Friday, 11 February 2011


Life has got a bit away with me this week, so I’m late with this post, but here’s a taste of what we did in this week’s Slush Pile to the Shelves: Writing Fiction that Sells session.

When you’re starting a new story, or revising a manuscript, ask yourself the following questions:

Do I understand exactly which market I’m targeting? Have I read the guidelines?
Does my story have hooks?
Do I have a clear idea about who my hero and heroine are?
Do they have conflicting goals?
What problem are they going to face?
Is that problem an emotional one that women around the world can relate to?

If you can answer all these questions to your own satisfaction, you’ve got a skeleton of a story that you can begin to flesh out, and the best way to do that is to think more about character.  The plot and the situation are the EXTERNAL issues that force the hero and heroine together, while character is about the INTERNAL issues that are going to drive them apart.

This means thinking less about their personality than about their MOTIVATION. You’ve decided on your hero and heroine’s conflicting goals.  Now you need to know why those goals are so important to them.  And they must be important.  The goal must drive them to act in the face of the problem you’re going to present your characters with.  If neither of them really cares about the goal, they can just walk away from the situation, and if they can do that, you’ve immediately lost any tension in your plot. 

Create a situation in which your hero and heroine HAVE to engage in order to achieve their goals.  Sherry Lewis put it very well in an article on motivation in Romance Writers Report a couple of years ago: “Give your characters something at stake, something they’ll go to great lengths to achieve, save or protect.  Then put that thing into jeopardy.”

We’re not talking complex psychoanalysis, but the reader needs to understand why the characters are the way they are, and why they behave the way they do. It’s not enough to say ‘oh, s/he’s just like that’!

So you need to have a clear idea about your hero and heroine’s backstory.  If your heroine’s goal is a home of her own, ask yourself WHY that is so important to her.  Alice in Barefoot Bride had hippy-dippy parents who dragged her around the world when she was a child, and as a result she yearns for the security of bricks and mortar. 

Campbell, the hero in Last-Minute Proposal, fears failure and is very competitive.  When I was thinking about that story I asked myself what would give someone that drive to succeed.  Yes, he fears failure, but WHY?  I decided that he had had a distant father who never praised his son.  Nothing Campbell did was ever good enough, and so he grew up constantly trying to do better in an attempt to get his father’s attention.  It’s not a particularly original scenario, but that doesn’t matter.  What’s important is that the reader understands why he is like that, and can therefore sympathise with his dilemma when acting on his feelings for Tilly would mean giving up the ultimate deal that would establish him as an unqualified success.

Michelle Douglas, another author who has written helpfully about characterisation     asks her characters questions:

What do you want?
Why do you want it?
What’s stopping you from getting it?
What will you learn?
How will you change?

I think this is a really useful checklist.  If you can answer all these questions, you will be well on the way to understanding what motivates your characters.  Keep asking WHY?, WHY? and WHY NOT? until you have built up a complete backstory for both hero and heroine.  Some writers like to use character questionnaires, like the example Kate Walker gives in her 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance. Another technique is to draw up a character cluster by putting the name in the middle and noting goals, motivations, strengths, weaknesses and so on around it. 

Personally, I like to use my friends to play around with ideas (this is the fun side of writing as far as I’m concerned) and get them to tell me why someone would behave in a certain way  After a brain-storming session (Tip: this works best over a bottle of wine) I sit down and write a stream of consciousness about a character, asking and answering my own Why/ Why not questions and filling in any gaps off the top of my head.  When I send my editor an outline, it consists almost entirely of backstory and the situation. 

Whatever technique suits you, make sure you give both characters clear goals and strong motivation.  This will provide the emotional tension that will drive your story.  Be careful about basing your conflict on a misunderstanding or the hero or heroine making assumptions about each other.  If they can sort out the problem by asking a question and getting an answer, it isn’t a strong enough difficulty to sustain the conflict and chances are your characters will just seem silly. 

Your heroine needs a very good reason for believing that a relationship with the hero could never work, and the best possible reason is if he’s told her outright, and he’s told her why.  If they understand that their goals are apparently incompatible, and why those goals are so important, then the reader will understand too.  Not knowing how these two characters, who are so obviously perfect for each other, are going to work out this big problem between them, will keep her turning the pages until the end.

Next time: creating engaging characters.


  1. Hello!
    This is all so helpful. Following on from Weds class I decided to spend some time really focussing on the backstory and spent an afternoon exploring who they are, why they are that way and looking at their previous relationship which will hopefully make the huge rewrite I have ahead of me go smoothly and has really sorted out the sticky conflict question. I have spent 2 weeks putting off the rewrite but am all fired up now and ready to get started so thanks!

  2. Thanks Jessica! Another great post :) I particularly liked the bit about having the hero tell the heroine outright about why the relationship could never work.

  3. I can't bear it when the heroine just assumes that the hero would never be interested in little her when he SO OBVIOUSLY IS!!!!! It makes her seem so stupid and wet.

    Glad you're fired up for your rewrite, Rose Red. Sometimes it's easier to think about these questions after you've written your first draft. It can be a bit daunting to work it all out on a blank screen, I know. In theory, it works, but in practice the story doesn't REALLY fall into place until the rewrite. Or that's my experience, anyway!

  4. Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for this writing lessons. They're so valuable!