Waiting for "The Call"

“Honey, it’s always crap. Every book I write is crap. It’s my job to fix the crap afterwards,” according to Nora Roberts. Well, I've got it half right. Still working on the "fixing it" part. "Trust your characters to be complex enough and to have enough emotional baggage. Force them to make hard choices." Advice from Michelle Styles that might help!

Characters- proactive or reactive? November 28, 2010

So, more thoughts on this editorial feedback that my characters need to be more proactive, less reactive, and that my plot relies too heavily on external forces.

I can see just what she means. The characters don’t appear to initiate any action, just react to what is happening. This makes them seem weak, and even worse, like puppets being pushed through the motions.

It’s interesting to me that I have this problem – and I surely do, I can see it not just in the rejected stories but in plenty of others! I thought this was something more of an issue for plot oriented writers, who start with a plot then make the characters fit it. But I always start with the characters, or at least one of them. I think the problem might be that I start with the characters all right, but I don’t have a strong enough sense of who they are initially until I have written a few chapters. By then I know them well enough to start over again with (hopefully!) a good grasp of their conflict and relationship issues. This all sounds good, and like it shouldn’t lead to cardboard cut out puppet characters.

In the meantime though, just to get started, I’ve come up with a clunky plot device to bring them together. Which wouldn’t be a problem if I ditched that when I ditched the first few chapters I wrote to get to know the characters, but I get attached to my set-ups and keep them in.

So for this story, I started with the image of Cady, my heroine, a single working mother having a very bad day that gets even worse when she is told her mother is seriously ill so she needs to go back to her small home town, where she’ll need to confront not just her estranged mother but Lock, the father of her son.  That was all I knew when I started writing. Ack, already writing that I can see how she is buffeted by the external issues. Yes, she decides how she will respond to them, but it’s all external, all  “stuff happening”. 

In a way though, thinking about it, that was part of my vision for Cady, that without her anchor of home and family she might be a business success and a good mum, but emotionally she’s adrift. That isn’t necessarily a problem, provided I establish her as a character and her motivations strongly enough that her mix of proactive in some arenas and reactive in others is understandable and sympathetic to the reader.

The main thing that makes a character proactive is a strong goal. I am clear what her goal is, to ensure the best life possible for her son, but obviously that’s not coming out enough. And it’s more of a passive type goal, in that she’s not really actively working towards that goal, though it is what motivates all her decisions.

I do think romances are moving towards stronger heroines generally, kicking back against the stereotype of the weak heroine in the thrall of the hero. Stories where the heroine’s action initiates the inciting incident are possibly more what the editors are looking for. My past stories have tended to the pattern of the hero erupting into the heroine’s life, not vice versa. Thinking of one of my CP Maisey Yates’ first two published stories, in both the heroine had a clearly defined goal and a plan to act on to reach her goal, that led her to seek out the hero. Seems like that (as well as her excellent writing and sizzling sexual tension!) may have helped her initial slushpile submission catch the editor’s eye.

Another problem is that the hero also is not proactive. By sticking with the plot device of her mother’s illness as the thing that brings them back together, neither of them has actively made a decision to make this happen. Lock has decided he’s ready to move on and is taking action towards that, but it’s periferal to what happens with the heroine. Then I add a coincidence on top of that- he finds out Cady has had his son because the boy has an accident and Cady is called about it, which conveniently happens just when he is in her office. So I have two characters will relatively passive goals which pretty much amount to just getting on with life, brought together again by external factors. Ick!

I decided yesterday to cut her mother’s illness, and cut the convenient coincidence of Josh’s accident. The initial plan was to retain both coincidences, but make Lock proactive. Lock sees Cady in a TV interview and decides to seek her out, as he’s ready to move on with his life. Still not good enough, coincidence 1 stays but coincidence 2 goes. Lock sees Cady in a TV interview about high flying career women who are single mothers, realises Josh is his son, and seeks her out, determined to get access to his child. Better. Probably even stronger if the coincidences could be dumped altogether and it starts with Lock seeking Cady out as he’s ready to move on, and in the process finding he has a son.

Now today I’m wondering if it’s even stronger if Cady is the instigator. Cady wants what’s best for her son, so she takes action and takes him home to Haven Bay. Or Cady wants to make amends, and seeks out Lock. It’s kind of less true to her character, as she’s protecting her shameful secret at all costs, and doing that seems a bit risky. She’d need a very powerful motivation to do that. Her son would need to be in trouble, or ill.

I just realised something. Interestingly, I added both those coincidences in the second draft. First draft had Cady finding out about her mother’s illness from someone else and deciding to go home with her son, then meeting Lock. I created the whole coincidence thing as a way to get them together, and still kept the original plot device of her mother’s illness. So now instead of the one I started with, I have three clunky plot devices.  Bang goes the theory about it being because of writing my way in. It was really because I was playing God with my characters!

*sigh* I’m getting the feeling I am doing it again. I’m trying to “make” then proactive.  Again, I’m manufacturing situations for them.

Will I ever get this right?

I need to start with my focus more on the emotional issues. What are their core conflicts? How would those issues drive the characters into action. That needs to be my starting point, not cooking up scenarios to bring them together.

Her goals are to create a good life for her son, and to keep her secret, two goals which are brought into opposition when she has to be around Lock again, for Josh’s sake. Lock’s goal is to move on with his life and forget Cady, which is complicated by him finding out he has a son he’s determined to be a good father to.

At least a third of my story, possibly more, is tied up in the elements I know now need to cut out. The bones of the story should remain the same, their core conflict, the black moment, and the resolution. I just have to find out who sets things in motion!

At least in my current story, the one I hope to sub for SoYou Think You Can Write, it’s the heroine who is actively making things happen, though her goal is a bit wishy-washy, she’s just doing her job, and that impacts on the hero.

I’ve made the same mistakes here, in terms of characters being passive responders to events rather than making things happen. 

Also, I don’t think I’ve nailed the conflict quite right yet- I’m concerned my heroine will seem TSTL for not wanting to stay with the hero, that she seems to have no real character arc until at the end the magic wand of lurve is waved and she changes completely. (And if any of my dirty-minded critique partners are reading this, no, not that magic wand, that one gets waved earlier!) OTOH, if I do it right I can show how she’s struggling with what she wants to do vs what she’s always done and feels she ought to do.

The other problem with this story is that the ending does rely on an external event that possibly puts the hero’s life in danger and makes the heroine rethink things. The answer to that is that the heroine has already changed her mind, decided to go back to him and tell him she will stay, then can’t do it because he is in this dangerous situation. She’s going to really suffer while she’s waiting to hear if he’s okay- because what if he dies thinking she didn’t love him enough to stay? But the external event can’t be what triggers her change, that’s got to be internally driven.

I’m a bit stumped what I should be writing now- do I work on fixing the rejected story, while I’m all fired up to do it, even though the plan I thought I had yesterday is shot to pieces; do I try to fix the story I want to sub to SYTYCW, which is riddled with problems; or do I start that new take on an old story idea that’s kinda Blaze-ish or Modern Heat-ish? The one where I figured out for myself last week that the problem with the original idea was that the heroine was being pushed around by circumstancesand just a victim, instead of her getting out there and being proactive.

Hoo boy. Now I need to be proactive and decide what to write!

Edited to add- or I can use this as an excuse for some internet surfing looking for more info on proactive characters. Here are a couple of links I found interesting- Camy Tang, and Janice Hardy. Also yet another book which I’ve ben thinking about buying and haven’t yet (in the past two weeks I already bought Save the Cat and Story, but they’re gonna be my Christmas present from the MiL, now I have to work out who’s going to buy me this one!)- Fiction Writing for Dummies.

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9 Responses to “Characters- proactive or reactive?”

  1. Janet Says:

    This is really interesting.. I’m off to look at some published romances to see how many start with the hero or heroine having very clear and strong goals. I can never decide if it’s better for the heroine to have a clear goal she’s actively pusuing when the story opens . (This is usually the case when the story starts in the ordinary world. Then the inciting incident happens and sidelines that goal . eg shrek’s goal is to be left alone and keep people out. )TBut this isn’t the story goal because then a big event happens that gives the character something bigger to concentrate on.

    Or whether to start and the point of trouble and have the goals grow out of the inciting event. Which could maybe rely on coincidence or external forces ? (no ordinary world for this type of story–story starts right away with the story goal)

  2. Lacey Devlin Says:

    I was late commenting on your last post but your hugs are there 😉 I’m thrilled you’re entering SYTYCW Challenge 5! I’ve got my fingers crossed for you and make sure you let us know when you hit that send button!!

  3. waitingforthecall Says:

    That’s an interesting point, Janet. I think in category romance, The Ordinary World is shown very very quickly, if at all, before the inciting incident. I don’t think ithas to be the heroine who instigates the inciting incident, but I do feel that perhaps the editors are looking for stronger heroines so for her to set things in motion as she pursues her goal is a great place to start! My heroines are almost always in their Ordinary World (shown in less than a page) when the hero appears chasing his goal, andeverything changes. I’m thinking starting with her wanting something from the hero ot the other way aroundwill make her stronger and more proactive. Read the first chapter of Maisey’s His Virgin Acquistion on eHarl and you’ll see what I mean!

  4. Janet Says:

    Hi Jane,
    Thanks for sending me to read Maisey’s chapter. She’s a great writer. I see what you mean about a strong heroine setting everything in motion. Much better than the coincidence that sets off my WIP. Maybe I’ll rethink 🙂

  5. Rula Sinara Says:

    Hey Jane. I just sent you hugs on the R over at Supers, but I’m sending more. Don’t feel bad. I think the problem with having H/H driven too much by external forces is pretty common. I had the same comment on my last partial’s R. I’ve been reading a lot of craft books. Loved ‘Story’ although it is a deep read. I just bought ‘Save the Cat’ but haven’t read it yet. I did just read ‘Kate Walker’s guide’ and ‘Manuscript Makeover’ by Elizabeth Lyons. Both are great, as is GMC by Deb Dixon.

    Still, I know it’s one thing to read a craft book, and another to know that you’ve pulled off what you’ve learned. It’s a lot harder said! I’m certainly no expert. I’m getting ready to submit a new manus. and still wonder if I’ll get the same comment or not.

  6. waitingforthecall Says:

    Fingers crossed it all works out with the new one, Rula! I know what you mean about craft books- they are great, but it’s all in the writing in the end.

  7. Minka's Tail Says:

    Your book sounds pretty good, actually. I think I have the same problem as you do when I’ve tried to write. They don’t seem to want a lot of plot, but a lot of perfect dates, perfect sex, and some “internal conflict” based on a bad past relationship with lover or parents. The suspense and vampire novels may differ.

    The amount of plot/conflict in these books is much lower than in romantic comedy movies, I’ve noticed, where there is often a love triangle, a big fight (Remember When Harry Met Sally? She slapped and cursed at him), or a lot of problems caused by other people (like Pride and Prejudice, where the sister ruined the family by having premarital sex.)

    It’s definitely a formula that’s hard to replicate exactly. Good Luck.

  8. waitingforthecall Says:

    Thanks, MInka’s Tail! I think my story is pretty good too, but the problem is, “pretty good” isn’t good enough to cut it! I know now I can make it better, more readble, and do better justice to these characters of mine.

    Good luck with your writing too!

  9. […] their goals, rather than depend on others to solve them. If you want an example, you can go here, where you can read through an author’s personal attempt to make her character more […]


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