On Character (Baseball Players and the Women Who Love Them)

Mindy KlaskyMindy Klasky
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Hello folks!  (::waves madly to old friends and new::) 

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here on Magical Words.  A lot has been going on in my writing life, as culminated in yesterday’s launch of the Diamond Brides Series.  Now bear with me.  I know that, here at MW, we primarily focus on speculative fiction.  And I know that Diamond Brides is a series of nine short, hot contemporary romance novels.  There is not a single fantasy element in the series, and the books definitely aren’t science fiction.  But over the course of the next four weeks, I look forward to explaining how my romance novels dovetail with my speculative fiction work, how the craft lessons I learned in the SF&F genres carried over to romance, and how writing is writing, no matter what labels we apply.  (Yeah, that’s an ambitious goal, for four posts.  We’ll see how close we get, by the end of the month!)

Let’s start with a few (over-)generalizations about the romance genre.  Of the major genre categories (romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and western), romance is arguably the most dependent on tropes, as demonstrated by a simple overarching plot.  Every romance has people (usually two, often-but-not-always one male and one female) who meet, fall in love, face some great barrier to staying in love, conquer that barrier, and end up in love.  (In the romance trade, we call that ending an HEA — Happily Ever After — and if there isn’t an HEA (or, at the very least, a Happy For Now), then the book simply isn’t a romance.  Romance genre books do not end with the death of one or more of the lovers.  Romeo and Juliet is not a romance, in the genre sense of the word.)

Because of this reliance on a common overarching plot, other elements of writing become much more important in romance than they are in other genres.  Romances must have great characters.  They often have amazing settings, including settings in actual historical time periods, or in fantasy or SF worlds.  And, of course, they have great emotion, including (in some romances) descriptions of physical sex.

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Today, we’ll focus on characters.  Specifically, I’ll use examples from Perfect Pitch, the first volume of my Diamond Brides Series, which launched yesterday (Opening Day of the Major League baseball season!)  My romance novel will live or die by the likability of the characters. (“Likability” is not the same thing as being perfect.  My characters have flaws, and they make mistakes.  But the reader has t root for them, every step of the way.)

My hero is a pitcher for the Raleigh Rockets.  My heroine is a beauty queen. 

Great.  Half my readers (maybe more) know nothing about baseball.  They may even hate the sport.  They may (like me) bear deep scars from being chosen last for every sports team in every phys ed class they ever took.  Another boatload of my readers could care less about beauty pageants; some people think they’re silly, some think they’re exploitative, some think they’re just plain stupid.  How do I build likability in the midst of those biases?

First, I make my characters human.  D.J. Thomas isn’t just a random pitcher.  He’s the son of a Hall of Fame pitcher, and he’s desperately struggling to live up to his father’s expectations.  He’s a single father of a young son, hoping to help his son succeed beyond his own wildest dreams.  He’s a man who is experiencing the best year of his professional life, but who understands that failure (in the form of physical trauma) is just around the corner. 

Now, my readers don’t have to know or care about baseball.  Instead, they have to sympathize with a son’s effort to win his father’s love.  They have to care about a father’s love for his child.  They have to comprehend the desire to excel, even on the outer edge of one’s ability.  Those issues are far closer to universal than “baseball player pitches the season of his life.”

Similarly, Samantha Winger isn’t a stereotypical beauty queen.  She’s a skilled musician who longs to bring the joy of music to children.  She’s a woman who moved multiple times while she was growing up, keeping her from ever putting down roots.  She’s a professional woman bound to honor certain rules in the workplace, even when those rules are unreasonably restrictive.

See what I’m doing there?  My readers don’t have to like tiaras and ballgowns.  Instead, they have to understand having and sharing a passion.  They have to “get” the feelings of always being new in the crowd, never being settled.  They have to know what it’s like to live with unfairness.

The likability is in the details.  It’s in the individual traits that make D.J. and Samantha into people instead of cardboard cutouts.  It flavors everything about how they meet, how they interact, how they resolve their conflicts.

But that’s sounding dangerously like “plot”.  And that’s what we’ll talk about next week :-)  For now, you can tell me which characters you think are especially well done — in romance, or any other genre!  Why do you think they work so well?  What makes them different from every other character in that genre?

You can buy Perfect Pitch here.

You can follow me on Twitter, or friend me on Facebook, or read my blog.

Formal Head Shot SquareMindy Klasky learned to read when her parents shoved a book in her hands and told her she could travel anywhere in the world through stories. She never forgot that advice.  Mindy’s travels took her through multiple careers – from litigator to librarian to full-time writer. Mindy’s travels have also taken her through various literary genres for readers of all ages – from traditional fantasy to paranormal chick-lit to category romance, from middle-grade to young adult to adult.  In her spare time, Mindy knits, quilts, and tries to tame her endless to-be-read shelf. Her husband and cats do their best to fill the left-over minutes.

Many thanks for stopping by!

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20 comments to On Character (Baseball Players and the Women Who Love Them)

  • I write sci-fi and fantasy romance (and actually, sort of always have, though not to the degree I do now), so I relate to this. Strong characterization is one of the things I’ve always worked toward. One of the things I’m frequently told is that I have realistic characters and dialogue (and evidently write pretty awesome sex scenes…for a guy ;) ). When my wife read my writing, she’d suggested I get into the romance market and so I did. Though I’d never really thought of my works in that manner, I pretty much grew up with all the 80s and 90s romantic films from Say Anything to The Princess Bride. Not to mention a number of novels with romantic elements, the most steamy of which was the Vardeman/Milan War of Powers series. I recently sent in edits for my sci-fi romance novella, While You Were Away. I hope to have Rogue 5, a space opera sci-fi romance, and The Heartstone’s Heiress, an epic fantasy romance trilogy, picked up eventually as well.

    When I write romance I’m always striving to bring together the elements so that readers of all three genres might give it a shot. I want readers of sci-fi and readers of romance and readers of sci-fi romance to be able to pick up my book and get a good thrill ride with believable characters, a good love story, and an interesting plot, all of which I hope will make them pick up more of my works…even with the steamy bits. ;)

  • First of all, Mindy, best of luck with the new project. I hope it’s hugely successful for you. I think that writing about a romance series on this site will be wonderfully illustrative for all of us. Too often genre prejudices keep us from looking to other genres for lessons. I’ve heard too many speculative fiction writers complain bitterly about the way our genre is denigrated by writers and editors in so-called “literary fiction,” only to then turn around and denigrate romance (or media work or something else) with just as much venom. Writing is hard no matter what genre one might be in, and the foundations of good storytelling (character, plot, setting, pacing, etc.) remain the same across categories. Your discussion of how you make your characters relatable even for those who don’t care about baseball or beauty pageants is terrific and offers a great example to all of us.

  • Daniel – I think that more and more of us are writing “hyphenated” stories — sci-fi-romance for example. A lot of readers are willing to venture across traditional genre lines, especially when cover art, cover blurbs, reviews, and comments from friends assure them that the genre touchstones they know and love persist, even in hybrid books. Best of luck with yours! (And yes, I was heavily influenced by 80′s-style romantic movies :-) )

    David – I think that all of us genre writers are essentially doing the same thing — working with a series of conventions to stretch those conventions into a new and different story. Sure, the details vary — a lot — but the idea is the same, and the skills needed to succeed are the same. Thanks for the good wishes — I’m tremendously excited about my new venture!

  • […] Words:  On Characters (Baseball Players and the Women Who Love Them) — part of a four-part series on craft.  And may I just say, it’s great to be back […]

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Lovely to see you back, Mindy, and I for one am quite excited about this new series of posts of yours. New context equals new brain food. Yay! Also, the plan for my next project includes a large romantic element, so yeah, tips in this arena are most welcome.

    As for well done characters, my husband pointed out the other day that probably the best in our reading realm is Harry Dresden, both as a clearly defined character and as a really likeable character. Of course, a *long* series has given Butcher a chance to establish him very firmly in our minds, but even from the first book he was a character with clearly defined and interesting relationships with the other characters in his world. And at the moment that’s the tidbit that I need to chew on most and better incorporate into my stories – tricky when I tend to gravitate toward loner characters, but that doesn’t make it less important. I’m just hoping I can make back-story/past relationships count for that too.

    Since it sounds like you have a somewhat lonely character in this new books of yours, I’m curious to what level you used her present/past personal relationships to help define her character.

    (Also, I love your classy new photo! Most excellent good luck with your new series!)

  • Hepseba – Lovely to see you here! And thanks for the kind words about the new photo – I was quite afraid to have it taken, but the photographer was amazing! As for lonely characters — as you note, one of the greatest challenges in defining a lonely character is finding organic ways to show their back story, their past relationships, etc. With Sam, I had her *think* about some of that, but I also had her *talk* about it, with the hero. There’s only so much living-inside-one’s-head that a story can carry! (I think that a lot of readers are inclined to like lonely characters — reading is a lonely activity and people who are avid readers likely tend to be somewhat introverted… Or maybe I’m painting with too broad a brush!)

  • Razziecat

    Mindy, I’m one of those who tended to look down my nose at romance novels, probably because the few examples I was familiar with seemed so corny, stereotypical and, well…weird (3 different novels by 3 different authors, in 3 different settings, and yet each one had *ahem* a spanking scene. So, well, yeah…) That was when I learned that there’s a whole range of “romance” ;) I can see where characterization is crucial, so I’m looking forward to reading more about your experience in this genre. A hefty part of my space opera stuff involves the relationship between two major characters, as well as backstories involving past relationships, so learning more about the romance genre could be very useful :D

    An example of a very well-realized character, to me, is Ijada in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Hallowed Hunt.” When she first appears the MC, Ingrey, is struck by her beauty, but this is a woman who killed (with a war hammer!) a man who was trying to rape her. Later, when Ingrey suggests running away to escape being executed for murder, he tells her he would come with her, but promises to treat her as a sister. Her response: “How very inticing.” – In a dry, sarcastic tone that leaves him completely confused. Of course, you know they end up in love ;)

  • quillet

    I for one have always liked a bit of romance. Er, make that hyphenated romance, because now that I think about it, it’s been romantic-suspense (all hail Mary Stewart!), or Regency-romance (Georgette Heyer!), or supernatural-historical-romance (Susanna Kearsley!). And I could probably go on. So bring on the romance! Yep, I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of these posts.

    (Side-note to Daniel: I think I’m in your target audience, so now I have extra reasons to hope you get published. My fingers are crossed!)

    For a well-realised character, I’ll add another vote for the fantastic Lois McMaster Bujold. Her Sharing Knife series is fantasy-romance (told you I could go on), and Dag is one half of the romance. He’s very broken in many ways, and has retreated into a nothing-bothers-me kind of quiet. He seeks out danger because he has a death wish, though he hides it behind a super-dry sense of humour. His journey back towards life and feelings is a beautiful thing, and it starts because he has to help Fawn (other half of the romance) through a terrible trauma. It continues because Fawn is so alive herself, and he can’t help but respond. He always remains a fairly quiet guy, but he starts thinking about the whole world differently and ends up changing it for the better.

  • Quillet – Now I know another to ask for beta help, and hey! Free reading material! ;)

  • I’m looking forward to picking up your book! It’s been a long time since I read straight romance (I guess I mean non-hyphenated romance…), and it will be a nice change. I’m currently reading Joe Hill’s Nos4a2. (He’s Stephen King’s son, and the book is WAY horror). But I must disagree slightly on your genre characterization: (with apologies to baseball fans) If your book makes baseball interesting, then it’s definitely fantasy. (Ba-dumb-bum-ching!)

  • Razziecat – It’s strange, isn’t it, how we can get turned off of genres by picking up coincidental books along the way? The first three New Adult books I read all dealt with father/daughter incest. I was convinced that was the entire basis for the genre. I’ve since been told it isn’t, although there are relatively few themes to spread across all of those blockbuster books!

    quillet – I’m all for hyphens! :-) And I obviously have a lot of Bujold to read…

    pea_faerie – I hope you like PITCH! I read Hill’s HEART-SHAPED BOX and thought it was beautifully done, although I read virtually no horror and know nothing about music. He’s an amazing author. As for my book being fantastic, I’ll take that description :-)

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