The Romance Reviews

The Romance Reviews

A Spell in Provence

A Spell in Provence

Friday, 23 June 2017

Round Robin: The importance of researching characters...

Thank you so much for including me in your 'round robin' this month to talk about June's topic: How do you go about developing your characters for a story? How much time do you spend or does it just happen in the writing process? What inspires it?

I write romance, which is a character-driven genre. For me, the most important in a romance novel is the characters, the conflict and the chemistry between them. If readers care about your heroine and fall in love with your hero (or vice-versa!), then they'll want to turn the pages to find out what happens to them, and how they overcome challenges to find happiness together. If your characters aren't believable or endearing enough, then you run the risk of losing your reader, no matter how exciting your plot, that's why it is so important to spend some time thinking about the characters and developing their personality, their background, and motivations.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
What makes an endearing heroine? You may be tempted to turn her into the kind of woman who trips over every five minutes, keeps blurting out silly comments or believes every lie people tell her. Or into a weak, self-pitying one you want to shake when she gets taken advantage of again. Or again portray her as a harsh, uncaring, and ambitious woman who will trample all over others to get at what she wants. Characters, like people, are complex. It's all right for a heroine to be distracted or have a few silly moments, or to appear cold and unfeeling at times, as long as her she has good reasons to be like that.

Her moods, and the way she reacts to events are down to her background and the past experiences which shaped her personality, as is her ultimate goal, which will become apparent as the story unfolds.

What about the hero? In a romance novel, heroes have to be confident and successful, although that doesn't necessarily mean rich - I personally have had enough of billionaires! I mean, how many of them are there around? He too has a story, a secret buried deep in his past which made him what he is today. He doesn't have to handsome, but he needs to have a strong presence. He must be someone the heroine, and the reader of course, can fall in love with. You don't have to describe him in detail - the reader needs to form their own impression of him, by seeing how he moves, listening to his voice, and feeling his anger or his ambition.

I remember once attending a romance writing workshop and the tutor saying in a very dismissing way that no reader could possibly dream about a man dressed in a cardigan holding the heroine's hand whilst gazing at the stars. Really? Since then (that was a few years ago), cardigans have become quite fashionable for young hipster men, and what's wrong with holding hands whilst looking at a summer night sky?

Although I am by nature what is called a 'pantser', I always have a good idea about what happened in my characters' life to shape their personality and make them what they are, and that involves carrying out some basic research.

One of the books I regularly re-read is 'On Writing Romance' by the brilliant Leigh Michaels. She advises writers to compile lists about their hero and heroine. For example, what is their worst nightmare or what would their dream holiday be? What are their most important material possessions, why, or what would they save if they could only rescue one thing from a fire? (actually that reminds me of one of my favourite films - Leap Year). What would they like to change about themselves - and the world? What are their favourite foods and drinks? What do they like to wear, not to wear? What job do they have, or what is their ideal job? And the list goes on.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Often, the basic research into my characters starts with finding the perfect name. I look through lists of names from different geographical areas over different periods until I find the name that clicks. The surnames too have to be consistent with my characters' personality. I will confess here that one of my secret resources for finding surnames are maps, especially maps of Dorset and Somerset, where hamlets and villages often have unusual and often poetic names, perfect for my characters' surname. I love maps!

I realised recently that many of my villains had surnames starting with 'M' - Malleval, Mortemer, Morven, Melville (all name places, by the way!) - although I'm not sure what that means...I once received a critical review of my very first historical romance, Angel Heart, from a reader who complained that my protagonists' name were 'too French', 'too complicated' and too 'old-fashioned'! Well, the characters were French, and the story was set in the early nineteenth century. I couldn't call them Sharon, Mike or Bailey, could I? Yet I supposed the reader had a point. If you can't pronounce your hero or heroine's name, or if they sound too exotic, you might be put off...

Finding names is all very well, but what about the setting of the story, or your characters' living space? Unfortunately it's not always possible to visit the setting of the story, walk through an old cottage or a manor house, and get that 'first-hand' experience of the place.

Lovely fountain in Provence
My hometown Lyon, France
I can say that out of all the settings for my novels and short stories, the only ones I have personal experience of was Provence where I used to holiday as a child, and where I have returned since with my children, and Lyon where I am from originally.

I therefore find the internet invaluable. I love Google Earth, real estate websites, YouTube clips of towns or tourist sites, and television programmes I can watch at leisure on my laptop. I also listen to music from the area where my story is set to get in the mood. While writing my historical romance The Lion's Embrace I listened to Tuareg and Algerian music, and it was wonderful.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
And when writing my Dancing for the Devil Trilogy, which is set in Scotland, I had Scottish folk songs on all the time. In fact, that's how I found the titles of the three short books that form the trilogy: The Dream Catcher, Blue Bonnets and Sword Dance, which are titles of traditional Highland dances.  
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
The first purchases I make when I start a new novel are always a road map and a good travel guide of the area where the story is set. I love maps...did I mention that already?

To conclude, I can say that I find research essential, useful and incredibly enjoyable - too enjoyable at times. I often find anecdotes which send me to a totally different direction than the one I had planned originally. I am also aware of my limitations and the last thing I want is to get some important detail so wrong that I will lose all credibility with readers.

I hope you enjoyed reading my post. Please click on the links below to visit the blogs taking part in the Round Robin!


22 comments:

  1. We seem to be on the same page regarding the creation of our characters and fleshing them out. I'm sick to death of billionaires and I do so want to fall in love with my hero. I'm equally obsessed about finding the right name. Sometimes I even get impatient with myself because I keep going back to my various naming sources and dithering about the perfect name. Your suggestion of lists of favorites and fears etc is a great idea.

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    1. Thank you so much, Skywriter, for visiting and for your comment. Names are so important, it's no wonder we obsess about them!

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  2. Great post, Marie. I agree with you about the billionaires. And I loved your comment about the cardigan! I remember Kurt Cobain used to wear a cardigan, too, and he was one of the coolest rock stars ever. And what a great idea to look at maps in order to find names. Thanks for sharing all the ways you put your characters together. I enjoyed your post!

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    1. Thank you, Helena. I have this obsession about maps, you know! I can't help myself.

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  3. I really enjoyed this post. A sense of humour and knowledge of your craft shine through from every word.

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  4. Thank you very much for your kind comment, Marilyn. I am so glad you enjoyed the post.

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  5. Wonderful post, Marie. I enjoyed it very much. I took a romance writing course several years back simply for the character development aspect. My instructor was Lori Wilde. We weren't told what kind of hero to have or not have. (Many of my characters are based on people I know.)

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  6. Thank you very much for your comment, Susan. Your instructor was right. I think we have come a long way with heroes - not all of them have to be the dark, sombre, brooding type, and not all of them have to be 'alpha' males either.

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  7. Hi Marie and welcome to the Round robin. I really enjoyed your post. Names are difficult and of course getting one wrong can inhibit character development. I like geographical surnames as they easily put my characters in the relevant part of Scotland. anne stenhouse

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    1. Thank you very much, Anne. I can never really start writing my story until I have the names just right!

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  8. Enjoyed reading your post! I follow many of the same research paths but consider myself a plotter. (Well not really one or the other but a blend of both.) So I am surprised at how many pantsers also spend so much time on characters. Loved your book covers!

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  9. Thank you for your kind comment about the covers, Rhobin. Yes, I love them too! I think even when you are a 'pantser', you need to plan a few basic and essential elements in the story, and characters are definitely one of them.

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  10. When choosing the name for one of my current WIPs, I not only looked at their meanings, but also considered how easy they would be to pronounce. Many years ago, I was reading a sci-fi novel. The main characters name had so many consonants I had no idea what her name was. It made for some hard reading.

    The current WIP I've posted an excerpt from in my blog post is set in Tahiti and inspired by my Tahitian honeymoon. However, I still did a lot of research on Bora Bora in order to make it as realistic as possible.

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    1. That's very wise, Marci. The names in question were Uxeloup for the villain's character, which is an old French name and I found perfect (but obviously was not to everyone's taste), and my heroine's name Marie-Ange, which fitted the plot. How lucky to spend your honeymoon on Bora Bora. It must have been wonderful!

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  11. Marie, I am intrigued by your different approach to male and female protagonists. Your example heroines were all so faulty, while the heroes were impressive. Let me tell you, we boys have our problems too!
    :)
    Bob

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    1. Sorry, Bob. Yes, you are right. I should have insisted on men's problems too! Thank you for visiting and for your comment.

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  12. I have to applaud any romance novelist for their ability to write in that genre. While many of my books are considered fantasy romance or whatnot, I can't quite seem to settle in to do a straight romance novel. Maybe that's saying something about my character development, lol.

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    1. Thank you for visiting, AJ. I think characters are essential to any genre. If I don't care about what happens to the protagonists, or if they get on my nerves, then I'll stop reading.

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  13. I enjoyed your posts and how you develop your characters, particularly about finding the right names.
    Beverley

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    1. Thank you very much! Names are so important. I can't start a story until I have the right name for my main characters.

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  14. I'm with you on maps! I have to know how my characters get around from town to town. Getting an idea of a route and then researching what it would have been like in - say 1820 - is like a voyage of discovery. I do like the sound of The Lion's Embrace - I'll have to put it on my TBR list. Thanks for your post.

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    1. It's important, isn't it? I measure distances with a ruler, look at the terrain etc. For The Lion's Embrace I was very lucky to have a French travel guide - a Guide Bleu - from 1923 at hand, and it was invaluable. I hope you enjoy the novel! Thank you for your comment.

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