For those who follow me on Twitter, you know that I ask many plot and character-related questions. I do so to help writers think about their stories, the finer details and encourage conversation about the topic.
I was asked to compile a list of questions to help authors develop their characters and plot. Below is the list. Please note that after most questions, you can also ask why and why not.
Courtesy of the requester of this post: Would you be comfortable on a bus with the characters of your WIP?
- Does your MC return to their hometown?
- Does your MC run for public office?
- Does your MC perform any charitable work? If so, which?
- What takes up most of your MC’s day?
- How much sleep does your MC get?
- What is your MC’s biggest regret?
- What is your MC’s most significant accomplishment?
- What is your MC’s deepest emotional pain?
- What does your MC say when they stub their toe?
- What does your MC do when they’ve cut themselves preparing food?
- Does your MC take any health supplements? If so, which ones?
- Does your MC have a best friend?
- Does your MC have a frenemy?
- Does your MC have a work rival?
- Does your MC have any savings?
- Does your MC have a hidden talent?
- Does your MC stargaze?
- How has your MC’s disposition changed in the last ten years?
- How has your MC’s disposition stayed the same in the last ten years?
- How does your MC keep their fingernails/toenails?
- How does your MC keep track of appointments?
- What is one thing your MC has never forgotten about their childhood?
- If your MC were to get into a car, where would they sit?
- What is your MC’s favourite mode of transport?
- What is your MC’s least favourite mode of transport?
- What does your MC do on their day off?
- What is your MC’s favourite article of clothing?
- What is your MC’s least favourite article of clothing?
- Does your MC recycle gifts, throw gifts out, or keeps unwanted gifts?
- Which unwanted gift does your MC receive that your MC regularly throws out?
- What does your MC do with a scented candle?
- What does your MC do with take-out (food takeaway) containers once the food is eaten?
- What is one spice your MC can’t live without?
- What is one spice your MC hates?
- What is your MC’s preferred method of communication?
- What is your MC’s preferred method of work?
- What is your MC’s preferred method of relaxing?
- Which sport does your MC excel at?
- Which activity does your MC struggle with but enjoy doing?
- Which leisure activity does your MC despise?
Which question did you find most beneficial for your writing? Please reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron
Thank you, @0CarlGriffin0, for the suggestion for the post.
I have several social media accounts. Twitter, I understand. I know how to speak with other authors and chat about writing. There’s a vibrant writing community on Twitter. Goodreads, I also understand because it’s talking about books. Facebook, I’m getting a handle on how to grow my presence and brand. I use a mix of articles related to writing, posts about my writing, and cartoons. Instagram is focused on readers. As a writer, I want to develop stronger relationships with readers, and a few months ago, I opened an Instagram account.
There’s been a sharp learning curve around how to develop appealing graphics. I don’t have a strong sense of aesthetics when it comes to design and graphics. I also don’t share selfies which limits a lot of the content I can post.
I’ve used several different social media post crafting tools in the last few months, and I’ll share some of my experiences in the hopes they will help you.
I started off using Canva(1), which has different tiers of membership. There’s a wide range of free graphics and infographics available. What’s particularly interesting for authors is that it has a wide selection of book covers. There’s enough versatility in the platform to change fonts, colours and add different elements.
Canva has two levels of payment. The first is that you buy each graphic you need as and when you need it. Prices range from a dollar (US) to a few dollars. You can also buy a monthly subscription to gain access to the Pro Level.
The strength of Canva is that it offers a little of everything. For me, as a romance writer, it had some romance-themed posts and some romance-themed book covers.
Visme (2) present themselves as a combination of PowerPoint and Canva. They have a free tier and several other paid tiers depending if you need it for personal or business reasons.
Visme has a range of social media posts. I did find Visme light on the options for romance-related themes for social media or general book covers. It was my understanding they are a new platform and are adding more content as they grow. That said, they have an extensive range of infographics. The design parameters are more extensive than Canva. You can manipulate graphics and infographics very easily, and it’s a powerful tool for business presentations.
In its current form, I think Visme leans heavily towards business and sales presentations. You can make graphs, flyers, scatter plots, and a few other things. (3) There are many interesting features, such as creating moving cartoons. The infographics section is extensive and offers a greater range than Canva. Moreover, it’s easier to manipulate and change the infographics on Visme than on Canva.
If you have to create book-related and business-related projects and presentations, Visme is the best bang for your buck. If you’re only interested in book-related social media posts, there may be other options that are better suited for you.
I tried BookBrush (4). This tool is designed exclusively for authors to help promote their books. It’s incredibly powerful. The basic package allows you to download 15 designs for free. After that, you have to pay for a subscription. This tool allows you to upload your book cover and have it placed on several templates. For example, your book can be displayed on a table with a cup of coffee and a bouquet. If you have a series, you can upload the corresponding images and display them on the collection’s spine.
I found the romance-related themes light. You can select themes from multiple genres, and you can upload your own. In my case, I don’t have Photoshop, and I don’t have a strong sense of design. It’s frustrating for me to make my designs. I need a drag and drop template that’s easy to manipulate to make my posts unique. I’m not there yet with BookBrush. I can use their terrific standard templates, but I don’t have the skill to craft truly original posts.
If you want to make an affordable book cover, I found PosterMyWall (5) to be the best out of the places tried. It’s inexpensive and easy to use. You pay per bookcover you download. Your cover will be used by many other authors, but everyone starts somewhere. If you can’t afford a professional design, PosterMyWall is an excellent place to start. When crafting your book cover, make sure the cover size fits standard book sizes. I had to have someone rejig my cover to ensure it would look right.
For those of you who have been making your social media posts for a while, which platform do you prefer and why? As consumers of social media, which kind of posts do you prefer seeing from authors?
I’m very new to making graphics for books and I’d like to keep this conversation going. What works for you? What appeals to you and why?
Let me know on Twitter @reneegendron
Most people think of romances as an enemy to lovers story. The characters start not liking one another, but there is so much sexual attraction and tension between them, they are compelled to stick around one another. Throughout the book, they get to know and love one another. Writing this trope is popular because it is a high-conflict scenario, and in romances, it’s conflict that drives the plot.
What happens if your characters have been together for a long time or are married and they have a reasonably comfortable relationship? How do you write a book when they know each other so well?
It’s a problem I faced in my fantasy series, the 29-book series I keep going on about. The first book has the foundational couple in an enemies to lovers trope. There are other books in the series in which Calanthe and Sanders are the main characters. I used different tropes such as second chance at love and my big messed up family to keep the characters engaged.
Your characters can know each other very well and still have differences. It’s those differences that can be a source of conflict. A couple that’s been married a long time might have differences of opinions on how to raise their children, how to handle their finances, sex (or lack of, or lack of adventure in the bedroom, etc.), career paths (one works too much or not enough), hobbies, and how much time they spend (or not) with family.
Couples grow together as much as they grow apart. Perhaps once the children have left the house, the couple finds themselves with a lot more free time they don’t know how to fill. One takes up an expensive hobby that consumes most of their free time, and the other feels left out or ignored.
People’s bodies change. Perhaps one partner isn’t as attracted to the other after they put on thirty pounds. Perhaps one develops an illness, and one perhaps can’t cycle or hike or engage in the same activities they once did as a couple.
It doesn’t matter what the conflict is, so long as the conflict is deep enough to drive the plot for the entire story. There’s a fundamental formula in romances: internal conflict + interpersonal conflict with romance interest = romance. Each character must face internal conflict that drives personal conflict. In addition, each character must face an interpersonal conflict with the romantic interest which prevents them from having a happy for now or a happily ever after.
Throughout the story, the characters engage in a series of try/fail cycles until they learn and grow as individuals. Once they are in the right headspace, they turn their attention to improving their relationship, and by the end of the book, they’ve found a new equilibrium.
I might have taken the fun out of romances with that analysis. Hmm.
There’s a bonus to writing romances with characters who have been together for a long time. They know each other very well, and it forces the author to deepen the emotional connection between them. When you’ve been with someone for twenty years, there’s a lot of hurt and happiness that can be brought up during an argument. A couple might be arguing over how to parent a child when the child is injured playing in another room. The couple drops the argument and rushes to tend to the child. The matter’s not resolved, but the action shows the reader that both love the child, even if each parent has a different parenting style.
Authors have a lot more history to mine for deep hurts, character flaws, lulls in a long-term relationship, and unresolved personal and relational issues. There’s also the potential for deeper emotional intimacy because the characters know each other so well. There’s knowing a certain slump in his shoulder or look in his eye or her eating triple-chocolate mint ice cream with extra-large chocolate chips, fudge sauce and white chocolate flakes that now is not the time to start an argument. The other person already had a bad day, and while the matter is pressing for the love interest, the fundamental care they have for the other person suspends the discussion.
Exploring the nuances of emotional intimacy enhances character development and enriches the reader’s experience.
Another thing to consider is the three following scales. The first, sexual tension. That is the degree to which the love interests are sexually aware of the other. The number of times they check one another out, the explicitness in which the sexual awareness is described.
The second is heat level. Heat level refers to how sex scenes are described. In a low heat book, sex scenes are non-existent or fade to black. In a medium-heat book, a paragraph or two describe sex. In a high-heat book, sex is explicit, described in detail sometimes over pages, and likely happens multiple times throughout the book.
The third is how much space is given to the non-romance and romance plots. If you play around with the plot ratios, you alter the dynamics between the characters. If a romance arc takes up 90% of a character’s time, it says something about the character. Whereas, if the love interest spends 90% of their time at work or with friends, but their major pain point is the love interest and the struggling romantic relationship, that says something completely different about the character.
How do you keep the spark alive between characters that have been together for a long time?
What do you think of the three scales? You can see the proposed scales here. Would such scales help you select a romance novel? Let me know on Twitter or through this survey. I’d like to thank @BurrisKirk for having brought up the issue of better classifying romances to help readers select an appropriate book.
Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron. I’d love to hear your thoughts and insights.
I’d like to thank @merelecroix for the topic suggestion of how to keep the spark going when writing couples who have been together for a long time.
The beautiful thing about writing romances is that you can incorporate them into all genres. If you perform a search for your preferred genre and add romance, you’ll find a wide range of choices. Within those choices, you’ll have books marketed as romantic sci-fi and sci-fi romance. It might not seem like a big difference, but the subtle change of words significantly impacts the content and target market.
What’s the difference between romantic fantasy and fantasy romance? In short, the word count dedicated to the romance plot. If it is a romantic fantasy, the main plot is a fantasy plot, and the b plot (secondary plot) is romance. In a fantasy romance, the emphasis is on romance.
If something is marketed as romantic, less than 50% of the plot is geared to the romantic interest. In a romantic fantasy, there are different expectations of character development and interpersonal development. In traditional fantasies, the character’s development is triggered by outside events. The MC rises to the challenge or fails. Most non-romance genres are plot-driven. In a mystery, the MC is compelled to follow the clues and solve the problem. In sci-fi, the character is motivated to attack an alien base or explore the galaxy.
Romances, however, are character-driven. The MCs in a romance must address internal and interpersonal conflict with the love interest to be in the right head and heart space to engage in the romantic relationship. Until those conflicts are addressed, the couple can’t have their happy-for-now or their happily-ever-after ending.
If someone positions their book as fantasy romance, readers expect the romance plot to take precedence over the fantasy element. Some words that would have been dedicated to world-building and backstory will be allocated to the romance arc. When deciding to read a fantasy romance, flip through the pages to get a sense of how much world-building and back story there is. Like in fantasies, some are high fantasies, and others are low fantasies. A high fantasy book is set in a second world which may or may not include magic, orcs, goblins and the like. A low fantasy book is set on Earth and may have magical elements.
One last element to consider when positioning your book or selecting a book to read, and that’s the heat level. There is a tendency for higher heat (explicit sex or higher sexual tension) in fantasy romance. I’m certain there are romantic fantasies and non-romantic fantasies that have explicit sex on-page, however not as much space is dedicated to it. In high-heat romance (regardless of genre), more words are allocated to describe the attraction and sexual encounters. Some audiences will accept high heat, regardless of genres, and others won’t.
Bottom line: know your audience and know which expectations to meet and which ones to break.
What are your expectations when reading a romance arc? What percentage of the book do you like the romance arc to take?
Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron to let me know if you prefer romance or romantic and why.
I'd like to thank @SStaatz for the blog topic suggestion.
Fluff. It’s the distractions, the pointless subplots, the loose ends, the unnecessary details that distract a reader and diminishes their enjoyment of your work. How can a writer ensure that a book is engaging through the entire story?
Conflict. Make sure there is enough conflict in your story to keep your character busy. Make sure the conflict challenges your MC and forces them to change. If the conflict is quickly resolved, then it’s uninteresting to read. Readers want to see your characters squirm, and they want to see them dig deep and muster the courage to try again.
I’ll focus on external conflict, but the principle works the same for internal conflict. Make sure the conflict requires several try/fail cycles. Each time the character tries to resolve the conflict, they fail but learn something. When the character tries again, make sure to make the problem more complicated, so they aren’t always doing the same thing over and over again.
I struggled with this in A Gift of Stars. It’s my first fantasy romance book and the first in a series of 29 (which are all written but in need of editing). Remember, I aim to write 50% romance and 50% non-romance plots. One of the main problems with the non-romance arc is that the MCs’ problems (attacks from raiders) are predictable and don’t force a change on the part of the MCs. I have 13 raider attacks of various sizes throughout the book, and I’ve been mulling over which to cut, which to reduce, and of those that remain, how to make each attack unique.
This article is as much a service to you as it is to me as I figure out how to sharpen that fantasy arc. Thanks for reading.
All right. Thanks for letting me take that detour. I hope it didn’t cause the plot of this post to sag.
Let’s say your MC has to venture out into space with a platoon of soldiers to deal with an antagonist. During their mission, they are attacked by pirates, and two of the platoon members die. One of those who died was a medic, and now the crew has lost a core survival skill. Along their journey, they go through an asteroid belt, and someone is injured. Under normal circumstances, the injury would be easily treated, but the medic has died, and the simple enough injury isn’t so simple to the non-medic crew. Oh, did I mention the injured crew member is also the pilot?
Such missions usually have a depth of skill to ensure there are a backup medic and pilot, but you can arrange your story so that the back-ups don’t have the same degree of competence or confidence. The difference in skills creates new problems, a new conflict between crew members, and new issues the MC must address to fulfil their mission.
If you wanted to write a longer book, you could add additional conflict between the characters. One character has access to the engine room and has locked everyone out because they are having a personal crisis. The other characters must access the engine to repair it. If they don’t repair it within one day, it will overheat and break down, leaving them stranded. Note that I added a ticking clock (one day). You can add additional complications by having an infestation of the food supply, and several of the crew members can’t eat what remains because of the differences in their biology. That’s another ticking clock, and that will change the interpersonal dynamics of the crew.
A word of caution. Don’t create problems for the sake of creating problems. Make sure that each problem relates to a fear or weakness of the MC. The more problems you throw at a character’s weak spots, the more you force growth or regression. Character development isn’t linear. People regress to bad habits and behaviour when stressed. Stress them out. Have their father call at the worst possible time. Have the boss move up the deadline of a project, which conflicts with a required medical procedure. Have the MC’s child fall ill, and the MC’s car breaks down on the way to the doctor. The MC doesn’t have the money to take a cab, it’s too far to walk, and the child’s just thrown up on the MC’s shoes. Oh, it’s windy and hot, it’s dinner time, but the MC hasn’t eaten since last night. Oh, and the boss texted the MC that they’re fired.
In the sequence outlined above, there’s a reasonable progression of events that make the situation plausible. Even in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, the events need to make sense. The order in which the problems and conflict happen also need to make sense. Usually, it’s a minor problem that snowballs into bigger ones. However, you can structure your story to start with a larger problem the MC is confident they can handle, and a progression of smaller problems drown the MC and the last, tiny, small, easily fixable problem of running out of mint tea, snaps the MC’s patience and they spiral downward. One problem too many.
People want to see that progression and root for the MC who finally stands up for themselves or cry for the MC who sees their lifelong dreams turn to vapour.
A second way of writing longer pieces without adding fluff is to force the character to choose. By the third or fourth chapter, the MC is presented with a difficult choice. The author can dedicate one quarter or half of the book addressing the consequences of the choice and the character’s efforts to get back to where they were at the ¼ mark to resolve the central conflict.
In forcing the character to make a choice, you can also change the outcome of the book. The choice can become the best thing that’s happened to them or the worst. The choice can damage key relationships for the MC, and the MC spends the rest of the book trying to repair trust. The choice can have explosive consequences on an environment or planet.
A choice must be tied closely with stakes. Stakes refer to what is gained and lost. Gains and losses come in many different forms. They can be a personal sacrifice of not having a career. It can be one error that costs them the scholarship and their only chance out of their poverty. Stakes can relate to self-worth, finances, family and friends (loss of), environment, culture, and community. Some characters are motivated by gain, and others are motivated by fear (of loss). Figure out your character’s motivations and play around with them to see how they relate to choices.
Let’s take, for example, Bertram. He’s the lead character in my first western historical romance. He faces a choice of telling the woman he intends to marry who he truly is or carry out hiding for the rest of his life. He’s hidden his true self for 30 years, and the one other person to whom he’s revealed his real identity brutally rejected him. Ruthanna, Bertram’s romantic interest, has the choice of fulfilling her father’s dying wish and securing her mother’s and sister’s financial future or saving Mack, Bertram’s brother.
These choices have an emotional, psychological, financial, and/or moral consequence on the characters. They are not to be taken lightly, and the decisions force character growth and the book’s direction.
How will you alter your try/fail cycle to lengthen your story? How will you sequence your problems (minor to significant, catastrophic to minor, personal problems first followed by work problems, etc.)? How will you manage your stakes? What choice do you force your MC to make?
Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter. Reach out to me @reneegendron
I’d like to thank @_levangelis_ for the topic suggestion.