Would you still love the books you love if the characters developed differently? Would Harry Potter be just as great if Hermione was focused on fashion rather than magic and studying? Would Silence of the Lambs be as disturbing if Hannibal Lecter merely killed his victims rather than served them up with some fava beans and a nice Chianti? Would Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer, one of the romances on my keeper shelf, be as engaging if the two protagonists weren’t both wounded outsiders? Would we revel as much in their happily ever-after-ending?
To me, it’s because they are the story, the reason we’re reading. The plot – that thing we, as writers, work so hard to keep moving forward – is what happens around them, to them, but they are what make us care, or what gets us up at night to check the locks on the doors and windows for the third time.
Readers connect with the characters. The plot may intrigue, the setting may inspire, the dialogue may make us laugh, the sex scenes may make us….well…let’s skip that part. Characters are why we turn the page. Readers want them to succeed or fail, grow or perish, reach the brass ring or fall into the fiery pit. And it’s their journey that readers crave.
Few character types intrigue me more than the bad boy or bad girl. Rebels without a pause button. Outsiders who don’t look in. We see in them the chances we never took, the road not taken or the road abandoned. They have been knocked around, perhaps, but not knocked out. They fight back by standing apart from the norm.
The bad boy/girl appeals to the part of us that wants to defy expectations. Because let’s face it, most of us do what’s expected. School. Job. Marriage. Children. Saving for retirement. We are the epitome of responsibility. The bad boy/girl challenges the expectation. They are usually ostracized for it and our bad boy/girl responds with strength and conviction to their own expectations rather than those of others. And whether or not they want it for themselves, readers want acceptance for them, even if it’s only with their soulmate. We want others to see how wonderful and special they are, even if they are “bad.”
The wounded soul. Will Parker and Eleanor Dinsmore of Morning Glory are two of my favorite fictional characters. Eleanor and Will are wounded on a deep level. When you learn their stories you can’t imagine anyone giving people – much less love – another chance. Desolate souls adrift without a compass or an oar, and there’s a hole in the boat. No, two holes. And sharks. They are so beat down by life they’d have to look up to see rock bottom. Theirs is a story of second chances, not just at love but at life. When the story opens, they are weakened by life experiences but don’t mistake me, they are not weak. They are strong. They just don’t know it. Every victory they take, every step, every newfound piece of confidence is Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas morning and New Year’s Eve rolled into one glittery package. While you want them to succeed, success is not the prize. For the wounded soul, the prize is a rediscovery of their self-worth. I don’t think Morning Glory would have worked if both characters had not been as wounded as the other. Their journeys complemented each other. They could cajole and tempt and even fight with each other because they had walked a similar path. They knew the risk to the heart and soul and they’re willing to take it for each other.
While the first two character types can apply to men and women equally, I think the next two are fairly exclusive to one gender, at least in fiction. There are always exceptions, and good ones at that, but for the most part, you’ll find these two stick are respective to a particular gender.
The alpha male characters are massively popular with romance readers. Navy Seal. High-powered exec. Fire fighter. Uber rich guys with six pack abs, a limitless American Express card and a private jet. They tend to be male because the vast majority of romance readers are female. For me, the alpha male appeals to that part of me I don’t talk about, the part that wants to be taken care of.
It’s not that I can’t take care of myself. I’m independent and self-sufficient and all those things Gloria Steinem and Gioia Gottini tell me I should be. But sometimes it’s just nice to give up the reins and let someone else drive. It’s tiresome to always be “on” and finding an honest, sexy, funny strong man to take that off the shoulders now and then is appealing. The alpha male’s take charge attitude and endless sex appeal make us feel soft and feminine. Like with Will and Eleanor, don’t mistake wanting that for weakness. I’m not promoting a cave-man mentality. These guys know the special qualities that make us strong also make us desirable. We appeal to them as much as they appeal to us. What’s not sexy about that?
For my female character, I love to take her and put her totally out of her element. Not just a fish out of water, but a genetically modified, one-finned speckled grouper in an alternate dimension of space and time who’s running out of oxygen (or water, she’s a fish after all) while the aliens converge on her spaceship.
I know this type is not isolated to women but because our audience is primarily women I find the appeal ignites the survival instinct in us. It’s more than an underdog with potential. It’s “give me your worst and watch me overcome it.” (ROAR!!) We want to know we can tap into a hidden reserve or go all McGyver on a problem and if (when) we hit rock-bottom, we will pull ourselves up.
The great thing about the FOOW is she appeals to both alpha and beta males. Alpha males see her personality as a strong complement to their own. Beta males – more reserved and intellectual – love watching her solve the puzzles of life.
Regardless of the arc type, the arc is what is important. That progression to a new and better self. Much better writers than myself have given us the journeys that go along with this progression so I won’t go into that. But I see the journey as an inverted rainbow: start high, dip low, struggle and rise to the top again. And whether the pot of gold at the end of the upside down rainbow is love, magical supremacy or not being eaten by the monster, the character is the reason we go on the journey. They take us with them because we want to go. We are invested in their story with each page and the payout at the end makes it worth it.
Maggie Preston writes emotionally packed stories of second chances, with things that usually blow up along the way. Her first book, Sex and Insensibility, was released in June. Visit her at authormaggiepreston.com or follow her on Twitter @maggie_preston.