Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Giving you an edge - with Melissa James

A big HRA blog welcome back to Melissa James with a post on how unorthodox stories and characters can give you an edge - if you're trying to break into publishing or needing something fresh for your 10th, 20th, or even 50th book!

Unorthodox Stories and Characters...the Edge You Need?

A recent phone call from my editor got me thinking. Being asked for “unorthodox families” in my next book, it made me think: what makes a family? In my brother’s family, for example, there are stepchildren, natural children and an adopted child, all of whom love him and call him Dad. In romance stories, so many different stories have been written, from tried and true, adaptations on fairy tales and Greek mythology, oddball comedy and action adventure. So what makes a family – or a story – unorthodox? I began thinking this as I folded washing tonight, and turned on the TV...and the movie “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down A Mountain” was on.

Now that’s an unorthodox movie: if you haven’t seen it, it’s about a town who believes Hugh Grant has a map they need for the town’s survival, and they keep deceiving him to keep him in the town until they can wangle it from him. “Harold and Maude”, “Napoleon Dynamite” and “The Princess Bride” are all oddball movies, to name a few...and they’re among my favourite movies. I like the unorthodox, the screwball, the unique take on life. I like characters like Greg House, the family in the old movie “You Can’t Take It With You” (highly recommended!) and Love Actually. I love the family dynamics in “While You Were Sleeping”.

Why can this give you an edge in your writing? Think about it. In a company swamped by submissions every week, what does it take to make your manuscript stand out? Deep emotion, of course; an unforgettable setting, a strong hero and feisty heroine, yes...but what about an unusual plotline? What about a story about something that touches your soul or your funny bone? I’ve based many books now on documentaries I’ve watched (A Mother in a Million was based on a documentary about missing people), a real family experience (Long-Lost Father’s daughter, Casey, is based on my niece, and my brother’s unusual but loving family), or facts gleaned from university readers (my first book, Her Galahad).

And another thing too often overlooked by writers is the secondary characters. As a regular contest judge, I so often see secondary characters are really rather cliché and boring, used only as a vehicle to further the relationship.

But why can’t they be entertaining, as well? The Princess Bride is a classic romance – but would it be such fun without Inigo “There isn’t a lot of money in revenge” Montoya, Fezzik the Giant, Prince Humperdinck or even the booing old crone?

And in books, even characters that never come on stage can entertain! Think of Bradley in Jennifer Crusie’s classic “Getting Rid of Bradley”. Think of characters that never talk, such as Fred the dog in “Anyone But You.” When you treat every character as a personality on their own, one that can last in the reader’s mind long after the book’s gone (I haven’t read either of those books in years), you give the entire book a life, a sparkle beyond the romance alone. And both those books were less than 60,000 words! So it’s not a matter of space; it’s a matter of character strength. Making each word count, bringing each character to life is so important.

For example, Liz Fielding’s excellent book “Reunited: A Marriage in a Million” had a secondary character who, on the surface, seemed hard, cold – Miranda. Yet she totally intrigued me. She remained so true to herself in the book, even as her brother (the hero) changed. She was grumpy, feisty, opinionated and yet obedient. What made her tick? We hardly know until her book...and she was just as fascinating then. Her conflict and character unfolded slowly, like a sunflower turning with the movement of the day. “Wedded In a Whirlwind” is a book I’d totally recommend for great characterisation as well.

I had quite a lot of kind feedback from my book “A Mother in a Million”, especially that readers loved the children. The hero had three kids, each with a distinct personality and a conflict that added to the romance’s problems. Tim, at only 8, had a terrible conflict: he’d promised his mummy he’d look after the family till she came back. 3 years later his mummy’s still missing, and he’s still the family watchdog. His fear that his father would find another woman, and knowing his little sister and brother desperately needed a mother, pulls at him until he can’t bear it, and disappears over and over, terrifying his father, Noah. Cilla is 5, and climbs trees when she can’t take the tension. She’s shy and sucks her thumb, but comes out of her shell for the heroine, Jennifer. Rowdy, the youngest, is only 3, but, undamaged by his mother’s disappearance, has a cute wisdom that changes the characters’ perceptions of each other – and his acceptance of the harder aspects of life show his personality.

The moral of this ramble is: each story should have a new perspective on life – and each character should have a unique personality. As the author, it’s your job to create a world where each person is true to themselves, whether for good or bad, quirky or sad, dark or hilarious. We all have quirky characters in our lives somewhere, and the best books (and characters) are drawn from life....or an overheard conversation on a bus or in a café. Be observant, look out for the traits that make each person unique, and adding that kind of strength to your current book’s secondary characters, and indeed the primary characters, may not only keep your book far from the cliché that bring forth rejection, but it just might keep an editor hooked from start to finish.

Melissa's latest book is THE REBEL KING, out this month and the first of her Suddenly Royal series!


  1. How interesting that you picked up on Manda's obedience, Melissa. It was one of those subconscious things, but obviously she was so terrified of losing her brother -- which was why she was so beastly to Belle.

    I thought there was a real edge to Toby in His Princess in the Making; the way he came to realise the damage he'd done to Lia was knife sharp.

    Terrific post.

  2. Fab post, Melissa!

    You've made me want to go out and collect a whole host of quirky characters. Now that I think about it, most my favourite movies have if not one then a whole cast of quirky characters!

    Shall set forth and study this further.

  3. What a thought provoking post. You mention movies that are favorites in our household (especially, Princess Bride) and our favorite TV shows are the quirky ones. Unusual characters/stories do tend to stand out.

  4. Great article, Melissa.

    I cross-posted the link on my blog and had the article really resonate with a writer. Thanks!