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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Do You Like Me? Check Yes or No

Something that’s on my mind at the moment—as I struggle through the dead center of a book due in just six weeks (okay, I really did not need that self-inflicted pressure)—is how to make my protagonists believable and yet appealing. See, those are the two sides of the main character coin for most commercial fiction. When we talk about writing a “hero” and a “heroine,” particularly in a romance novel, I acknowledge that the reader comes to the story with certain expectations.

First, if I do my job well, the reader becomes (or at least deeply identifies with) the hero/heroine of the story. So if I want the reader to stick with me for the ride, that character had better be somebody admirable. Not perfect, but the kind of person you’d want to spend several hours getting to know. I ask myself some of the following questions:

• Does this character demonstrate a hunger to know God? He or she may not be a full-blown believer at the beginning of the story, but there should be some evidence of openness to God’s presence and love. For example, in my May Zondervan release, Fireworks, Susannah isn’t a Christian, but she is definitely curious about what makes Quinn different from other men she’s known.

• Does the character have a warm way of responding to others? This is the one that sneaks up on me sometimes. Because I write with a sometimes snarky sort of humor, characters in my first drafts often come across as hard or unsympathetic—particularly the heroine, for some reason. If I have to go back and soften her, usually it’s a matter of tweaking dialogue.

• Does this character respond to difficulties in a mature fashion? No pouting, whining, or excessive anger allowed. Internal and external dialogue is critical. Self-deprecation—humility—is an attractive quality. So is humor.

Second, if I want the reader to identify with my main characters, I’m careful to make them vulnerable—i.e. flawed. This is where it’s tricky, because flaws can go too far and step over into “unappealing” land. My husband and a couple of other trusted critique partners help me diagnose when I get into trouble. What makes a character vulnerable? Here are some thoughts:

• Sometimes a physical flaw leads to just enough vulnerability to temper the “too perfect” syndrome. One of my Tyndale novellas (in Sweet Delights) that has been a favorite with readers is “The Trouble with Tommy.” Tommy is colorblind, which leads him into some pretty goofy mistakes regarding the heroine’s catering business; but it also lends a sort of endearing sweetness to him, because he’s so apologetic about his flubs. He’s also disorganized, and compensates the best way he knows how—lending him some unique character traits. I think that’s what satisfies readers the most: feeling like they’re getting to know someone wholly unlike the rest of the world.

• Character flaws regarding honesty or personal integrity in the hero or heroine are problematic. Susannah of Fireworks is an undercover agent and doesn’t mind deceiving the hero through the first half of the book—but I don’t think this would have worked if she’d been a Christian.

• Shyness is an endearing vulnerability, because probably half the human population struggles with it, as does Fireworks’ hero, Quinn. Also, guilt and regret for past mistakes is something most people can identify with. I’ve had great response to Bernadette--the heroine of my April Steeple Hill/Love Inspired Suspense release, On Wings of Deliverance--because she has a hard time releasing her extreme regret for her past as a prostitute.

• One of my favorite themes is grace and forgiveness, so I love to torture my characters with difficult relationships. God is able to heal those, and I’m looking forward to response to Fair Game, which releases in October from Zondervan. There’s a scene where Jana, the heroine, has to face her mother-in-law, who reminds her of her tragic first marriage. First Jana has to recognize she’s got a problem, then she has to confront the woman herself—in love. And what she finds is a complete surprise. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the book.

Well…interestingly enough, I find myself ready to tackle my problematic heroine of the Work In Progress—a brainy, ambitious, socially competent woman who has a hard time being soft! Let me go through the above list and see what I can come up with…

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