When I first started writing, I read romance novels voraciously in an effort to understand the genre from a creative standpoint. I’d read plenty before I started writing one, but once I wanted to write my own, I looked at the books with much different perspective. I got out highlighters and made marginal notes. I broke down the text into pieces so I could see how it was put together, sort of like a would-be mechanic taking apart a motor to see how it works.
I’m proud of all I learned, and very glad I took the time to study the craft of writers I admire. But I will confess, I’m glad to be beyond that point in my career! It’s exhausting to debate every word that goes on the paper, wondering if I’m moving in a positive direction. So much nicer to work from a point of confidence and strength. These days, my books aren’t perfect, but I feel sure they’re good. I’m offering stories I feel sure will entertain readers.
Another bonus of not needing to read my own genre so often if that I can look further afield for creative inspiration. I can binge watch television and find ideas for new characters. I can people watch on vacation and hear snippets of dialogue that I want to finish on paper. Acquaintances share stories about how they meet a significant other and I think about how I can rewrite it a bit to more dramatic effect.
This month, I’m especially excited to take in HBO”s spin on Liane Moriary’s Big Little Lies, a bookI adored. The cast is stellar from Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman to Zoe Kravitz and Laura Dern—a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood awesomeness. Plus they have a great base to work from in Moriarty’s book that lets the reader peer into multiple characters’ lives to reveal the secrets beneath the public facades.
I found the book inspiring when I read it since I always enjoy seeing what’s behind a less-than-lovable character’s backstory. Every villain is the hero of their own story, after all. Big Little Lies lets us experience the way multiple characters feel marginalized. The first character we meet, Madeline, might well be perceived as self-involved, superficial and unable to mind her own business by those around her. Yet I adored her strength and her willingness to champion others who needed that strength. Surely that’s a heroic quality?
In my Heartache, TN series, I play with this idea for characters like Tiffany McCord, the cheating mother who dates the town bad guy. We have plenty of reasons to dislike her throughout the series from her bragging to the fact that she is unfaithful to her wounded Veteran husband. But in Whispers Under a Southern Sky, I couldn’t resist letting readers see more to Tiffany. Her efforts to be a good mother, for one, and a glimpse into the darker side of the marriage she couldn’t hold together.
We are all heroes in our own stories is right. Sometimes the choices that look villainous on the outside are motivated by choices and circumstances we can’t begin to understand. I like Superromance for giving us the opportunity to paint those big worlds with complex characters, and I sure like that HBO is making Big Little Lies into a drama that will no doubt inspire more stories, more ideas and more characters than the initial book. The biggest gift of art is not just pleasure, but the ability to make us think. In the case of complex characters, our art also gives us the chance to experience empathy.
I couldn’t be happier to think that my efforts as an artist have moved from asking myself “how do I write dialogue?” to “how do I provide a deeper understanding of character?” The books grow as I grow, and that’s a lovely bonus.
***Do you like knowing what makes a character tick? Do you get impatient with too much characterization when you read? Ideally, the best authors don’t even let you see the way they do this! Name a show or movie where you felt like the characters (or one character) was really compelling… someone interesting you really rooted for. I’ll give one random poster an advance copy of my April Harlequin Desire story, The Magnate’s Mail-Order Bride.