In Merline Lovelace's The Harder They Fall the hero tells the heroine a bit more about his family background and
She couldn't believe how relaxed she felt ... and curious. The bits Evan had told her about his brothers had subtly altered her mental mosaic of the man beside her. Made him seem more real somehow. More three-dimensional.As a reader (rather than a romance heroine) does that sort of information make characters seem more three-dimensional to you? Given that I've read about some characters who still resembled cardboard cutouts even after I knew about their tragic back-story, I don't think knowing a bit about the characters' family history automatically makes them feel more "real."
More than just a lazy grin and a pair of sexy blue eyes, anyway. (119)
Whatever it is that makes relationships in some romances seem both "realistic" and lasting is a subjective and highly personal thing, but I've recently read three which convinced me and which got me thinking about what makes characters and their relationships feel "real". In all three cases it had something to do with the characters' imperfections. They weren't impossibly beautiful, and though they'd all suffered in the past, or were suffering still, they weren't romantically tormented. Perhaps it was this balance between the romantic and the little flaws (which included characters with more than a touch of sarcasm, another with a propensity to babble, quite a few with a dose of cynicism, and one who barely talked at all) which helped to made them feel "real" to me.
The other factor which affects Lovelace's heroine's view of the hero is that he tells her his history himself. They talk to each other. I think that dialogue (if well written) can make the characters feel more "alive," more real. I'm sure it's not the only way in which a writer can achieve this, but in the three novels I'd like to discuss, it was the dialogue which captured my attention and convinced me that these were characters with whom I wanted to spend some time.
The first is Karyn Langhorne's A Personal Matter. [You can read an excerpt here and reviews here, here and here.] The heroine and hero are quite alike, though they don't know that to begin with, and as the novel progresses more and more similarities are revealed. Because they're both rude and extremely difficult to work with, though, the similarities spark conflict, and that's evident in their conversations.
Here's an example of a scene which I think's been given the realistic treatment. It's not uncommon for romance heroines to literally run into the heroes' rock hard chests. But it's not so usual for the encounter to be described quite like this:
Alayna flicked on a couple of hallway lights just so she wouldn't be like some stupid white chick in a horror movie, feeling along in the dark, too dumb to turn on the lights. Hell no. With the lights on, whatever's out there, at least you see him coming.Apart from the less than romanticised method of describing the hero's odour (I've noticed rather a lot of romances which describe their heroes as smelling of X, Y and something uniquely his, but leave unspecified the nature of that uniquely heroic smell), Alayna and The Freezer also have an unusual way of establishing the ground rules for their relationship:
Only not this time.
Because as Alayna turned from the long, lighted office corridor to the short dark hallway of work rooms, she ran full-tilt into The Freezer himself and let out a scream loud enough to shatter glass. It took a couple of seconds to shut up and realize she hadn't met the Boogeyman and that the surface she was up against wasn't anything more dangerous than a normal man's chest. Torso, really. He was pretty tall ... and the said chest was hard as a rock. But he didn't have a knife. The most dangerous thing about him was a medium-bad case of b.o., but when you run face-first into a man's armpit, it had to be expected. (21-22)
"Okay then," she said, peering over his shoulder as the words appeared on the page. "Clause one: We both get to be ourselves and no one complains about it."It's a conversation which reveals both Alayna's prejudice and her ambitions, and foreshadows the way in which she will gradually come to recognise them. It also shows the reader that these are characters for whom the legal profession isn't just a job; they apply negotiation skills, analysis and a competitive, adversarial approach to what will become "a personal matter." At the end of the novel they're still negotiating their relationship, with Alayna insisting that it too should be based on (most of) "the clauses from our working agreement" (377).
The Freezer wrote it down, then added one of his own.
"Clause two: We both stay out of the other's personal business. No comments, no questions. No exceptions."
Alayna nodded. Keeping folks out of her business was her second career.
"Fair enough," she agreed. "Clause three: Give me as much responsibility as I can handle."
Ice Man gave her another long, measuring look.
"I mean," Alayna murmured, feeling her ambition hanging out like the edge of a frilly slip, "as much as is appropriate."
There was no way to decipher his expression on that one; it was as flat and blank as the frozen tundra. But he wrote it down.
"Clause four: We call each other by out names. No nicknames."
Alayna blinked her surprise. Ice Man cared about what he was called behind his back? The Freezer had feelings? [...]
Alayna racked her brain.
"Clause five: We tell each other the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
Now it was his turn to blink.
"The truth about what?" he asked, sounding suddenly as guilty and nervous as a man with bodies buried in his basement.
"Our expectations of each other, what we think of the work, how we're measuring up," Alayna clarified. (31-32)
The second novel is Roslyn Hardy Holcomb's Rock Star. [You can read an excerpt here, a free mini-sequel (featuring a pair of minor characters) here and reviews here, here, here and here.]
Here the novel begins by showing us the common interests the characters share before confronting them and the reader with all the factors that generate a conflict that may separate them. As with A Personal Matter's reference to horror movies, there's a small metafictional element to the novel. Here's the description of how Callie meets Bryan:
Callie rubbed again at the ropes that held her arms tied firmly behind her back. Her partner Tonya's enthusiasm for this type of thing was wearing a bit thin.I thought that there was an inside joke there for romance readers and authors who know how often romance authors are asked about how they do their research. I was reminded of Jenny Crusie's sarcastic comment that "I get to meet those fascinating people who say, “Romance novels? Do you research your sex scenes? Heh, heh, heh.” (Absolutely. I just keep one hand free at all times to make notes. No, I am not interested in your help.)" (223).
"Come on, Tonya," she urged looking over her shoulder. "Haven't you figured out how you want to tie this thing yet?" Tonya's only response was an exasperated grunt. "Look, we've got a bookstore to run here. Maybe you can do your research another time."
"Just a second, Callie, I think I've got it." Tonya paused, a frown clouding her pretty face. "Maybe if I tie your feet too it would be more in keeping with the character." [...]
Bryan surveyed the scene before him. Two black women of similarly slender size and above-average height seemed to be engaged in some type of bondage game. [...]
Her hands finally freed, Callie walked around the counter to greet the customer. She extended one newly liberated hand. "Hi, I'm Callie Lawson, and this is my partner Tonya Stevens." When the man smiled knowingly, Callie felt the heat intensify in her face. "No, not that kind of partner. She's my business partner ... and a part-time mystery novelist." He nodded sagely. "Sometimes she has to work out the plots literally." (1-2)
What not infrequently comes across in the dialogue in this novel is the contrast between Bryan's worldly experience in some areas, and his unexpected and almost childlike naivety about others. He genuinely doesn't seem to understand the obstacles and differences that his status as a pop star create between him and Callie:
"Bryan, I thought we'd agreed, no more extravagant gifts," she persisted.The third and final novel I wanted to mention is Kristan Higgins's Catch of the Day [Excerpt here and reviews here, here and here. The novel is a one of the finalists for the 2008 RITA in the Best Contemporary Single Title Romance category (and there are some comments on that from Diana Holquist)].
"Extravagant? Look, it was either the bear or a pink Jaguar."
"A pink Jaguar?" Callie gasped. Had the boy totally lost his mind? [...] "And who buys a pink Jaguar? [...] For that matter, where on earth do you buy a pink Jaguar?"
"This is L. A., baby," Bryan replied breezily. "For enough money, you can get whatever you want. But anyway, Jon said you struck him as more of a Volvo kind of girl. I could see his point. [...]"
"Bryan, don't you dare buy me a pink Volvo!" Callie shrieked into the telephone.
"Why not?" Bryan asked, puzzled. "Tonya said pink was your favorite color. But that's okay. I'm sure they wouldn't mind if I ordered another color. What would you like? Or would you prefer the Jaguar after all?" he asked hopefully.
"Bryan!" Callie shouted. "I don't want you to buy me a car at all. Actually, I don't want you to buy me anything else, period, okay?" When Bryan didn't respond, Callie asked, "Why do you keep buying me stuff anyway? Aren't you supposed to be rehearsing? You must spend all your time shopping."
"I don't know, it just seems like when I'm buying presents for you, we're closer or something. I got so excited when I found the bracelet because I could just imagine the look on your face when you opened the box. [...] It's been lots of fun. I think in a way it helps me deal with being away from you."
Callie smiled. She knew she would keep the bracelet now. How could she resist when there was such sweet sentiment behind the purchase? He was like a young boy with a crush, making daisy chains for the little girl down the street. Probably the world's most outrageously expensive daisy chains, but daisy chains nonetheless. It was absolutely delightful, and a far cry from what she'd originally thought. (130-32)
In this novel the characters are very different from each other, and they remain so. Unfortunately, I can't pinpoint any quotes which would illustrate why these characters and their love for each other felt so real to me, because the words which create this impression are ones which, taken out of context, might have little or no impact at all. This is not a novel in which you can find an equivalent of Captain Wentworth's heartfelt declaration of love
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. (Jane Austen's Persuasion, Chapter 23)You won't even find something like this:
"I cannot make speeches, Emma," he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing. "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. [...]" (Jane Austen's Emma, Chapter 49)In fact, despite all I've said about the importance of dialogue, there isn't a great deal of what one would normally think of as dialogue between the hero and heroine. Higgins gives us a hero only marginally more eloquent than Farmer Hoggett in the story of Babe the Sheep-pig. In the final scene of the film Farmer Hoggett stakes his entire reputation on Babe the pig's ability to herd sheep. At the sheep-trial all the spectators think that Hoggett's crazy to bring a pig to a sheepdog trial but Babe proves them wrong and the narrator concludes:
Narrator: And though every single human in the stands or in the commentary boxes was at a complete loss for words, the man who in his life had uttered fewer words than any of them knew exactly what to say.Farmer Hoggett and Higgins' Malone have a lot more in common than the fact they both wear waterproof boots to work and are employed as "primary food producers". Malone too can stand firm against public opinion, and he declares his love for Maggie with only a few more words than Hoggett used to praise Babe: "Seems like I have a thing for you, Maggie" (376).
Farmer Hoggett: That'll do, pig. That'll do.
The contrast between Maggie and Malone is heightened by the fact that this is a novel told in the first person, by Maggie. Maybe one can think of this as a form of dialogue between the character and the reader. Maggie speaks to us directly, words pour from her, she reveals her emotions both to us, the readers, and to her entire community, while the morose, usually monosyllabic Malone reveals extremely little about himself. And yet, I believed that their relationship would work. Perhaps it's that in a reversal of Maggie's words on the very first page of the novel, to the effect that "even when someone is clearly wrong for you, he might seem ... well, perfect" (9), Malone is perfect for Maggie, even though he seems to be clearly wrong for her. Malone's lack of words is compensated for by Maggie's excess of them, and her growing ability to interpret (both for herself and the reader) his actions:
"Why did you kiss me the other night?" There. Said it. And if my cheeks are now flaming, so what? At least he has to answer.Maggie's words reveal her insecurity and how she masks it with a perky optimism. In the course of the novel it becomes apparent that she's had almost as many bad dates as she's tried hand creams, and deep down, she worries that she isn't attractive enough, and that remaining single will be her "cross to bear." Malone mostly shows and eventually tells her otherwise.
"The usual reasons," he says, but the lines around his eyes are deeper. He takes a sip of beer, still looking at me.
"The usual reasons. Well, that's funny. Because most times you can tell if someone, you know, likes you. Or is attracted to you. And I never really picked up on that before. With you, I mean."
He doesn't answer. A clock on the wall announces the inevitable passage of time ... tick ... tick ... tick. Finally, I'm about ready to jump out of my skin. "Can I look around?" I ask.
[...] "You hungry?" Malone asks.
"No. I had a late lunch. Are you? Am I interrupting dinner? I should probably go." My heart is thudding away, my eyes feel hot and tight.
Malone takes my hand. His is warm and smooth and thickly callused. He rubs his thumb gently across the back of my hand and doesn't say anything more. [...] Then Malone frowns a little and lifts my hand for a closer look. He makes a little tsking sound, and my jaw tightens.
"Yes, well, my hands are in the water all day long, and then with being near the grill and all - "
"Come here," he says, pulling me back into the kitchen. He lets go of my chapped, disgusting claw, opens a cupboard and rummages around. I lean against the counter, miffed. So what? So I have chapped hands. Big deal. A little eczema and everyone gets distraught. Malone takes out a small tin and opens it. Then he scoops out a little bit and rubs it between his palms. I guess my nasty skin has reminded him of the importance of moisturizing.
"I've tried everything," I say, looking over his shoulder. "Beeswax, lanolin, Vaseline, Burt's Bees, Bag Balm ... nothing works. I have ugly hands. My cross to bear. Big deal."
"You don't have ugly hands," he chides. It may be the longest sentence I've heard him say yet. He takes my hand in his and starts working in the cream. (135-37)
After all this about dialogue, it seems appropriate to mention that this year's Scarlet Boa Contest is all about dialogue:
This year's Scarlet Boa Contest gives you an opportunity to strut your characters' verbal stuff. Put that action into words and let us hear a gem from your story.More details here.
So, what sort of details make characters come alive for you? Can you think of any examples? And does well-written dialogue play an important part in making you feel that that the characters are "real"?
- Crusie, Jennifer. "Why I Occasionally Think About Not Writing Romance Any More." North American Romance Writers. Ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 1999. 223-225.
- Hardy Holcomb, Roslyn. Rock Star. Columbus, MS: Genesis, 2006.
- Higgins, Kristan. Catch of the Day. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 2007.
- Langhorne, Karyn. A Personal Matter. New York: HarperTorch, 2004.
- Lovelace, Merline. The Harder They Fall. 2000. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 2001.