A good novel of any genre will almost certainly have a compelling plot. Of greater importance for a romance novel, however, is the development of a relationship between two people, very often from indifference or even hostility through liking and friendship and attraction to falling in love and, ultimately, to the fullness of total and unconditional love itself. For a love story to be truly satisfying, the ending should leave the reader sighing with contentment (and perhaps also with a little sadness that it is over), convinced that these two people share the sort of unbreakable love bond that will last a lifetime and even forever. It should give the satisfaction of happily-ever-after yet the conviction too that these two people are going to have to work on their love every day for the rest of their lives if they are to remain happy.
In order to come to this conviction, the reader has to be drawn into the world of the story and into the minds and hearts and very souls of the two lovers. Readers need to be emotionally engaged in the journey to love of these two, to the degree that in their imagination they almost become these lovers. It is the writer’s job to make all this happen.
The characters have to seem very real. Whether the hero is tall, dark, handsome and charismatic or something quite different, whether the heroine is charming and beautiful or something else entirely, they must seem like real people with whom the reader can relate and empathize. They cannot simply be cardboard characters with little depth beyond some life history and personality traits the writer has created for them. They must give the illusion of being living, breathing humans with strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and defeats and problems, as full of flaws and contradictions as real people. But no matter what, the reader has to want to root for them in their struggles and must fall in love with them in their vulnerabilities. The reader must passionately want the love story to work and to end happily.
In order to make characters real, the writer has to know them soul deep. It is possible to know a great deal about other people without really knowing them to their very core. Sometimes we do not even fully know ourselves. Do you ever find yourself saying or doing something that takes even you by surprise? Do you really know exactly how you would behave in some unexpected circumstance, a life-or-death emergency for example? When I am writing a story, I find over and over again that I have to stop, go back, find out just who this character is, and rewrite certain episodes because I have learned more about her or him and need to adjust the story accordingly. Certain things I wanted them to do can no longer happen because they are no longer the people I thought they were. And never tell me that as the writer I am in control of who my characters are. Not true!
This deeper knowledge of my characters comes to me, however, only as they speak and think and react to one another in the unfolding story. I find it impossible to know everything in advance. Crafting a whole story never comes easily to me because I am not satisfied until I feel I have the hero and heroine absolutely right. They are rarely willing to give up any of their secrets early or all of them at once. Sometimes, if all else fails and the story (and the romance) is stalling, I end up asking them, often aloud, where their deepest pain lies hidden. There is always something. Once I know that, then I can set about bringing the character healing so that he/she can reach the point of being able to give love and to accept it and settle to a lasting, meaningful love relationship. And this must happen for both main characters. They must both be involved in the revelations and the healing. They must somehow help bring each other to completeness and love and ultimate happiness.
Merely knowing the characters as they are at the start is not enough, then. There has to be growth in the author’s understanding of them, and there has to be growth in the characters if the reader is going to invest time and emotion in their story. This is not necessarily true of all genres of fiction. In some, very little emotional involvement with the main characters is necessary. But it is essential in a love story. If the hero, for example, is gorgeous and sexy and does nothing but macho things throughout the story—well, the reader might enjoy reading about him but there will be little emotional empathy with him. There can be very little conviction that he will be capable of a lifelong love commitment.
One way to delve deep into heroes and heroines and pull the reader in emotionally is through a careful use of point of view. Point of view is the eyes and mind through which a particular episode of the story is being told. It is possible to narrate the whole story in the first person, told by one of the lovers, though in that case the events can be experienced only through the mind and emotions of that one character (just as happens in our own lives). Or the whole story can be told by the author as narrator. She can tell the reader what happens and what her characters are thinking and feeling. I prefer to use what I call third person deep interior point of view. I alternate between the hero and heroine, telling one episode from his point of view and another from hers. The reader gets to experience the story through the minds and hearts and viewpoints of both main characters, but not at the same time. If you think about it, everything that happens in our lives has an emotional component. We are the ones who experience everything that happens to us and in the world around us, and everything that happens is colored by our own character and values and experiences and emotions. Especially our emotions. Very little happens to us that does not carry some emotion with it. The aim of the writer should be to duplicate this reality with fictional characters. They must come across as living, emotional beings as they experience the events of the plot. If their story is told from deep within them, then the reader will be there too, experiencing everything with them and feeling what they feel—living and loving with them.
Creating this emotional connection of writer, character, and reader is one of the greatest challenges in the writing of a love story. It is also, I believe, the key to its success—or failure. The author must be able to make the reader laugh with the characters and cry with them and feel the whole gamut of human emotions with them—and fall in love with them, as individuals and as a couple. The best and most memorable of love stories ought to be for everyone—not just the two fictional characters experiencing them, but also every reader living them vicariously with the lovers. It is the writer’s job to make sure this happens.
I would love to read your thoughts and opinions. To one person who leaves a comment below by Friday, February 19, I will send a signed copy of the two-in-one volume, THE TEMPORARY WIFE/A PROMISE OF SPRING.
[The winner is BRANDY HARTLEY. Congratulations to her! Thank you to everyone else who left a comment. As soon as I have Brandy’s postal address, I will put her signed book in the mail.]