Plain, Ordinary, or Beautiful?

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Once I made the mistake of creating a heroine who wasn’t loveable because she didn’t forgive until the end of the story. Although her black and white thinking was true to character in her particular setting, it made her unappealing to the modern, more open-minded reader. Some who couldn’t relate blasted her in reviews.

Observation: Characters can be too realistic.

While she needs to stay true to her personality type, a good heroine breaks out of the norm for her particular setting from the get-go.

Because writing is a creative process, the rules are loose to allow us to create a unique voice. It’s a painful process to learn what works through our failures. After a dozen novels, workshops, and self-help studying, I still blunder my way along. At the end of each novel, I find myself vowing, Wow, I’ll never do that again. No more prologues for me—but that’s a topic for another day.

Under deadline, I write and juggle life. But between contracts, I study, plot, fret, and find more time to doubt myself. As you might have guessed, I’m currently developing characters. While fretting over my next heroine, I asked myself, what would help her connect with readers on page one and throughout my manuscript? This thinking led to another observation. Let me explain.

Growing up as a Mennonite, I call myself a plain-vain gal.

I was raised on humble pie and continue to strive for humility. But you know how it goes when somebody says you can’t have something. So if I’m honest, I have a craving for beauty and admiration. When I read, I enjoy living-escaping through beautiful, gutsy heroines. Most of my heroines have been lovely on the outside.

But since I’m wallowing in character fret-mode, I polled my Facebook followers with the following question:

Do you prefer a beautiful heroine or a plain one?

Every single response was plain, except for a few who didn’t care. Really? I expected the comments about inner beauty, but I was shocked they demanded plain on the outside. I expected mixed preferences.

For sure, they want a heroine who overcomes the ordinary. I’m still processing this information so I ask you…

…Is inner beauty or character strength more visible on a plain heroine?

As an example, Katharine Hepburn comes to mind, and I did a follow up blog post about using her as a character on plain girl romanticizing.

I’m conforming to my followers’ preference. Like most authors, I cut photos for each character and study them as I write. Here’s the plain-Jane photo I’ve chose for my WIP.

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She’s really growing on me. I’m convinced I’ll make her shine. And hopefully make her smile too.

All of my responses were from women. I wonder: men, would you respond differently? But as a romance author, I’m writing for women. Or was this a genre thing (Amish readers ages 34-55)? Would it have been different for younger readers?

And what about our heroes? In secular romance novels, heroes are often dark and brooding with wicked pasts. It’s up to the heroine to bring out the good and change him. In Christian novels, the growth is often attributed to God. But what kind of heroes are Christian women seeking? Have you done any polls?

From my own experience, my favorite hero was my last one. He was ordinary looking. On a scale of one to ten, he started below zero with the heroine who remembered him as gawky and pesky from college. I developed his inner strength and found myself drawn to him more than my good looking heroes.

On book covers, publishers often hide the heroine’s face. But writers must describe character attributes.

So what do you think? Does it really matter how they look?

Or is it all about the writing?

What Writing Fiction Taught Me About Human Nature

I used to think I knew all about right and wrong, good and evil, heroes and villainsIt was all black and white to me. When I bothered to think of it at all, I pretty much knew how to bucket things and, I’m sad to say, sometimes people. Then I started writing, and I figured every character central to my plot would be a good guy or a bad guy, an ally or an obstacle. I quickly learned that wasn’t the way to build a character-driven novel. All-good or all-bad characters are flat, boring, and unrealistic. No one wants to read about them, and it wasn’t fun to write about them, either. I realized, like real people, characters must have a little of both in them.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This concept was easier for me to grasp with my heroes. After all, if a hero doesn’t start out flawed in some way, how can they ever hope to grow? This was something I embraced early on in my writing. The fundamental change that occurs when a hero is tested through a series of internal and external obstacles is half the fun of writing, in my opinion. The villain was a bit trickier. Even understanding no one is perfect, it’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing a finger at a blatant wrong-doer and summing up their person as ‘bad’.

As I spent more time delving into the psyche of my villains before casting them in a story, I realized who they are is more than what they want, their flawed reasoning or perspective, and even what motivates them to do the terrible things they sometimes do. Villains, like real people, can have a backstory wound too.

What is a backstory wound?

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One of my favorite resources for character-driven plots comes from Martha Alderson, often referred to as the Plot Whisperer. A backstory wound can be anything impressionable in the character’s past that interferes directly with their success at achieving their goal. It’s worth pointing out this isn’t always something you’ll reveal to your readers, but it’s something the writer should know. Essentially, backstory wounds are how characters sabotage themselves, whether they’re aware of it or not. Heroes have them, and villains have them. (Don’t we all, really?) The main difference is, at the end of the story, the hero has changed somehow to overcome their backstory wound to the extent they can achieve their goal, whereas the villain hasn’t.

But they could.

Villains have the same capacity to grow and change as heroes have.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I realized that little nugget, I was able to start writing better villains, and I also had a slightly altered view of human nature; I became a little more understanding. Like our characters, real people face conflict and make choices every single day—choices often colored by their own backstory wounds. The fights we pick, the words we say, the grudges we release, the big dramas and little thoughts and actions that shape us every day—these help us grow in character…or not.

I still have my views on right and wrong. However, now I try not to assign those characteristics to people, but rather to their behavior at any given point in time, often framed by the choices available to them.

What about you? What has writing (or reading) taught you about human nature?