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Don't Treat Your Characters Like Puppets!
by Anne Marble

Return to Writing Romance · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

When your heroine behaves a certain way, your readers shouldn't be heard to mutter, "She went through that doorway only because that's what the author told her to do." We've all read books where the characters acted illogically. Don't you hate it when you feel as if the author is a puppeteer, pulling strings to make characters behave in unbelievable ways simply to propel the plot?

Many of the biggest problems in romance novels stem from illogical characters. Plot and characters depend on each other to function. Yet many romance writers forget this. When they want the plot to go a certain way, they force characters to do something that goes against the grain. This might make the writing process easier, but it will make it harder to sell your book.

The Silly Big Misunderstanding Plot

"Admit it, Jane! You were hugging your lover."

"Rafe, that wasn't my lover. That was my beloved stepbrother!"

If that exchange sounds familiar to you, then you've come across the silly big misunderstanding plot (SBMP). This type of plot is particularly notorious in romance. It is found in everything from historicals to Harlequin Presents.

Some writers can take a big misunderstanding plot and make it into a powerful, emotional drama. In the wrong hands, however, this plot can easily become absurd. The characters act like marionettes, not like real people.

What are the signs of a silly big misunderstanding? A crisis that could be solved with a few minutes of talking, and characters who have no logical reason to keep the information from each other

The silly misunderstanding can be sustained only through illogical behavior with coincidences thrown in to boot. The hero walks in just in time to see some jerk manhandling the heroine. While a normal person would realize the woman was being harassed, the hero decides she must be a tramp. To make matters worse, the heroine becomes so angry with the hero for being distrustful that instead of telling him the truth, she pretends that she was having an affair. Oh, brother!

Let's create our own SBMP. Linda is a best-selling novelist who is traveling incognito while on vacation. Sam is a famous publisher who meets her during this vacation. Later, when Linda tells him that she is a writer, he assumes she was after him only because of his position, and he calls her every name in the book. She stalks off, upset, angry, perturbed... (She had a thesaurus in her luggage.)

This plot stinks. Why? Because the characters don't behave like real people; instead, they behave like marionettes strapped inside a bad plot.

Let's try to make it work by providing motivations. Why would a best-selling author lie about her identity? Let's try this plot for size. Linda is an agoraphobic. She travels under an assumed identity to avoid crowds. Because she is embarrassed by her condition, she doesn't tell Sam. Next, why would Sam be so distrustful? Maybe he recently divorced his wife after learning she married him because of his position. This plot still needs a lot of work, but at least it doesn't need a defibrillator.

How can you make a big misunderstanding plot work? Give your characters logical reasons to hide information. Don't rely on coincidences. Most of all, don't make readers feel as if your characters acted this way only because the book had to be 250 pages long rather than 10.

Too Stupid To Live Heroines

Jennie knows outlaws are hiding in the hills surrounding the cabin. The hero has warned her against leaving the cabin until he catches the outlaws. But Jennie needs to milk the cows. Besides, she can take care of herself. So Jennie picks up her shotgun and goes outside. Only when she is spotted by the villain does she realize... she forgot to load her gun!

What's wrong with this picture? This is exciting, isn't it? After all, Jennie is about to confront the bad guys. Surely this is suspenseful.

Except for one major thing. The suspense wasn't created by a logical unfolding of events. It was generated because Jennie acted like a silly twit.

How can this plot be fixed? We want Jennie to confront the bad guys. Still, we don't want this confrontation coming about because she did something inane. We need a logical reason for Jennie to go outside. Why not force her to rush outside to save her daughter? Even better, why not force that confrontation when she has to save the hero from the bad guys?

Distrustful Heroes

Some heroes act as if they should be in counseling instead of in a novel. For example, I read a romance novel about a hero who decided the heroine must be loose because she wrote sexy romance novels. He had no real evidence other than seeing her come home late a few times. It's one thing to create conflict between your main characters. It's another to make the hero act as if he's on another planet.

Heroes who are tortured by their past are often popular with readers. Heroes who are distrustful because of their past are a thing of the past. If you think you can make this kind of character succeed, however, go for it. Whatever you do, give him a background that explains his distrust.

Also, make sure the heroine's responses make sense. How would you react if your attractive neighbor decided you were a tramp simply because you were a romance writer? Right. Your heroine shouldn't grin and bear it unless you have established a good reason for her to act like a doormat.

If the characters become embroiled in distrust, their relationship shouldn't proceed as if it were normal. Eventually, they should repair their relationship, but this part shouldn't be too easy. This is an important part of the plot and is often ignored. Don't relegate the hero's healing process to the final chapter.

A Final Warning

You've probably seen these mistakes in novels by best-selling authors. Don't think that gives you an excuse for getting away with them in your novels. You haven't built a loyal readership yet.

Find Out More...

Creating Great Heroes and Heroines- Anne M. Marble

Don't Treat Your Characters Like Puppets! - Anne M. Marble

How Not to Create a Villain - Anne M. Marble

What's My Line? Character Professions in the Romance - Anne M. Marble

Copyright © 2001 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.


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