try something else, suppose she hears someone cry for help, is that believable? Well, for those of us seasoned horror movie watchers, this is an old trick – scary mad-man generally CAN talk so they can be the ones crying for help. So this might not be believable either. (you know where I’m going with this and it’s a trite example, but it works.) Okay let’s say the voice she hears is not one of the crazy mad man or any other stranger, but the voice of her own 10-year old daughter. This gives her plenty of motivation to swing open those doors and run out into the night in nothing more than a robe and her bra. A mother’s urge to protect her children is a strong and universal motivation.

Here’s another example, and one not dealing with horror movies or crazy mad-men. Let’s say your heroine needs a job – that’s her goal. But why does she need the job? That’s our motivation. Well, she needs this job because there are some pink shoes in a store window downtown that she simply must own. So is wanting the pink shoes enough motivation to sustain your story? Probably not, unless this is a very short story and they are some very special shoes.

Let’s beef up the motivation. How about she wants those shoes because her grandmother owned a pair just like them and her memories of her grandmother are the only ones she has of being loved and cared for. Now we have a reason to care. Now we can cheer for our heroine to get that job so she can buy those shoes. (This example shows us something clear about goals as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

The bottom line is motivation gives the reader a reason to care for the characters. It is one of the greatest tools we have as writers to make our imperfect characters that we love, loveable to other people. Developing strong motivation forces you to think, to dig deep into your characters, and in the end it can be the difference between someone finishing your book, or putting it back on the shelves.

Now onto goals. Every character needs them. And in romance they generally need both internal and external goals. But asking the question, “what does your character want?” can be like asking a six year old what they want to be when they grow up – a fireman, a veterinarian, a dancer, a teacher, etc. The options are limitless especially when you’re thinking of the large scope of your entire story. There will always be exceptions to the “rules” but let’s, for argument’s sake, say that both your hero and heroine need one main external goal each. Keep in mind that external goals need to be three things: concrete, specific and they must require action in order to be obtained. Subsequently internal goals tend to be more subconscious and less concrete since they are emotional in nature. However, they too require action to obtain them, but action of a different sort. But we’ll get to more detailed explanation of the internal elements later.

One thing I’ve seen over and over again in teaching classes or judging contests is having a character’s goal be to maintain the status quo – I won’t say that this is wrong because there will always be a successful book out there to prove me wrong, but this sort of random goal isn’t concrete and doesn’t require any action. In addition, won’t it be a futile goal when our heroine learns in chapter one that the status quo is gone? This is a popular goal for heroines in historicals where she is expected to marry yet she wants to remain the rebellious girl she’s always been. Riding her horses with her hair whipping in the wind and tending her garden or writing her novels or whatever it is she wants to maintain. But wanting the status quo or to remain independent doesn’t really work, neither are tactile and for our external goal we should strive for something more concrete.

What about that garden she loves? What if she’s been working on cross-breeding roses since she was a young girl and if she marries she’ll have to leave her precious garden and resign herself to a life of parties and needlepoint? This will never do. So our heroine doesn’t just want to remain unmarried as a means to maintain the status quo, more specifically, she wants to complete her cross-breeding of her roses. This is a concrete and worthy goal.

What about our heroine from the previous example who wanted to buy those pink shoes? More than likely this heroine doesn’t consciously think, “I want those shoes because Grandma had some just like them and she loved me and if I own them then I’ll feel that love again.” That would be awkward and clunky and let’s face it, if your heroine is that in touch with her emotional needs, then she probably has no internal conflict at all. So instead she thinks she wants those shoes simply because they remind her of her grandmother and she remembers always liking them. But as readers we know that while this is a tactile goal, what our heroine really wants is for someone to love her and give her security. That’s her internal goal and she’s going about satisfying it in the wrong way – thinking that by owning the shoes, it will “fix” everything, fill that hole inside. This is a common mistake for our characters and one that usually takes an entire book to figure out, which is good news for you, the writer.

The trick for creating strong and believable goals is to make them specific to your character and their situation. If you can plug any goal in, just so your character has a goal (cause that’s what you’ve heard is required) then you haven’t done your job.

If you’ve been in the writing business long, then you’ve probably heard things like “fiction is conflict” or “the strength of your conflict is the strength of your book” or some such statements and frankly I can’t argue with them as they’re completely true. Because when you’re writing popular fiction, without conflict you have no book. At least not one worth reading.

This is the easiest of the three elements to understand, but it seems to be the most difficult to get right. Conflict, in its simplest form, is opposition. That’s it. According to Webster it is “a clash between opposing elements or ideas”. Simple enough. But we really struggle with this and maybe it’s because most of us are women and we tend to be the peacemakers in our families – I’m not really certain why, but conflict can be a real struggle. But it doesn’t have to be. Conflict, in the GMC equation is why your character can’t have the goal they’re seeking. External conflicts can be acts of God, other characters, or the character gets in their own way. (Think of that thing your high school English teacher used to say about conflict, “there are three kinds of conflict: man vs. man; man vs. God; or man vs. himself.) This is the hero’s meddling mother, the evil other woman, the villain, the fire that destroys their house, whatever, just remember it is external. Use this test to figure out if which kind of conflict you’re dealing with…Imagine taking your characters out of the world they live in and plucking them down alone on a deserted island. If it’s just the two of them, all alone, then all the external conflict should disappear, provided they have no hurricanes and they have plenty of food and necessities to survive.

Now that we’re on the same page in terms of external GMC I should point out that oftentimes you have sort of two layers of external GMC. It’s what I call the Big GMC and the Story GMC – and here’s the way it breaks down. When I started working with GCM charts I found myself drawing a line to divide those little boxes because my characters often had a GMC that drove them before the story opened, like your heroine could want to be a world class ballerina or your hero could really want to make lead detective, that stuff still matters and has a place in your book. While I said that the only thing matters is who they are once the book opens, that’s true, but the reader should still feel like this character was living life before they turned to page 1. So you have the Big GMC and then Story GMC is the stuff that changes once the action of the plot begins. If you’re a believer in the Hero’s Journey then Story GMC starts after the call to adventure has been accepted. So we have our hero who wants to be lead detective and the story gmc starts when he gets suspicious about a new serial killer and maybe the rest of the force thinks he’s nuts b/c the MO is too different to be the same guy. But our hero knows something is going on so he does some investigating on his own, that’s the story GMC, and this GMC affects the Big GMC b/c if he’s right, he can score lead detective, but if he’s wrong, then he’ll probably lose his job all together. See how that works?

A deeper look: explaining internal GMC

Now that we’ve worked our fingers to the bone on external GMC it’s time to switch gears and look at the more difficult and frankly more important (at least for romance novels) side of GMC. The internal. On the surface they can seem quite similar, but differentiating between the two can be trickier than we think.

Internal GMC is made of the same elements as external GMC, but don’t be fooled, it is different. This is the stuff that’s subconscious, meaning your character, more than likely, isn’t aware of it. If you have your heroine so aware of the fact that she doesn’t trust men and that without doing so she’ll never have a complete life, then she really has no growth and she should probably be a secondary character, not to mention a therapist. So keep the internal stuff where it belongs, inside.

The most important thing to note about internal GMC is that it exists with or without the hero/heroine or the events of the book. Let me rephrase that for clarification. Your heroine’s internal GMC exists before she meets the hero and unless you’re writing a reunion story, doesn’t have anything to do with him. He might exacerbate the issue, but he certainly didn’t cause it.

I see this all the time in classes and when I’m judging contests. The heroine’s internal GMC, all of her internal conflict is solved simply by meeting the hero cause he’s a nice guy and he’ll love and accept her just as she is. Nope, you can’t do it. That’s cheating. It’s the easy way. Let’s use a trite example for this, let’s say you have a formally abused woman (we’ll make her verbally abused) and we’ll say she comes from a father who did the same thing. Well, if all she needs to break the cycle is to meet a man who won’t verbally abuse her, then that should be easy enough, but what does she learn? How does she change?

Learning a lesson and growing and changing is what it’s all about. That’s the whole point about internal GMC, it’s about the character arc (which we’ll get to in a moment) and growth and change are CRUCIAL to character-driven fiction. So with that abused woman, she must work out that issue before she can have her happy ending, even if the hero will never abuse her, she still needs to work on that issue and clear it up or at least begin to heal. Remember that test from yesterday on how to tell if your conflict is internal or external? This is where it really works well. Pick up that heroine out of your book and drop her on that deserted island, does she still have that distrust of men?

While the hero is not the cause of your heroine’s internal GMC he, more than likely, is the reason she’ll finally deal with it. In meeting him, she’s finally met someone that might be worth sacrificing some things for, might be worth changing for. It’s the hero and her interaction with him that challenges the heroine to deal with her “issues” and eventually grow and change to resolve her internal GMC. Again, the ONLY time this might not be the case is in reunion stories where the characters have a romantic past that might have led to said “issues.”

Let’s look at an example with the movie Twister. Now, I don’t know about y’all, but when I went to see this movie, I expected it to be about tornadoes. And it is, but it’s also a romance. Jo, our heroine, is a tough and witty scientist out to change the warning systems for tornadoes. Obviously her external GMC is wrapped up in the tornadoes themselves, but we also have conflict with the rival team led by Jonah and then we have conflict between her and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Bill.

Now we’re given a hint about her internal GMC (which is often unseen in movie format – why is that? I can hear you all answer. Because it’s INSIDE the character) from the beginning of the movie where we see a family run to the storm cellar only for the father to be ripped into the center of the twister. But it’s truly revealed to us in a scene where she and Bill have missed getting their tracking device up into the tornado. They start arguing and she blurts out that he doesn’t know what it’s like to have a tornado skip this house and that house and come after yours. She took her father’s death personally (obviously) and it has shaped her entire life and motivates all her external actions. Basically she’s afraid of losing the people she loves, exactly why she pushed Bill away to begin with. This conflict existed before Bill, it exists without him, yet it exacerbates her relationship with him. It’s not until Bill tells her to look at what’s right in front of her, meaning himself, that she’s willing to take the risks necessary to overcome this internal conflict. You see how that works?

So you do an internal GMC for your characters just the way that you do external, only I sometimes find it’s easier to work backwards and start with the conflict. There are a couple of ways you can identify your character’s conflict. You need to stop and look at your character, and ask yourself some key questions: What is she afraid of? What is her biggest fear? I’m not talking spiders or heights here, what you’re looking for is emotional fears. Chances are she might not even be aware of this fear. Remember, this is the internal stuff, her proverbial bag of junk she hauls around with her that makes her who she is and prevents her from achieving personal happiness. The hero is NOT the answer to her achieving personal happiness, she instead has to deal with her bag of junk, face her fear head on and grow and change. (sorry I keep harping on that point, but it’s an important one. :-) ) So maybe she’s afraid of ever being accepted for who she truly is, or maybe she is afraid of never belonging or finding a true home, or having the family she’s always wanted or always being abandoned. Whatever it is, jot that down.

Now take that fear and look back at the GMC you did for your heroine. And try to figure out if she’s scared she’ll never be accepted for who she truly is, then what might her internal goal be (I often call this the internal need rather than goal since goal sort of implies awareness on the character’s part), then identify the motivation and then the conflict.

Developing a satisfying romance is contingent on having a strong internal GMC for both your hero and your heroine.

Internal conflict is a jewel for better understanding your character’s arcs and the spine or theme of your book. Now most of the time words like “character arc” and “theme” strike fear into writers, but there really isn’t a reason for that fear. The bottom line is whether or not you intentionally put it there, there is a theme running through your book (see, your 10th grade English teacher was right!), knowing this theme, though, can really work to your benefit, especially with revisions. Just like GMC, character arcs and theme are all pieces to the same puzzle and when you have them all sitting before you, you are better able to create a cohesive and tightly written book.

A character’s arc is nothing more than character growth.

“Oh, right. Sure,” you may be thinking. “Character growth. That’ll be easy.”

And you’re right. It’s hard to make your characters grow. Let’s face it, no one likes to grow as a person. It’s hard work. We’re all very set in our ways. People (and characters) naturally resist change.

That means, for your character’s growth to be believable, it has to be gradual and they have to fight it a bit. But readers love to read about the struggle to grow as a person. They love seeing the character arc.

I know that for me when I was a newer writer I was trying to better understand character arcs and I must have tried every method out there – 15 step arcs, trying to apply the hero’s journey and nothing worked. I was convinced that the character arc was an unattainable thing I was just never gonna get. My characters were gonna just have to do it on their own because I wasn’t smart enough to guide them through it.

But then one day I was talking to my critique partner and things began to fall magically into place. I knew that my characters needed to start the book with one issue and by the end of the book they needed to have worked through that issue in order to achieve their HEA. Okay so move character from Point A to Point B. Got it.

Okay, I’m about to give you the key to character arcs, I really should charge for this because it’s evidently a big, bit secret. Okay we have a point A and a point B, for those of you who are good in math, that’s two steps. That’s right, I said TWO steps. Not as big of a deal as the term character arc makes you feel.

So what are these points?

Point A – Error in thinking – The error in thinking is something the character believes about themselves or their world that is both wrong and preventing them from resolving their internal GMC and thus happiness (love). Our characters can’t be really happy (or in a healthy relationship) until they give up their error in thinking.

Now, keep in mind, this error in thinking isn’t completely illogical. The character must have a good reason (motivation) for believing that their error in thinking is actually true. Something (or preferably many things) in their past have lead them to this firmly held belief.

Point B – The Lesson – This is what your character must learn before they can overcome the crisis in the big black moment. And, yep, the lesson is often related to the character’s error in thinking. It’s also worth noting that often in romances the hero and heroine’s lessons (and therefore their character arcs) are mirror images of each other. For example, if your heroine needs to learn that it’s okay to lighten up a bit and lose control every once in a while, then your hero’s lesson might be that he can still enjoy life even if he’s a bit more responsible. Or maybe she needs to learn to trust herself more and he needs to learn to trust others.

So you identify your heroine’s error in thinking – she believes that she has to change herself in order to be accepted by others. Then you use the correlation for her lesson – she needs to learn that she’s lovable just as she is. Point A to Point B. Character arc. See how easy that is?

All that stuff in the middle is your plot which repeated makes her deal with the error in thinking, confirming it, questioning it, requiring her to change so she can learn. That’s the job of your story, to push your characters and make them earn their HEA. On your handout I have some more information you can use to help guide key scenes to achieving the character arcs.

Initially we state the error in thinking early on in the book when the reader is getting to know the character. This isn’t usually one of those “Gentle Reader…” moments, typically you want to be a tad sly with how you slip this info in. But this isn’t like the internal conflict in the way that the character isn’t aware of it, they know the error in thinking they don’t know it’s an error, but they know it, they believe it with everything in their little imaginary bodies. So get it out there on the page early on so the reader knows ah-ha here we have a character with trust issues.

Then you move to an internal call to adventure which is often the same as the external call, afterall the external plot should be challenging their internal issues. Then we have refusal to change, external events make status quo impossible so this is when the fun stuff starts to happen, our characters, much like ourselves try to cheat. Think of it in terms of dieting, how many of us have tried every get thin quick plan out there? That’s cheating, it doesn’t work long term, it doesn’t fix anything inside that is probably what’s causing the weight issue anyways. Think about the Biggest Loser, any of you watch that? Every season we get to see one or more of those people’s errors in thinking brought to life and challenged and we see them try to cheat and cheat until finally they have to just recognize they’re gonna have to change to get what they want. Character arc!

So where does theme come in to all of this? When you’re dealing with romance, you really need to look at both your hero and your heroine’s character arcs in order to identify your theme. Let’s backtrack just a bit and define theme to make sure we’re all on the same page here. Theme is the basic emotional conflict of your book. Almost always it can be boiled down to one word. So you could say “this book is about TRUST,” or “this book is about REDEMPTION,” or even “this book is about RESPONSIBILITY.” If you find yourself trying to explain it, “this book is about a woman who…” then that’s not your theme, that’s a synopsis.

The other thing to keep in mind while dealing with theme is that you probably won’t, no matter how long you write, deal with more than a handful of different themes. Like I mentioned earlier about only using a handful of archetypes, all of this stems from your voice. Our own individual writer’s toolbox is unique to us and we’ll find that you can often put new things in the box, but sometimes there are just some permanent fixtures in there you’ll have to learn to work with.

So theme, you’ll revisit the same ones over and over again. No, it’s not about writing the same book over and over again, but theme is deeply connected to an author’s voice. Writing is intensely personal, so it stands to reason that our themes are going to be our own personal hot buttons. Take a look at books you’ve written or even books on your keeper shelf – they all have themes and chances are the themes are similar. Once you’re aware of these hot button themes, it makes defining the themes in your own books easier since you’ll tend to gravitate to the same things each time you go to write. I tend to gravitate towards themes of “self-acceptance” and “responsibility” and “trust”. So while I’m working on character development and GMC I begin to see the theme emerge because I know what to look for. Although as life continues, perhaps I’ll trade in some of those for some new ones. The point being, while there is an endless number of themes out there, most of us have a group of personal themes that we’ll use.

This might sound like a bad thing and I’m sure some of you are disagreeing with me (which is totally fine), but in actuality, having author’s themes is a good thing. It’s scary at first because it can make you feel as if you are limited or that you’re writing the same book over and over again, but this simply isn’t the case. Embrace your themes, being familiar with them can really help you when you sit down to work on your book because you’ll have a narrower list in which to look at to determine what the book is about.

Okay, so now we’re on the same page with our definition of theme, let’s see how we can identify it. Now when I’m doing character development, I tend to start with one character and do all the GMC and character arcs and whatnot on them before I begin the other. For me I nearly always start with the heroine because I’m such a heroine-driven writer. Once I have her figured out, I can start working on the hero and thinking about what kind of man will be both her knight in shining armor and her worst nightmare (only in that he makes her deal with that internal bag of junk she’s been hauling around).

So if I create a heroine who thrives on her own independence, then chances are she’ll be paired with a man who threatens this. He’ll probably have a few children, and his internal conflict might deal with him not understanding the need for independence. If he’s been a single dad for a while, then he’s the primary care giver and might not have time for anything on his own, so he probably thinks the heroine is selfish, and she might think he’s self-righteous. They both need to find balance. But are you seeing a common thread within their character arcs? Independence. He might not have any and she might crave too much, so they’re different, but at the end of the day, it’s the same emotional issue. See, cohesion, that’s the beauty of theme. It ties everything up with a nice, tidy bow.