Lately, I’ve been in the process of finishing one book, and I’m already thinking about plotting the next. I’m hoping to embark on something completely different, a change of pace and a different subgenre of romance.
But one thing will remain the same: my characters will need to suffer.
No, you didn’t just stumble into some off-off-Broadway production of Maleficent. It’s just me, Rosanna, determined to wreak havoc on a new set of protagonists.
Why this determination to cause upset and misery to my characters? Well, mostly because it’s a lot of fun. Seriously. I exorcise a lot of demons this way. I highly recommend it.
I would also argue it’s necessary in a plot. Of course, not every story has to have mustache-twirling villains or high stakes. It does, however, have to feature some sort of conflict. As it happens, I like lots of conflict. For me, it’s what drives a novel. It’s what keeps me turning pages.
But how much is too much?
One of my author pals once said to me, “I don’t like angst in my books.” I understand what she means. Constant angst can weigh a story down.
Just look at Coronation Street, my favourite British soap opera, or as I fondly call it, “the wheel of punishment.” Although I’m Canadian, I grew up watching Coronation Street, nicknamed “Corrie” by many. Broadcast every week day in half hour increments, or on Sunday mornings over the course of a couple of hours, it’s a tradition for many Canadians. Corrie is very much like most American soaps, only with working-class characters, and like other soaps, it has an addictive quality. Viewers have watched it for decades. My own relationship with it has lasted over twenty years.
As these characters struggle with problem after problem, one begins to wonder just how much they can take. It literally never ends! As a result, the viewer never gets a break. We are always on pins and needles, craving the sweet release of resolution. And just when the viewer thinks all is well, a new dilemma is introduced. Or, in the case of Coronation Street, a new serial killer.
Soap operas, though, are different from romance novels. Romance novels need to resolve happily.
So, when I put on my romance writing hat, I need to temper my need to torment my protagonists. I can’t allow evil Rosanna to wreak too much havoc.
Besides, conflict is one thing, angst is another.
What separates them, in my opinion, is believability. Yes, as romance writers, we want to torture our characters and make them work for their “happily ever afters.” But we also need to make sure those poor dears are still standing by the end of the book. There’s nothing like driving your hero or heroine into an early grave…which has also happened on Coronation Street! Besides, readers sort of frown on it when you kill the hero or heroine in romance. (For reals, don’t do it.)
I will freely admit I’ve spent countless hours trying to find ways to up the ante and throw new hurdles at my characters. How do I begin? I look at the characters themselves. Who are they? How do they struggle? Who has an emotional wound? Are they willing to talk about it or do they retreat into themselves? How will those various problems spark tension between the characters, leading to tense confrontations, lots of hot sex and enduring love? That kind of thing.
The stakes don’t always have to be high, of course. In fact, I hear many romance readers expressing a preference for romance novels with low stakes. I totally understand the appeal, and have sought out these books as well. When real life is tough, it can be rewarding to read about easily resolved conflicts. After all, struggles come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s a disagreement with a family member. Sometimes it’s about colleagues vying for the same job. Sometimes it’s two people trying their hardest not to fall in love, even though the universe keeps throwing them together. Whatever the stakes, they just have to be high enough to keep your protagonists apart until they can finally succumb to their feelings (my favorite part, by the way!)
In many ways, embarking on a new book or series is exciting. The blank page is empowering, while also a bit terrifying. But there is always one thing that guides me. I envision my characters at the start, when everything seems challenging, and then I envision them at their “happily ever after.” No matter what I throw at them, I know I have the privilege of seeing them through to their satisfying conclusion.
And maybe a bit of suffering along the way.
Okay, maybe a lot. I’m evil that way.