Friday, October 28, 2016

Romance Authors Often Write About Love that Hurts our Characters by Roz Denny Fox


Perhaps romantic fiction sells so well because humans are, by design, interdependent. Our story people, like real life people, interact with family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and as part of community organizations to which they belong.

I recall reading somewhere that maintaining healthy relationships can be challenging. Those in close male-female affiliations sometimes feel more anxious than not. So as part of building a story plot it’s not unusual to have a female lead character leave a relationship where maybe she did too much to please her former boyfriend. Maybe she gave the most in their daily lives, some things she later realizes weren’t in her best interest. Often she has risked her emotional health in a co-dependent alliance.

As a rule romance writers use hurtful love as part of a hero or heroine’s background. Why is that? Because at the start of a book protagonists need to be free to set forth on new, more sound loving relationships.

What are some of the issues left behind, but that may still worry (mostly) our heroines?

Perhaps she took an exaggerated sense of responsibility for a former partner. At work, or at home it might even have hurt her financially.

She may even now have difficulty at first identifying her feelings, but trust is difficult.

Might she worry that a new man she meets, who gives the appearance of being wonderful, be hiding traits she has yet to see? Has she not quite shed deep feelings of having had to “walk on eggshells” or risk angering or offending the man who had once been in her life?

A new heroine may exhibit signs at first of low self-esteem and tendencies to think she’s not worthy of love?

A big albatross in many successful books is when the main character fears being walked out on, left first as perhaps happened when someone she/ or he loved deeply found someone they deemed better, more loveable, etc.

Might she have stayed in a physically harmful relationship out of not knowing, seeing there were avenues to leave and leave safely? This plot device works especially well for a heroine who is already a mother.

Of course those unhealthy bits in our character’s makeup don’t last long into a story. Because readers want to buoy their own spirits and feel uplifted. They want to see characters who don’t sap their energy.

These are just a few reasons why I love scanning the self-help shelves in bookstores or libraries. We don’t have to send our main characters to counseling, although we may. There is a slew of information in real-life books about healthy communication, setting personal boundaries, and other tools that help us help our storybook people to eventually reach their HEA.

What is your favorite method of setting up anxious backgrounds, internal strife, self-doubt or other difficult life patterns for your main characters? Do you employ incidents overheard while out doing everyday errands? Does your ever-widening circle of friends provide true-life tales if changed a bit, you use successfully? Do you research on the Internet? Or pull up times from another decade where you may have been catalyst to help a flailing friend?

I’m always interested in how fellow writers create their wonderful, believable characters. One thing I find so fascinating is how many times writers essentially start with the same basic concepts and yet turn out gripping stories.

 A Heartwarming Holiday boxed set of novellas---great Christmas gift on sale now

“A Montana Christmas Reunion” Harlequin Western 11/2016

41 comments:

  1. I hadn't looked at it this way. In my mind, like friends and family, characters are just who they are, but I know you're right--protagonists always rise up from a field of pain.

    You always make us think, Roz!

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    1. Liz, I've come to think that we romance writers truly understand the power love has in a person's life. And rarely is love smooth after the first blush has worn off.

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  2. Having majored in Psychology, I loved this Roz. One of my favorite courses was Abnormal Psychology. While studying the different theories, I could always relate them to someone I knew. Not sure if that's a good thing or not. :) I too love to browse the self-help books.

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    1. You posted your comment, Jill, while I was writing mine. I wonder what your reaction is to my comments (and hopefully my research was solid!). It's unfortunate I didn't know about your major when I was writing my MS; I would have loved to have chatted with you.

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    2. I have no doubt your research was solid, Kate. I would have had to clear the cobwebs before our chat...college seems so long ago! :) I look forward to reading Sanctuary Cove.

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    3. Jill, when I worked in the medical field I had a lot of friends who were psychologists, and sociologists. I loved to pick their brains and that was before I became a writer.

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  3. Thank you for the thought-provoking post, Roz!

    I think of my characters as a sum of their experiences; therefore, it's important for me to understand their backstory to be able to realistically write about their motivations and behaviours.

    The heroine in my March 2017 release, Sanctuary Cove, is a strong, intelligent, former business executive who didn't realize she had been the victim of psychological abuse in a past relationship. Psychological abuse can happen to the most independent, strong-willed individuals. It's insidious, and can begin so subtly and gradually that the victim is unaware of it. Doing research, I was astonished to find that roughly 39% of women will be subjected to some form of abuse during their lifetime. That statistic is staggering.

    Hopefully, life can imitate art in this case for affected women, as my heroine is able to move beyond it . . . with the love and support of the hero.

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    1. Kate, the statistics are staggering. I once volunteered at a Women's shelter, and hated to see the number of returning abuse victims, many who couldn't break the cycle. I hope more women walk away now than did back then in the 80's.

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    2. Hi, Roz,
      This was a most thought-provoking and insightful blog. As the author of a non-fiction book on abuse, which I wrote twenty years ago, it is still mind-boggling to me that the statistics have not diminished. A woman is beaten every 6 minutes in this country alone. At the time of my book tour for "The Evolving Woman", I visited dozens of women's shelters from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The stories I heard and printed have never left me. The purpose of my book was to write about women who had gone through the worst, escaped, survived and triumphed with their lives. Some became attorneys. Many became advocates or psychologists for the abused.
      Those "backstories" like Kate referred to, are the skeleton of each of our romances. Unless the heroine deals with the pains of the past and addresses them, she can't possibly move to a healthy relationship. Neither can a man, for that matter. Isn't that what we all want? To have a healthy, balanced, giving and free relationship with our partner?
      This is why I adore writing romance. With each book, I delve more into my psychology courses I took and I, too, roam those self-help aisles a lot. I am learning and I hope I bring wisdom to my stories.
      Thanks again, Roz and everyone who responded.

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  4. Wonderful information, Roz, from you as well as those who have given feedback.

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    1. Marion, I know your great stories draw from a lot of life you've observed throughout the interesting jobs you've had.

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  5. Hi Roz, Interesting article and yes, we do find some reason the heroine is free and it usually involves some issues she is dealing with. My latest heroine felt she was too committed to her parents in elder care to take time for a relationship.

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    1. Often women of the age of our heroines are in that "sandwich" generation---motivating between work and family. Sometimes it's hard to make time for love.

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    2. I once heard someone say of caregiving, "You don't owe anyone else your own life." But that balance between care of a loved one and self can be very hard to achieve.

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  6. Great post, Roz! I love how you always make you think. I enjoy psychoanalyzing my characters as well. I believe there's always a reason people behave the way they do. If I understand the experiences that shaped a character it's so much easier to write them.

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    1. Carol, it's those deep secrets from a character's past that make our books more believable I think. Psychoanalyzing them first is a great idea.

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  7. This is great information, Roz. For me, writing is like dieting - I'm always looking for something different.

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    1. Mel, that's important too. How many times do we hear at conference that editors are looking for new and different? It pays to keep an ear to the ground everywhere we go.

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  8. Very interesting topic, Roz. I don't get ideas from books as much as I do people. Sometimes a simple "let me tell you what happened to a friend of mine" will do the trick and inspire a plot. I think it's best not to use a close friend or family member, though one time I did use my step daughter as an inspiration.

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    1. Cynthia, I agree about not using friends and family, but sometimes I have friends who think they see another person we know in my stories. I go back and can't see it at all, because I work hard to use anonymous people and situations. I admit I got more ideas when I worked, because of people doing exactly what you say: "let me tell you..."

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  9. I love coming up with background stories to explains behavior I see or conversations I hear out n public. My husband thinks I'm weird because I make up wild tales about perfect strangers. They are a great source of inspiration. (shhh...I use my friends too, but don't tell them.)

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    1. LeAnne, I remember one time a group of writers were out to dinner with one of our editors. There was a couple across the restaurant having an intense conversation, and around our table we each said what we thought was going on in their lives. It was hilarious. And we never knew, of course, if any of us were right.

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  10. Great question, Roz! I do see it as organic, a story coming together from all the elements in the lives of the people. One important question I ask as I write is, "Why are they here, in this place, at this time?" The answer has to include a lot of emotional history, and all kinds of plot points emerge from it.

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    1. Liz, you pose a great "character question". I can see where that works not only when molding a character, but at the beginning of various scenes. Thanks.

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  11. Roz, what an intriguing post. I am a big fan of self-help books, too. Many of my characters have had their tender feelings crushed, and aren't sure they can trust anyone. You've nailed one part of why they've suffered! They sure do need to be available for a new love. I also think that is what many people experience in life. They've risked their heart and been disappointed or worse, so a story person who triumphs is a sweet vicarious vindication.

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    1. Laura, Your insight is right on. We all have tender feelings, really, and are easily hurt. A big question is how long the hurt lasts. Longer for some than for others.

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  12. Roz, you always come up with such cool topics! Before reading your post I would've said "oh, I don't like stories where the characters made bad choices because that's so convenient," then started thinking about my own and realized that almost all of 'em DID that. Oops...guess it works after all. :)

    And then your explanation of why it does, why love is such a driving motivation makes perfect sense. Thanks for another wonderfully thought-provoking morning!

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    1. Laurie, Thanks for dropping by and giving your opinion. Interesting that you thought at first that such a background wouldn't appeal.

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  13. Thanks for this post, Roz. You always have such insightful things to say. Characters who learn from their bad choices are so much more interesting to me than those who never seem to learn, grow, and change their behavior. They're like sitcom characters who make the same mistakes over and over. They're funny, but stunted.

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    1. Patti, that's so spot on. I'm going to pay more attention to how long it takes a character to begin to emerge from their internal trauma.

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  14. Hi, Roz! Thought-provoking post. Women's magazines have a lot of articles about what women are dealing with at this point in time. That's sometimes a good starting point for me. My problem is that love is so strong, that something equally strong (or awful) ha to keep the hero and heroine from getting together. Since I like to use humor a lot, there's a limit to awful things can get. This was all so much simpler when my brain was more agile. But fun stuff to think about. Congratulations on the Christmas stories and the November book!

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    1. Muriel, what a good point about delving into women's magazines for up-to-date issues. Finding someone to fall in love with is so different for today's young women than for when I was young. Back then you really had to be introduced. But of course it was easier for people to hide various types of abuse.

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  15. Hi Roz: How about the person who is "chronically" abused and thinks there is no way out? Like the bird flying into its reflection, she keeps going back, banging her head in the window thinking that next time will be different. Poor choice and mistrust can lead to anything but a HEA ending. OR a person who is so trapped in grief that he/she won't seek help. That means that the spouse may be limited in choices because of the relationship. It's never a simple answer.

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    1. Sam, I think a chronically abused person who isn't able to get out of a relationship wouldn't be a candidate for our HEA books. But unfortunately there are probably too many in those situations.

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  16. In my latest book my hero and heroine are both afraid of repeating a bad experience with love.

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    1. Merrillee, Wow, you were brave to take on moving both H & H forward in what had been broken relationships. But yay for you that you did it.

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  17. This is very interesting. I enjoyed this post and the comments. Sometimes I wonder how writing material is inspired.

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    1. Laurie, Thanks for popping by. I honestly think there are as many different ways to be inspired with ideas as there are writers snagging them and writing about them. I used to say there was an idea bank in the sky and they floated by and we'd reach up and grab one. I've noticed lately its harder.

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  18. Romance writers show their protaginists moving from pain to happiness, which I think gives hope. I wrote a short story in which a woman's husband left her for another women, he comes back and asks for forgiveness, and she decides she's better off without him. A reviewer mentioned it helped with her own decision in a similar situations. Whoa! We have to realize that although we're writing fiction, we're influencing people's lives.

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    1. Beth - you're so right! (Sorry, Roz. Didn't meant to get in above you, but had to chime in on Beth's remark. I once had a hero's former wife and child hit by a car and killed while playing on their front lawn. A reader wrote to me and said the same thing had happened to her husband and child. Then she asked me, "How do I go on?" Fortunately, my sister was a nun and a counselor, so I asked her to call her. Like Beth, I wasn't quite prepared for that. But we do touch lives with every book.

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  19. Beth, you are so correct about our influence even though our work is clearly labeled "fiction". I'm sort of glad to see we've stopped killing off all of the parents, however. Now we're retiring more of them I've noticed.

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