“My heart is still fluttering after finishing ‘Arranged To Love’ by Elizabeth Dunk. Wow. Just wow. Madhuri (Maddie) and Jack’s story is by far one of the best romances I have read in a long time. Both characters leaped off the page and became very real to me right from the beginning – it is the kind of story I could very easily imagine as a film. The chemistry between the two leads is so intense and so hot you cannot wait to turn the next page. There is also a rich plot coloured vibrantly with Indian culture and the not so easy life as the son of a newspaper magnate. All in all, Arranged To Love is a MUST READ.”
This is a review of Arranged to Love from Amazon. I put it here a) cause someone loving your story is always a reason to celebrate and b) because it points to today’s topic.
Here’s my premise – I don’t think there’s a genre where characterisation is more important that romance.
Here’s my argument – we all know that romance is one of the more restrictive of the genres. There’s GOT to be a happily ever after (or at least a happily for now) for it to count as romance. The focus of the book has to be on the relationship. Sure, there’s lots of variation within those restrictions – historical romance, erotic romance, sweet romance, romantic suspense, paranormal/science fiction/fantasy romance – but still the basic beats and definitions of the genre are pretty similar, no matter what kind you read.
People who aren’t romance fans will look at the way romance readers can devour book after book and wonder how they can do that – aren’t they reading the same book over and over again?
No, they’re not and a big reason why – characterisation.
In a thriller, it’s the plot, the chase that is forefront – characterisation can be quite stale but as long as you’ve got the pacing and plot right, people will go with you. In speculative fiction, worldbuilding and tone can join with plot to forgive a lot of deficiencies in the characters.
But in romance, there’s no where for your characters to hide. They need to be there, strong and relatable and interesting, from page one. The chemistry must be instantaneous. Otherwise the readers will turn away.
Romance readers know how the book will go. What they want is to fall in love themselves within the first few pages so they want to go along for the ride.
So the people who diss romance, or don’t try it, are themselves missing out on some of the best characterisation committed to a page. So if you’re finding that your characterisation is a bit shallow, or you’re developing great characters but they’re not coming to life on the page – dive into some romances. Track how, even though you KNOW how the book will turn out, you have to keep reading anyway because you come to care about these people. And then work out how the writer has done it.
You can start with ‘Arranged to Love‘
Let me show you what I mean. Here’s the opening paragraphs of ‘Arranged to Love’.
Madhuri Singh slammed her purse down on her desk and looked around. Spying the top of a golden-haired head by the windows, she marched over. The newspaper she clutched in her hand crinkled and fluttered.
When she arrived at the desk the occupant looked up at her and smiled and despite her anger, Maddie had to take a deep breath to calm her reaction to him.
Jack Faulkner was the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen—blonde hair, blue eyes, tanned skin, the quintessential Australian male. She’d tried to convince herself that she shouldn’t be attracted to him—she was Indian, she should be thinking of dark skin and deep brown eyes—but she’d given up.
From time to time, the gods created an object of such beauty that regardless of your cultural background, you gazed upon it with wonder. Such a one was Jack.
She shook the thought from her mind. Jack was her mentor in her internship, her first job at a big city newspaper. She had to focus on her career.
In just those few short words, we get the following bits of information: Maddie is Indian; she’s a journalist; she’s working at a major Sydney newspaper; she’s ambitious; she’s attracted to her mentor although she knows she shouldn’t be. We also get the hint that Maddie is committed to her culture (in the comment about should be attracted only to an Indian man); we see that she’s a woman of strong emotions and we see that she’s not someone who’s going to sit and wait for someone to fix things for her. There’s obviously a problem and she’s marched over to face it and work out how to solve it.
I had Maddie’s character worked out before I started writing. I knew she was a strong individual. I knew she was determined and resourceful. I knew that she was committed to her culture and had expectations surrounding that. I knew that even so, from time to time it’s possible to meet someone who takes your breath away and following your dreams becomes a choice you have to make, rather than something automatic and for Maddie, that would be Jack Faulkner.
I didn’t waste time setting the scene, or getting into backstory. The scene at the end of the day isn’t that important, and the backstory to this moment gets revealed pretty quickly. What mattered here and now was showing the readers right off the bat who Maddie was and hopefully convincing them that she was a heroine worth following.
Now, here’s the first we get to know of Jack, in the conversation with Maddie.
“Hey, Maddie.” He nodded at the paper in her hand. “Is that today’s?”
“It is.” She leant her hip against his desk. “Would you like to guess what I found in here?”
The smile died. “They didn’t misattribute the story again?”
In reply, Maddie opened the paper and laid it on his desk, smoothing out the folds and creases. Then she stabbed a finger at a line that was already smudged and fading because she’d repeated the action so many times today. “By Cynthia Hart.”
Jack shook his head. “Shit, Maddie. I’m sorry. Listen, I’ll speak to the subs and make sure they don’t get it wrong again.”
“Can you explain how they got it wrong this time? The second time? Once, I can understand. But how did they twice miss that the file was downloaded from my folder, not Cynthia’s? And I even wrote By Madhuri Singh at the top of the story this time. They had to delete that, Jack. How is this a mistake?”
“I’ll find out.” He reached forward and put his hand on hers. “Maddie, this really, really sucks.”
She stilled, allowing herself the moment of enjoying the heat, the weight of his hand on hers. Then she pulled her hand away.
“That’s twice I should have had my maiden by-line and it’s been taken from me.” She could feel the tears building in her eyes and she blinked, forcing them back. She wasn’t going to be known as someone who cried the moment things went wrong. She wasn’t.
“I know.” Jack’s smile was soft sympathy. “I’ll tell the boss, see what we can do about correcting it in tomorrow’s paper. And in the meantime, we’ll make sure the next Madhuri Singh story gets properly attributed.”
Even though this isn’t from Jack’s POV, we can already gather information about him from this. He’s a good guy. He reacts well to Maddie’s distress, wanting to comfort her rather than dismiss her feelings. He immediately goes about trying to solve the problem and he makes the vow that there won’t be a similar mistake.
In short – within a few sentences, he’s already placing himself as a romance hero.
Then we get into his pov.
After Maddie returned to her desk, Jack stared at the paper for a couple of minutes. What she said was true—this second time couldn’t be a mistake. That brought up a terrible, yet believable, possibility in his mind.
As any good journalist knew, you didn’t make accusations unless you had proof and Jack Faulkner was a damn good journalist. In the five years since graduating from university, he’d worked his way through the Sydney newspaper scene to now be one of the top journalists at its most prestigious daily. He was the man the premier had on speed dial, the one the shock jocks talked to.
He turned to his computer and called up the program that the subs used to lay out the paper—he wasn’t supposed to have access to it, none of the journalists were, but most did. He checked and saw who had subbed the story that should have been Maddie’s. Then he sauntered over to the subs desk.
Now some of what we learnt before is confirmed – Jack isn’t just dismissing what has happened to Maddie. He’s concerned for her, and he’s going to work out how to fix it. But we also get a sense that Jack Faulkner isn’t all nice. It’s casually brought up that he’s got the premier on speed dial and that shock jocks talk to him. He’s a man in this town, an important man, and you don’t get to that position by being all sugar and spice.
That this is intimated by those words, rather than directly stated, is an important part of characterisation. Details like this make a character more real, and their power or not more believable. You KNOW that the problem Maddie is facing wouldn’t happen to Jack. It’s a clear delineation of how different their power is right now. How different they are.
Then there’s the fact that Jack casually uses a computer program he knows he shouldn’t have. Further on in the scene, the sub-editor he goes to grill gets angry he has it but Jack shrugs it away. It’s a minor sin, and he knows it’s worth the small amount of pain he might get to have it now. It goes to show that Jack’s not adverse to breaking the rules, using situations to his advantage – a character trait that comes back to haunt him later in the book.
Build your characters well and then the plotting becomes so much easier – particularly in a romance, where the plot is about the tug of war between what these two people want and what they think they need. The growing relationship needs to be tested, and the best tests come from deep inside them.