Thursday, October 21, 2010


I was recently reading a scene from my work-in-progress for my critique partner—a love scene, as it happens. I looked up to see a familiar frown on her face.

My CP hates my love scenes. She thinks they’re too graphic. This is a point we grapple with every time I produce a manuscript, but we agree to disagree. I prepared to do battle on the point once again.

“No, that’s not it,” she said. And, really, that could hardly be the problem, since my characters had barely touched yet. “I’m not buying this scene because of the way you’ve set it up. This is not who these people are.”

The minute she said it, I knew exactly what she meant. And she was absolutely correct. The problem wasn’t the timing of the scene within the context of the story or the level of heat I planned to bring to the scene once it got started. The problem was that the two characters I had created could come together in only one authentic way, and I hadn’t found it with the scene. They had suddenly become two actors on a stage. It rang false.

Trust my long-time CP to pick up on this in a heartbeat. Linda doesn’t read science fiction at all. When she reads romance (which is rarely), she reads historicals. She’s down-to-earth and practical where I’ve usually got my head in the clouds. But we share a wicked sense of humor, a liberal view of politics and a fierce loyalty, and we’ve been unlikely friends for twenty-plus years. She’s been listening to me read since I was writing Star Trek fan fiction. One thing she knows is when the characters aren’t right.

In the old days it was easy. That’s why fanfic is such a great training ground for fledgling writers. I knew Jim Kirk, Leonard McCoy and Spock better than I knew my own family—every gesture, every nuance, every inflection was there on the screen for me to read and remember. I could see and hear them as I wrote, so it was easy for the dialogue to seem natural, for their actions to fit their personalities.

But it’s one thing to maintain a consistent personality for your character when you can refer to a huge backlog of movies and television shows. It’s quite another when that character is a newborn creation of your own fertile imagination. Every move your character makes, every line of dialogue she speaks, is at your direction. The only way to make that work is to,first,be certain that you know your character thoroughly, inside and out, and second, insist that she be herself at all times.

When it comes to plot, the prevailing theory is that writers separate into one of two camps: pantsers (who just write it as it comes) and plotters (who write according to a plan). In reality, of course, the bizarre means by which writers arrive at a manuscript can fall anywhere along a continuum between extreme pantsers (whose fingers fly across the keyboard in abandon, plot points be damned) and extreme plotters (who cover their office walls in color-coded charts tracking the movements of each character over time). It’s the same with the requirements of character building. Pantsers, I assume, would prefer to get to know their characters as they go along. Plotters have printed out a birth certificate and college diploma for their characters on their computers before they start writing.

I fall somewhere in between. Because I write character-driven SFR, the kernel of a new story nearly always begins with the characters. I sketch out profiles for the hero and the heroine—what they look like, where they come from, their childhoods, their connections, their quirks, their vulnerabilities. What do they drink? What kind of music do they listen to? What do they drive? What do they wear? Where do they live? Have they had a lot of lovers? Been betrayed? Been abused, tortured, injured, poor? Do they like animals, have pets? Do they sleep poorly or like a rock? Why?

Stupid questions, maybe, but the answer to each one gives you a different dimension to the character and lets you add something to your portrait of that person. Not that you should share all of the answers with your readers, mind you. As the character’s creator, you need to draw from a deep well of details when your hero slips a CD into his car’s player, but, trust me, your reader does not want three pages of reminiscing about how he was in a grunge band in high school because the first time he heard “Teen Spirit” he was blown away. (In fact, I doubt many readers are going to stick with you after the hero puts a CD in and starts listening to “Teen Spirit”. But that’s just me.)

Once you’ve started writing, your character will take on a life of her own and begin informing you of all manner of details, some of which will be of critical importance to the story. Connections will form with other characters which the most dedicated plotter could not have foreseen. That intuitive networking is one of the miracles of the writing art; I don’t think I could operate without it. Just don’t ask me to explain it.

Ensuring that your character acts according to the personality you’ve created demands paying close attention. It’s a little like watching a friend who’s had a bit too much to drink at a party. Too loud. Too shrill. Too happy. Too sad. Too sexy, not sexy enough. Talking to the wrong people. Talking to no one. Somehow she’s just off her game. Time to go home. It helps to have a critique partner who has an eye for character. And occasionally read over your manuscript just for this point.

Meanwhile, back at my WIP, I have a half-alien tracker hero who has been through brutal training to hone his psy skills as a child. My heroine is an FBI agent whose mother was murdered when the agent was nine. Yet the scene I’d concocted had her feeling defeated and vulnerable over a snag in their kidnapping case and him offering comfort as a “prelude to a kiss”. Uh, no. (Seems so obvious when I put it like that, doesn’t it?) If I allow the characters to act like themselves, I can see these two will show vulnerability as anger (that’s the lead-up) and coming together will happen as part challenge, part need. And the depth of their attraction is going to surprise them.

As long as it doesn’t surprise me.

Cheers, Donna


  1. I always bow in admiration to someone who can plan their characters out. I'm definitely of the seat of the pants type. They evolve as I write - though it does mean backtracking to fix stuff later. But like you, my characters are all important. If I can't believe in them, then I can't expect the reader to, either.
    I found out this week that someone had plagiarized one of my sex scenes in Anna in the Middle for a fanfiction site - Sookie Stackhouse Trueblood thing - so my sex details, but she just changed the names. I suppose in a sexual triangle maybe the characteristics of the players are less obvious! But at least I'd set up the encounter with them in mind.

  2. Oh, Barbara, that's terrible! (I was going to say that sucks, but stopped myself just in time!) I mean, really, wasn't this person capable of having his/her own sexual fantasy without stealing yours? Word for word, yet?

    But you raise an interesting point. Those who avoid sex in their reading or writing might assume that all sex scenes read alike, when in reality they should be as unique as the people carrying them out. And pure erotica aside, each time the main characters come together, it shoud serve to advance the story emotionally. So every first kiss, every first night together will necessarily be different depending on your characters. Some characters will demand a lot of sex; some will demand none.

    That's why I tend to scowl when I hear writers say "I don't put any sex in my stories." If your character has other, overiding concerns and no time for sex (it's the end of the world! things are exploding every second!), then fine. But if you paint a picture of a lusty, sensual space pirate with a broken heart in every port and give him no way to express that part of his character with the fiesty Fleet commander he must win over to save the day, then I have a major problem. Sex fits his character, and the story. As a reader I'm going to be sorely disappointed if you don't give me plenty of it.

    But, then, Barbara, I wouldn't have that problem, if you were writing the story. ;-)

  3. I love these a'ha! moments. And this is why sometimes the best crit partners are not always the ones whose reading and writing interests align with our own 100%.

    I love finding crit partners who have strengths where I do not. Characterization is one area where I still struggle.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  4. Great post, Donna. I'm guessing this is book two in the Rescue series?

    I'm struggling with a developing secondary romance right now. The conflict between the characters demands the sexual tension be resolved as a result of an emotional bomb--a bomb large enough to push one over boundary lines previously drawn.

    What I'm finding difficult to write is the partner's reaction to the unexpected one-eighty in their love interest's actions.

    Yup, this is a job for my critique partners. If I didn't nail the scene, I know I'm going to hear about it.

    CPs are absolutely vital to the creative process. You simply can't write in a vacuum.

  5. I agree, Angela. It constantly amazes, me, though, that Linda has the patience and interest to slog through my early drafts with me!

    Yep, Laurie, that's TROUBLE IN MIND I'm talking about. You woulda thought I was a little further along with that, huh? Me, too! Surprising what you miss that your CPs will pick up.


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