10 Tips for Building Believable Love Stories

One of my favorite love stories.

For those of you who couldn’t make it to my Athens Writers Association class in Athens last weekend, here’s a taste of what we discussed —

  1. Make your characters interesting. The best way to make me believe the love story is to make me believe in them. No matter how good the blueprint, if your building materials are Styrofoam and gummy bears, that cathedral ain’t standing for long. The more interesting and complex your lovers are, the more we’ll believe in them and root for their ‘happily ever after’. If your having trouble with the love story, go back and spend more time figuring out who these people are.
  2. Go for an off-kilter aesthetic. Symmetry is beautiful but, to me,love stories thrive in the place between beauty and ugliness. Let me explain— the cheerleader and the jock get together. They both like the same things, the same movies, and same religion. They’re perfect for each other. Are you asleep yet, ‘cause I am. There’s nothing wrong with that story if there’s an important ‘other’ element (’perfect’ couple must overcome her drinking problem or they’re both men- and it’s 1950). But in most cases, I’m more interested in the people you wouldn’t think would be together. My character Maurice (who follows the god of Darkness) falls for servant of a rival god just as a war is about to break out. A different Maurice (E.M. Forster’s) is a college-educated city man who falls for a simple (but super-charming) games-keeper. This is not just about differences in background, this is about the characters seemingly having good reasons to have no interest in each other and yet finding themselves very interested indeed.
  3. There’s obstacles to their happiness. Now, you could say that’s more about good storytelling than being ‘believable’ and yet part of the real world is diving into challenges and changes as you add a new person into your life. Your family might not approve; their family might not approve. You might live in different cities. But better yet — you might not agree about everything. I think some of the best love stories have the characters standing in the way of their own happiness. Can they move aside and allow themselves the happy ending? And should they? Love can spring up between diametrically opposed characters, say a detective and a killer, and they may love each but still make choices that ensure they won’t walk into the sunset together.
  4. Neither one is perfect. Most often the hero (male or female) in more interesting and flawed and the ‘love interest’ is some sort of perfect, beautiful, glowing god or goddess from the sky. No matter how great they appear to their lover, the love interest should have flaws, even tiny ones. In my mind, Edward (in Twilight) was a little too boring and perfect — a wish fulfillment for an accessory instead of a human being. Compare that story to My So-Called Life’s Angela and Jordan. The most interesting thing about us is often our weaknesses. And it’s often those weaknesses that we are most protective of in those we love.
  5. When it comes to cliches, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s certain phrases (and situations) that you should probably avoid like the plague (I promise to stop now). The ‘tripping into a stranger’s arms’ or ‘both reaching for the last- whatever’ are pretty overused as meet-cute devices. And I shouldn’t have to tell you to avoid actual cliches like ‘Her heart skipped a beat’. That said, don’t give up the emotion or impact you’re looking for, just find a more clever way to express it. In the beginning of Jumping the Broom, Sabrina is tired of sleeping with cheating run-a-round men and makes a promise to God to not have sex again until it’s with her (as yet unmet) future husband on their wedding night. So you get the feeling God is about to introduce her to the man of her dreams, and he does — when Sabrina accidentally hits Jason when he walks in front of her car. Her overreaction of bumping into him goes from funny to sweet when the audience sees their both smitten from the start. Likewise, if you feel like your character’s heart really did skip a beat (arrhythmia) then write that, but write it in such a way that it’s uniquely you (or better yet, uniquely your character). ‘Lucy decided she was having a heart attack, right now, right here in Josh Logan’s office. Josh raised his beautiful eyebrows in concern. Great, thought Lucy, I meet the man of my dreams and the only place he’ll ever take me is to the morgue.’ Dig past what you’ve seen and try to really connect to your character, where they might meet someone, and how they might react (especially if it’s not smooth).
  6. The best times aren’t the most perfect times. The best kiss, most romantic date, hottest make-out session, and favorite moment may not be exactly as planned. Scarlett and Rhett first kiss beside a dirty wagon with an unconscious woman and a baby in it, and he’s about to abandon her to drive miles by herself through a war torn countryside. Oh yes, and Atlanta is burning to the ground behind them. Their both soot-stained and sweaty — and it’s a great kiss. Much better than if they were in a perfect hotel room with glasses of Champagne. The same way that the ‘perfect’ first date with your crush might be ruined when he has to drive you to the hospital because your best friend got into a car crash- while driving drunk. Worst night ever? Not so fast, your friend was all right and while you watched her sleep, your crush sat down beside you and took your hand — and in that moment you kind of knew he was going to become your husband.
  7. Make us believe these two could have a great life together. Whether or not you have a sunset planned for your two leads, we (the readers) should at least believe it could happen. By which I mean, their personalities and souls are compatible. Do they laugh together, get each other’s humor and priorities? Do they respect the other’s mind? Even if they are opposed in some major way (she’s going to war/ he’s a pacifist) you still want to believe they could be happy if that one thing didn’t exist. Some characters fight and misunderstand each other so much that I want to separate them now, and I’m certainly not betting on a golden anniversary. In the same way, if your characters break up and get together more than once — I’m gone. I’ll go give my heart to a love story I can believe could work out longterm. The exception is something like the film Sid & Nancy: totally screwed-up characters whose destiny is to burn down the world with their love — and hate.
  8. Don’t fall into traditional boy/girl relationships. This is related to the tip about cliches. You may have noticed that in a couple of examples above, I role-reversed (she have a drinking problem/she’s going to war). That’s because few places force characters into tighter traditional roles than love stories. ‘“Don’t leave me!” She begged, clinging to his sleeve. He shook her hand away- cold, unfeeling.’ Youch. But what if you reversed it? Suddenly, it’s at least a little interesting. In Fall Street Claire is a sensible, sane, and intelligent 15 year old. Tommy is the popular kid two years older than her. But as they become friends, she realizes he’s a lot more emotionally needy than she is, and she had to reassure him and look after him. The reverse wouldn’t be much of a story, but the fact that people would expect an older boy to act one way (especially around a younger girl) to me gives the scenes more interest. One interesting way to break out of stereotypes is to have both of your characters be male or female. ‘Gay’ films or stories as genre can have their own cliches (just like ‘chick lit’). But I’m not talking about category fiction here — I’m talking about taking the exact story you were already telling and making the lovers the same sex. ‘He’s an ex-marine and the only person who can save the President from an assassin’s bullet. And he teams up with a rookie Secret Service agent to protect the leader of the free world. All the while, sparks fly between these two!’ It would be an interesting twist, and it might help you break out of expectations while writing it (ie the assassin — OF COURSE — holds the agent hostage in the final battle).
  9. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. One of the most believable love stories is ‘the one who got away’. 99.99% of romance stories try to deliver that happy ending — your story can really stand out if you admit that sometimes love can’t conquer all. If you really see your character unable to forgive him, unwilling to move to Bombay, or fatally shot in the final showdown with the assassin, consider following your instinct. There’s always room for another Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliette. Now, in a lot of cases, we want the happy ending and woe be to the writer who tricks us. So consider giving us a heads up (right in the beginning the narrator of 500 Days of Summer tells us ‘This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.’). You can also have an open-ended love story where you leave us hopeful without promising sunsets and grandbabies. In romance even a pinch of doubt can shake the reader out of a rose-colored haze and remind them of events in their own life.
  10. It’s weird and different. In real life, it can be hard to explain exactly why you connect to a certain person, what so funny about them, and why you can’t get them out of your head. Most people will never understand exactly why you fell for each other. But in fiction, the writer needs to make us understand, to feel the love story from the inside out. You can do a surprisingly good job with the simplest story. Imagine a teenage boy — he carries the girl’s books every day, asks after her family, and- is totally ignored. But he keeps trying. And, if she’s worthy of him, we want him to succeed. That said, the shortcuts to connecting to your readers (his startlingly blue eyes, her pounding heart) — we understand we’re suppose to care without really connecting to the story. Your readers, and your characters, deserve better. Dig deep, and discover what makes these two different and how to write something you’ve never read before. My favorite love quote (which I can’t find the source of) is “Her lips were so close, what else could I do?”

And that’s what you want; give your readers no choice but to fall in love with your story, your characters, and your view on romance. It could be the beginning of a lifelong affair.

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What’s Holding You Back?

The following is a guest post from a good friend and fellow Athens Writers Association member, Jennifer Innes.  Jen has shown an incredible amount of courage and persistence in going after her dream and I think we can all learn a lot from her.  Enjoy!   

I started my first novel at some point in middle school. This book was pretty awful, but main themes that would become the ties that bound my writing together were there and it was a good start to what would become an almost twenty year career in writing.

By 2002, I was pretty confident that writing was the path I wanted to take. It was my second year of college and I had to decide where I was going to transfer to and what degree I was going to pursue. I gave up on a lot of different career ideas but writing wouldn’t let me quit and so I went on to get not one, but two degrees in English.

Fast forward eleven years and you’d think I’d have a million books in print and I’d be world famous (okay maybe just moderately famous) but no, I let myself be held back from my full potential. Over the years I’ve written many books, well to be honest, I have half written many books. Almost every book I started sits on a computer drive, half completed, each project waiting to be seen to the end, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Typically life would happen and interrupt the writing process for far too long and then fear would set in.

The only four letter word that truly disgusts me is ‘fear’ because it controls most of my life. With my novels I feared completing them because I was scared of both failure and success simultaneously. I was afraid of these things because in either situation I would be powerless. I began writing as a child to escape the powerlessness I felt and as an adult I still try to escape those feelings which means I don’t finish the novels that want to be finished and I don’t pursue my dreams of being a published author.

But it’s not all a sad story. Several years back I met someone who would become a dear friend to me. He was also a writer and he was also afraid. Together we began a novel that we both were dedicated to and by metaphorically holding each other’s hands, we helped each other complete the novel, edit the novel, and now we are pursuing publication together.

When deciding how to go about publishing our book we settled on self-publishing but wanted to see if other people would be interested enough in our book to help fund some of the publishing costs. We started a Kickstarter campaign on Kickstarter.com for “The Beginning of Whit” to test the waters so-to-speak, and so far the response has been pretty phenomenal. Kickstarter itself was another one of those fearful things because “failure” and “success” are attached to any Kickstarter campaign. But we are pushing forward because the possibility of success will help launch our book and that would feel more amazing than sitting in my comfort zone avoiding failure.

So I ask you, what is stopping you from doing the things you want to do? Is it fear? Is it something you can overcome? Don’t waste twenty years like I did, do something about your hurdles today. I said to a friend once, “I’m my own biggest hurdle.” He said, “Then get out of your own way already.” What sound advice!

Please check out the Kickstarter for “The Beginning of Whit” at:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2121709675/the-beginning-of-whit-a-laugh-out-loud-urban-fanta

Jennifer’s blog can be found at: www.fanwritunit.blogspot.com

Find her on twitter: https://twitter.com/TheLameUnicorn

Find her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JenniferInnesAndrewGrace

How To Become Beloved

  • Give it away — your time, your love, your heart
  • Say the sweet things you usually only think
  • Work hard
  • Always be honest, even about the little things
  • Keep your promises
  • Help others achieve their dreams
  • go the extra mile
  • Don’t take your frustrations out on others
  • Seek the things that make you make smile, then smile about them
  • Find a life so exciting that others cannot help but grin when they think about you
  • Find money and material items to be some of the least important things on Earth
  •  Love yourself
  • Let your inner glow, light, madness, and weird-irasity shine
  • See everyone as perfect at a soul level
  • Have empathy, or at least, have sympathy
  • Do little surprises for those you love all the time
  • Know it is better to be tricked a couple of times in your whole life than to be suspicious all of your life
  • Dance when your spirit call you to
  • Know that everyone is a ‘bad dancer’, ‘nervous about public speaking’, ‘afraid to talk to that person’, and could ‘never do that’ even though they’d love to — and then go be the person that shows everyone how awesome life is on the other side of fear
  • Love animals, nature, and life
  • Listen to other intelligent opinions
  • Know your worth, and refuse to spend time with anyone who doesn’t treat you as a magical, beautiful, perfect being
  • Seek adventure
  • Always have a beginner’s spirit and a master’s patience
  • Find the one thing you were put on Earth to do, and do it
  • Put down the phone when you are already in a room with people you love
  • Look others in the eye when talking to them
  • Never make jokes that are cruel
  • Give your ‘positions of power’ away but keep your strength
  • Love everyone
  • Live in the now
  • Know that you are worth it
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff
  • Turn off the TV and talk to others
  • Be a geek about anything you love
  • Be kind in words and thoughts , even to those who are cruel — especially to those who are cruel
  • Don’t steal
  • Look at life as a blessed, gifted miracle
  • Release worry
  • Embrace how awesome you are
  • Live the life of your dreams
  • Realize that you need only be and act from your highest, truest self and you will be instantly beloved by those you are meant for — and those who don’t understand and value your perfection you are happy to release to go on their way
  • Be kick ass.
  • Remember that in a hundred years none of this will matter
  • Remember today matters
  • And always —

You Are A God

When you woke up this morning, you may not have thought about it.  As you hurry through your day, you may, for a moment, forget it.  But know it is always true —

You are a god.  A wonder.  A perfect spiritual being living out a divine destiny.

AND YOU KICK ASS.

Too often we judge ourselves harshly.  Much more often, we don’t ask the great things of ourselves.  You are the one who should stand up and call out tyranny, you are the one who should call out to those have abandoned kindness and help them as much as you help their victims.  You know what you are capable of, how beautiful and great you are, and how desperately the world needs more of your light.

You are beautiful.  Know it.

You are wise.  Act upon it.

You have dreams.  Honor them.

Your soul belongs to a future we can scarcely imagine.  Embrace that future today.

 

Is ‘Release Day’ an Outdated Term for Self-Published Books?

I am planning the release of my first book at the end of the month and I have a problem — I don’t have a burning desire to email everyone I’ve ever met, Tweet 24-7 about my “GREAT DEAL! ON AMAZON! CHEEP!”, or prime my fans to buy it on day one or else, I’ll insinuate, they’ll not really my fans at all.  I’m not interested in any of those things.  I’m happily sharing my most inspirational songs on FB and mentioning my book as I do it, but I realized this morning that ‘release day’ just doesn’t mean that much to me.

And then I starting thinking — how important are release dates for self-published books these days?

Now for movies, the first weekend of release is imperative.  Even if a movie ‘has legs’ and keeps making money, a slow opening weekend has very real implications — the actor, the director, and a franchise may be judged against it for years to come.

And for TV shows it’s even worse — a slow start may lead to a fast finish.  Your whole future is riding on a quick and intense public interest in your work.

Now we return to books.  In traditional publishing if a book doesn’t get enthusiasm from the publisher’s sales team, the initial run may be reduced.  If the book doesn’t sell right away, it may lose what little advertising it had, its shelf space, and even be headed for the dreaded ‘remainder bin’.  And then, after only 12-18 months, your book might go out of print altogether and disappear off the face of the Earth.

But with a self published book, everything changes,  Yes, selling more books in a short length of time can help you jump up in the Amazon rankings, but that’s about it.  Your book’s not getting ‘remaindered’.  It’s not going not of print.  You and your book can be on Amazon till the end of time.

I’m planning on growing my fan base (I’m aiming for 100 followers to this blog by the end of the month!) and I’m going to keep writing and improving myself and I plan on my book ‘How To Come Alive: A Guidebook for Living the Life of Your Dreams’ to be the first in a series.  So ‘opening day’ isn’t a big day for me.  It’s like the first day you meet the love of your life — it’s special, but it’s only the beginning.

And you all, my great readers of the world, are the love of my life.  And our adventure is only beginning — no countdown clock needed.

Female Characters — Why God, Why Is It So Hard?

I am a woman.  I have an amazing sister who’s a woman.  My mother was one of my biggest influences.  I believe woman can do anything and people are a lot more alike than they are different.

SO, WHY ARE FEMALE CHARACTERS STILL SUCH A CHALLENGE TO WRITE?

I’ve thought alot about this question and I believe these are the reasons (for me) —

  • There are still many more examples of great male characters
  • There are more examples of lousy female characters
  • The white male character is the ultimate ‘blank slate’ on which to write your character and their defects without censure or double-guessing yourself

So, in the first of a continuing series, we’ll explore writing women.  Today, we’ll look at my personal experience.

Now, in my early writing years, I had a couple of female characters at the center of stories, but they tended to be either the ‘normal’ person surrounded by more interesting weirdos or the ‘girlfriend’.  I’m pretty sure none passed the Bechdel test, which states a work passes a gender bias test if there are at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Not because they talked about men a lot, but because my one female character would look kind of crazy talking to herself.

At First Glance

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to write interesting women characters.  Instead, I tended to think of an exciting situation first, THEN imagine who wound the clock at the end of the world, say.  And I would think of great, complex, charming characters I’d seen and maybe my hero would be a little bit of a lot of characters I’d admired — but most of those amazing roles were men.  So my hero would take form as a man (honestly a John Cusack-type nine times out of ten in the early years).

Break Through

When I started my first novel, Other Gods (and mostly left behind screenplays and short stories), I still didn’t have any female leads.  But I did have a charmer, and a more full and interesting character, in Maurice’s girlfriend Selena.  She hadn’t been intended, she and Maurice just met in one scene and it brought out interesting things in both of them.  And I really didn’t intend the Vengier.  She’s an insane warrior who sees the future.  She’s sort of a spiritual relative to Asajj Ventress from Star Wars: Clone Wars, though she was written many years before I saw that series (and I didn’t know her last name till right now — how interesting is the similarity?).  The Vengier was hardly female, because she was hardly human — she doesn’t have to be great while dealing with a boyfriend, family, or regular desires — but she is a female character and an interesting one, and as such was my first big win in this arena.

A Change is Going to Come

Finally, I started having more interesting female leads.  I think the first time I did this was when I started thinking about a sequel for Other Gods.  There were two young men, mere bit players in the first book, that I sensed would play a larger role in the second.  And then one day I realised  that one of them, the more interesting one who actually became the lead of the book, was a woman.  I wish I could remember the particulars — I think I just had one too many brown-haired boys — but none the less, on that day my first full female character came into being.

Today

Now I have a lot of women running around (both my third and forth novels, which I’m working on simultaneously, have female heroes), but it’s still hard, harder than it should be.  One trick I’ve learned is to, early on in the storytelling process when I’m just thinking about the story and haven’t written anything down, flip the character’s gender.  I know, it goes against my organic take on character development, but I have to do it.  At to least try and see if it works, if it’s better, more true to the character.  Give it a shot yourself.  Because there’s way too few great woman characters out there still, particularly in sci-fi / fantasy.

I believe it’s getting better, both for my own writing and the world at large, but it’s still a damn shame to me that, in my fantasy Spark of Madness, I find it much easier and more interesting to write Roch’s story than his twin sister’s — and she’s the hero.

Let’s all work to add more messed-up, crazy, wonderful female characters to the world so the next generation of writers doesn’t even know what we’re talking about.

Next time we’ll look at the best (and worse) female characters for inspiration, and then the tips and tricks to make your own female characters amazing.