Romance novels are driven by characters. Sure, we all like a nice, juicy plot, but ultimately what drives the book forward is the conflict, and that conflict comes from your characters.
So it makes sense that you should get to know your hero and heroine really well. Better than you know your nearest and dearest. Maybe even better than you know yourself.
There are heaps of resources that tell you how to fill out your heroine’s character, but many of these focus on things like recording what colour eyes she has, or where she went to school. I think the idea is that then you don’t get her eyes changing colour half way through the book.
Sure, it would be annoying to realise you’d switched her from a blue-eyed babe to a brown-eyed girl in chapter six, but something that superficial is actually pretty simple to fix up during your edits. What’s much harder to fix is a character who is inconsistent or illogical in their behaviour; where this happens, it not only jolts the reader out of the story (something we want to avoid at all costs), it also creates distrust in the reader’s mind.
It's imperative that you really know your heroine – and that goes way beyond eye colour and what she studied at university. Delving that deep into a character can be tough however, so I’ve put together a list of ten questions that I like to be able to answer about my heroines.
1. What does she carry in her handbag?
Why? A woman’s handbag is a microcosm of her life. Beyond the usual requirements of purse, phone and keys, you need to know what she carries and what that tells you about her. Old receipts, discarded lipsticks, a handful of Euro coins, appointment cards, a cheap plastic ring from a cracker, scribbled phone numbers… (and that’s just my handbag!). Check out this flickr group for more inspiration.
2. What’s her favourite CD of all time and why?
Why? Music links very strongly to powerful emotions. It’s possible to remember what was playing the first time you met your partner – even decades down the line. The last great summer between school and university might have its own soundtrack. Or perhaps there’s a break-up album that she can’t get rid of. Either way, if you find out what music she loves, and what emotion in provokes in her, you can start to understand some key elements of her backstory.
3. Tea or coffee?
Why? Little details like this do matter due to what they tell us about her character and her backstory. Maybe she loves afternoon tea because it reminds her of Sunday afternoons spent with her grandmother. Or maybe she only drinks a boutique Guatemalan blend thanks to spending six months there doing charity work.
4. Cats or dogs?
Or neither. Why? Having a pet gives you roots – you can’t jet off so easily when you have a furry friend to worry about. So a heroine on the run (either physically or emotionally) might be petless. If she does have a pet, what is it? A pedigree cat is much more high-maintenance than a mutt from the animal shelter, and might suggest similar about their respective owners.
5. She’s running late for work, the car has a flat and….?
Why? It’s important to understand the way she reacts under stress. Does roll her sleeves up and change the tyre herself, or does she call roadside assist? Perhaps she decides to work from home, or does she see it as a sign she needs a day off, and head off to the shops?
6. What Disney film did she love as a child?
Why? It’s all about the heroines in those films. Does your heroine love Sleeping Beauty (sitting around waiting for Prince Charming), or is she more of a go-getter like Pocahontas? Does she swoon at the idea of Cinderella and having a fairy godmother give her everything she wants, or is she like Ariel, willing to sacrifice everything for love?
7. What is she most proud of achieving?
Why? This will give you a hint about what she’s most passionate about. It may have nothing to do with her current career, relationship or lifestyle, which will also give you some ideas about her internal conflicts. If she’s a corporate lawyer who’s most proud of her charity work, what does that tell you about her character and place in life?
8. What is she most ashamed of doing?
Why? What she’s ashamed of doing is an important part of her backstory as it will colour everything she does from that point onwards. Going forward, her actions might revolve around hiding her past actions, or going out of her way to make sure she never does it again. Either way, one action from her past is impacting all her present actions.
9. What stops her from sleeping at night?
Why? Waking up at four am guarantees one thing – your mind will start enough mental gymnastics to make sure you’ll not see sleep again that morning. But what back flips and somersaults does your heroine’s mind attempt? Is she worried about money? Her family? The environment? Where our mind goes when there’s nothing else to stop it shows us what we’re really worried about, which in turn reveals a lot about your heroine’s conflicts.
10. What would she spend her last $20 on?
Why? When we were asked this at a recent team building event, there were some interesting answers; depressingly, most of the room said they would spend their last few dollars on cigarettes or red wine. But what about your heroine? Would she buy a train ticket and hand deliver her manuscript to the publisher she’s always wanted to work with? Would she donate it to charity? Or would she buy a toy for her favourite niece or nephew?
Really understanding your heroine means asking questions that will highlight her deepest fears, strengths and beliefs. What would you ask your heroine today?