While on a vacation in Florida in December, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to promote my latest novel, Ring of Lies and give a presentation to the members of the Suncoast Writers’ Guild, chaired by Edwin Ellis, the director of the Guild.
After my presentation was over I signed copies of my novels and spent time chatting to the members. As everyone was very complimentary on the content of my presentation, I’ve decided to put my notes for the event here, so that any members who couldn’t attend can have access. I hope you find it useful.
Why all books need strong protagonists.
We’ve all read books and been disappointed when the characters fail to meet the demands of the plot. My job as a novelist is to get you totally absorbed in the story from page one to such an extent that you feel as if you are standing in the corner of the room witnessing the action.
So how do we, as writers, achieve that?
The magic key is character development – the one element that can define a book as a success or a failure.
Every work of fiction needs a hero – he may be a detective in a crime novel, an astronaut battling the alien in a science fiction book, the war hero in an historical, or in the case of romantic suspense, he’s the guy the heroine finally falls in love with.
Regardless of the genre, they all have something in common. They have to be someone you, the reader, can identify with. Someone you will care about. Moreover, it’s not just the main protagonists who need to be interesting, the villains should be compelling too. Otherwise, I’m pitting tough, intelligent protagonists against stupid villains which lead to a dull, contrived plot.
The romantic hero or protagonist differs from other heroes in fiction in that he must evolve from being self centered with a closed heart to loving fully, in other words, he must learn to commit.
At one time, he was required to be single, sexy, sweet (although that might not be evident at first), smart, and of course, solvent. But tastes have changed over the years. We no longer want the classical tall, dark and handsome hero of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. Although, that said, my heroes do fit the stereotype to a certain degree, only because I’m short and never had much luck with blond haired men.
Bonnie Tyler’s song ‘I need a hero’ sums up the modern romantic hero perfectly. He’s strong, intelligent and somewhat larger than life. Not only is he a good ‘people reader’ and able to see through everyone’s lies, he also has to be human, make mistakes and learn from them as we all do. He’s the guy we want on our side. The one who’s a little bit dangerous, the one our mother warned us about when we first started dating.
His strengths are the qualities that make the heroine and the reader fall in love with him.
But how do I create this desirable male?
Like many novelists, I write a short biography for each of my characters, other authors prefer to use a chart, such as the one to be found on this website : http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html I include physical attributes, such as height, weight, hair and eye colour, whether they have any tattoos or scars. I also include such things as whether they had a college education, can drive and own a car, what their employment is. Some novelists I know write two or three pages on each character, but I would suggest you add as much or as little detail as you are comfortable with.
But you need to know more than your character’s background. You have to place them in conflict with each other and give them goals.
So what do I mean by goals?
The external goal is usually something simple and obvious – catch the killer or thief, solve the mystery and find the priceless antique. The villain’s goal, on the other hand, might be to exact revenge on the police officer who put him in jail or destroy the small town that shunned him. It is the external goal that drives the plot forward, and obviously, the protagonist’s goal is going to directly conflict with the antagonist’s external goal.
For example, in my latest novel, Ring of Lies, Grace Elliott’s goal is to discover her dead husband’s true identity and find out where the money to purchase the beach house on Gasparilla Island came from.
The internal goal is usually an emotional goal, hidden in the hero or heroines psyche, something which reveals an area of vulnerability. For example, a female police officer’s goal might be to catch the criminal, but her internal goal is to win the approval of her colleagues and family.
For example, in Three Weeks Last Spring, Walker’s external goal is to catch whoever is poisoning the fish in Puget Sound. His internal goal is to overcome his fear of commitment because every woman he’s ever dated has walked out on him when she learns how often he is working away from home.
Whatever the internal goal, the hero and heroine have to change and evolve during the course of the novel and become better persons through their relationship with each other.
The key is to create characters that are strong in their ideals and values, but who are prepared to listen, and if necessary change during the course of 100,000 words. After all, you don’t want to be three chapters into writing your novel only to realize you hate your characters. If you don’t like them, neither will your readers.
But internal and external goals and inner conflict isn’t the only trait characters need. To create tension and excitement, something must impede both the protagonist and antagonist achieving their goals. Without it, there is nothing to make the reader keep turning the page. Every major character must have something to lose as the book reaches the final climax.
It’s the combination of all these factors – believable characters and a realistic plot which makes a novel an enjoyable read. If I can achieve that, then I know I’ve done my job well.