27 February 2011

Femme Fatale - believable characters and emotional baggage

I have been thinking how to organise my series on developing believable characters and have come up with an idea as old as the world

And as I am a women's fiction and romance writer I am going to start with characters who are likely to populate these genres, or with a romance/female twist. However, if you don't write in any of these genres, don't worry. The truth is that these characters populate not only fiction, but also films, theater plays and most of all - myths and real life.

Let's start with Femme Fatale.

photo by jscreationzs

Femme Fatal - Aphrodite
a.k.a The Seductive Muse (45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt), Black Widow, Siren, etc.

Key characteristics:beautiful, sexy, creative, lively, fun-loving and fully aware of her attractiveness. She has great taste for clothes, food, wine and expensive jewellery - in general a lust for life. She lives intensely, if not dramatically. If emotions are not intense they don't matter; if emotions are not intense enough - she would make them look, feel, hear, smell and touch like a nuclear exposure, but only if she has enough audience. She is the master of emotions - own and of others, always tuned in to what other may need.
She needs constant admiration and has to be the centre of attention. She seduces powerful men with her looks, sex, creativity and manipulation. And then, she dumps them because she can't give up the thrill of the chase. It's the chase that counts.

Relationships: she cares about men and not so much about women; rarely has female friends mainly because of jealousy and FF inability to relate in ways other than through sensuality and sex. She has had several lovers, sometimes more than one at a time, tends to be 'the other woman'. Her relationships are short and intense, she prefers older, 'father-figure men, with money and power. She is usually the one who ends the relationship first.

Typical backstory:
These types usually have unusually close relationships with their fathers, often coloured with over or covert seduction (including child abuse) and expectations that Daddy's Little Girl needs to be an attractive woman. Their father are often womanisers, or those who perceive woman's attractiveness though their external beauty only. More often than not these girls need to fight for their parents attention and they quickly learn that the more dramatic they become, the better the outcome.

FF's childhood is often full of changes and instability - their families move from one place to another (e.g. military families), their mothers have new lovers every month, their fathers sometimes bring home a lot of money and sometimes only debts.

Typical jobs: actress, singer, dancer, fashion and beauty, sales persons; anything where beauty and charm is necessary, but nothing requiring focus, attention to detail and structured, long-term commitment (a typical FF would not become a scientist or a CEO).

Motivation: FF usually strives for love, approval and social acceptance

Biggest fears: losing her attractiveness (ageing) and creativity; also: being in one, lasting relationship.

Potential for growth: often she would want to be recognised for her brain not only for her looks and needs to learn how to let people see beyond that (melo)dramatic facade; good at sensing emotions and needs of others FF can develop deeper empathy

Trap! Don't assume that love can heal her, even if she finally finds that Mr Right FF will struggle to settle. She needs to mature first - learn to rely on herself, not on men; become independent and most of all - give herself that approval and acceptance she longs for.

Examples from literature and film: Sally Bowles from Cabaret, Vivian in Pretty Women, Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary

You can read a little more on Femme Fatale in media here.

I can't remember reading about any FF main characters in romantic fiction recently. Does FF still have place in romance as Heroine? What do you think? Have you ever made a FF your main character?

24 February 2011

Moving on

photo by Darren Robertson
I've been busy.

I've got over the rejection at Harlequin SYTYCW contest and now my My NaNo manuscript, rewritten and hopefully improved (it did take my a couple of hours to get to grips with ARC format) has been sent to The Clendon Award (the closing date has just been extended becuase of the earthquake).

I've sent an application to RWA (Romance Writers of America) and will follow up with an application to become a PRO (the rejection email from HQ will come handy)

I've just got a boud copy of my nonfiction book for the last fine proofreading.
A proposal for another book sent off. Two more are waiting for more time te be brainstormed. One is brewing.

I'm getting on with my new blog and building the platform for my nonfiction writing (you may notice a different pen name - that is deliberate, as previously considered). Drop in and say what you think of it, if you have a minute.

I'm thinking about my next post on characters, conflict and emotional bagage. I'm pleased to see you like it. Anyone has any special orders regarding the next post?

And what have you been doing?

18 February 2011

How to build believeble characters- part 1. Emotional baggage

photo by africa

This is my second post on building characters, whose past, persent and future fit together and make sense.

Emotional baggage, when handled well, can be a great source of internal and external conflict. It's what has formed your characters' motivations and will provide fertile ground for them to grow.
However, it is important not to overdo it, as you may end up with someone who has more than your novel can handle.

If you want to use emotional baggage as a tool to build your character you need to remember these simple, general rules:

1. Age
Personality needs time to mature. It's different for different people, but as a rule of thumb people are rarely mature by the age of 20, most people would achieve maturity in their mid- late twenties. Does it mean you can't have an 18 y.o. mature, responsible young man? Well, you can, but make sure you give him enough life experience to back up your claims.

What are the characteristics of mature personality?
Mature people have sense of self, ability to evaluate themselve without bias and are realistic in judging other people and situations. They are emotionally secure, are capable of forming loving, reciprocal relationships and have a philosophy, which gives their life a purpose and allow to decide about their long term goals and behaviour. More on earmarks of  mature personality here. And here you can check how mature is your character.

2. Family
There is a good reason why probably all languages have their own versions of 'Like father, like son'. We learn how to live, interact with other people, think about the world, react to it, etc  from our parents, and other close family memebrs. Even if you do everything to not to be like your father, it's your father's personality that is shaping you.
If you want to have a heroine who has problems in relationships with men, you have to think why she has a problem with men. The most likely reason would be not good relationship with her father.
If you give someone a family where no one is normal and make your character completely normal, you have to give this guy a chance to learn how it is to be normal. Send him to a boarding school or foster family perhaps?
It's the same the other way round - I haven't yet seen a person with serious emotional problems and a normal family.

3. Previous relationships.
In romance it is important that the relationship between your heroine and hero is unique and special, like never before. While they may have (and in typical modern adult romance they even should have) been in previous longterm relationships, this one is unique. If you decide to give them previous relationships, you need to think about the reasons why they have failed.
The trouble is, when you come to a certain age, a string of unsuccesful relationships becomes a pattern and hence a traits of character. A typical example is a woman who gets trapped in a series of abusive relationships (tip: look at her relationship with her father!), or a man who always ends up 'under the thumb' (tip: look at the relationship between his parents)
Generally speaking, if someone hasn't been able to form succesful, longterm (over a year) relationships by the age of 30, there is a good deal of chance that this person have a deep rooted problems with forming loving relationships.
If your character's longterm relationship ended, you have to think about a reason why. In relationships things don't happen without a reason, and 'it takes two to tango'. If one of the partners had an affair, it means something in this relationship was missing, so they needed to look outside.

4. Childhood trauma
If you decide to give your character an experience of childhood abuse, be very, very careful. Not only it's a sensitive issue you need to address within what your genre allows you, but also you may create potential pitfalls for your character development and your ending.
It's probably easier if you write literary fiction or women's fiction, but if you're writing in romance genre, bevery careful. Childhood abuse particularly repeated, whether physical, emotional or sexual, leave effects impossible to erase. 80% of young adults who were abused as children meet the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder.
Love heals - that's right, but an adult survivor of childhood abuse who has never been able to form a loving, trusting and nurturing relationship will not be able to from one without long term therapy (or a therapeutic relationship, not necessarily in professional sense).
Here you can read more about lasting impressions of childhood trauma and causes and effects of child abuse.

5. Outlook on life
Your character's outlook on life hasn't been born in vacuum either. Whether you believe that your outlook has been shaped by your experience, or that your outlook shapes your experience, you need to make sure these elements are consistent and logical.
Of course, there is the evergreen debate nature versus nurture, but even if you don't want to go that deep, make sure that the way your character perceives life, people and themselve is consistent with their past experience.

These are general rules, as as usual there may be exceptions to them. Remember the more emotional baggage you give your character, the more difficult her/his change will be. When writing romance, make sure that your charatcer has time and opportunity to grow first before jumping into relationship. If there is no change within the person, new relationship itself is not likely to bring about the change. The change has to come from within.

Have you encounter any of these problems while creating your characters? Is there anything else important I haven't talked about? Do you have any more questions?
Please, ask. if not under the post, feel free to email me and I will do my best to answer your question.

15 February 2011

Developing believable characters - my 2p worth

photo by Idea goat http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

I have been struggling to find a voice for this blog since the beginning. There are so many writers' blogs out there. There are so many excellent writers and published authors sharing their knowledge of the craft and their tips on the industry. Who am I to compete with them?

I like Suzie Quint's idea of presenting careers for characters. I think it's quite original. I wanted to do someting like that.

Jody Hedlund's article 'How to avoid becoming another boring writers' blog' got me thinking a little more.
Is there anything unique I can offer to fellow writers? Do I have an interesting story to tell?

And then came Scott Egan's comments on characters he doesn't like. Scott is right, in an attempt to create powerful internal conflict, sometimes writes come up with characters who have just too much emotional baggage to be believable.

Characters have to be real. They have to have life experience which has shaped them into the person they are now. People don't become bad without good reasons. People generally don't get over a trauma in a blink of an eye, but their worlds don't fall apart without good reasons in the past and present.

And then I had a light bulb moment.
My day job involves a lot of listening to people's stories and trying to make sense of what I've heard. I have heard so many stories I can usually tell a real story from a made-up one. I am pretty good at guessing how certain people would react to certain events and attitudes based on their history. I can even, sort of, predict, what their lives may be like in the future.

No, I'm not a fortune teller. I'm a shrink. And this is what I can offer my fellow writers. I can share my experience of understanding human nature to help understand how to create believable characters with potential for powerful conflict but without too much emotional baggage.
Heros, villains, stereotypes or archetypes - you name it. Do you want to have an insight into human's mind?
Join me - I'll open the door for you.

11 February 2011

Liberation by rejection or The end of misery

photo by kongsky
at freedigitalphotos.com
The Day has come on Wednsday.
Not only I received my long awaitied reply from Harlequin (unfortunately, a standard rejection 'the story is not strong enough'), but also had The Chat with The Boss at work.

Both event were quite liberating. The Chat at work obviously, because I've got a green light to do more of what I want to do (and hence start shaping my career). But the rejection has brought not only the welcome end to the torture of waiting for any news.

A rejection slip is a key opening the door to Romance Writers of America PRO section and all its benefits.

I am still going to 'finish the damn book' and send it to the Clendon Award contest. even if I don't/get shortlisted the feedback from the judges (first round judges are avid genre reader! this is unusual). Feedback is invaluable.

And on that misery-ending note I also decided that I will not read any sad books.
No more unhappy endings!
No more sad songs!

08 February 2011

Are we there yet?

It's been a while since my last post, I know. I've been waiting to share news with you - good (preferably), or bad, any. Any news would do.

Unfortunately SYTYCW contests, although formally ended on 31.January, wrapped up a couple of days later, hasn't quite finished for all participants. A handful of hopefull writers are still waiting for their reply. I'm one of them.

I've been checking my emails, Harlequin forum and The Blog with an embarassing regularity. Well, I haven't logged out for two weeks. Pathetic, I know.
Maybe I'll get my reply this week.

I've also been waiting to have my voice heard and make changes I want to make in my day job. I'm really ready for that change. I've spoken to many people about it. Some of them shattered my hopes and crushed my self-confidence, but I don't give up easily. Maybe tomorrow will be the day.

Waiting kills me. I've never been good at deferred gratification, particularly when it comes to sweets and seeing my ideas at work. I want it all and I want it now!
My NoNo novel (the one sent for SYTYCW) is waiting for me to finish rewriting and polishing for The Clendon Award contest. My Critique Partner is waiting for my feedback on the next chapter of her story. My editor is waiting for the proofs of my nonfiction book. Friends are waiting for emails, holidays are waiting for bookings, loundry is waiting to be done.

Any ideas how to get back to normal life?


Are we there yet?

PS. update: I've got my standard rejection this morning ('story is not strong enough'). Oh, well - tough. BAck to the rewrite then.