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The Villain’s Viewpoint

Just before Halloween, as darkness fell, a secretive group (AWA writers) met in a large, intimidating building (the local library) to discuss a gallery of murderers, psychopaths, and all-around bad eggs.  A great time was had by all, and we came away with some new perspectives on one of the most important characters in any novel.

Below is a short handout I made for the class — hopefully it will inspire some deviant thinking of your own.

 The Villain’s Viewpoint


First, some terms —

  • VILLAIN — a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot
  • NEMESIS — a long-standing rival; an archenemy.  A function of the Nemesis character (in the Hero’s Journey) is to embody the Hero’s inner conflict
  • ANTI-HERO — a central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes
  • THRESHOLD GUARDIAN —  A figure or event that tests the resolve of a Hero as he pursues his destiny and/or his goal
  • ANTAGONIST — a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary

When thinking about viewpoints, it’s important to remember some villains don’t have them — the aliens from the Alien series, tornadoes and other disasters, dangerous animals, and even total personifications of evil like Sauron (from The Lord of the Rings) — they don’t get human personalities and weaknesses (though characters like Saruman and Sméagol do).  They may still be a character in your novel though, just in a way in which their unfathomable, unstoppable nature is their forefront characteristic.

To explore why our villains do what they do, you must have empathy for them, or at least sympathy.  Who were they as children?  Even if someone was ‘born evil’ would that not arouse your sympathy and make you wonder how they grew up, who they loved, who could never love them back?  Even an evil you can never understand still can arouse a feeling of compassion — their lives (if only their internal landscape) must be a terrible place to live.

Also remember that the villain’s journey is the reverse image of the hero’s (one’s victory is the other’s defeat).  Who are they when no one’s looking?

Here’s some examples —

  • GlaDOS (Portal) is a killer robot but she believes she’s just ‘testing’ out hero through a series of life-and-death trials. GlaDOS represents a ‘lawful evil’ (an alignment from Dungeons & Dragons) who believes she’s following the rules and being a good employee.  She’s also very funny, which is good since the hero doesn’t talk.6e72a8de5dfa3668281cd8cfea6831a2
  • Professor Moriarty (Sherlock) is of superior intelligence and illuminates the path Sherlock could have taken (shadow self) if his beliefs in the ‘moral law’ had not prevented him. These types often see themselves as above society (Magneto’s homosuperiors from The X-Men) — they believe that they have either freed themselves or been born exempt from the rules others must follow.  If everyone is trying to achieve money, safety, and happiness they reason, shouldn’t the smartest (strongest etc.) win the biggest piece of the pie?85170947a9c72916ee5b5c6fa6a2f026
  • Harvey Dent (Batman) represents chaos (as Batman does order) but he also shows a good man transformed by loss into a villain. Chance turned Dent evil and chance is what he gives his victims via the coin toss.  The overprotective father who limits his younger son’s actions while mourning his elder son’s death could have the same reasoning.  The sense that retribution is necessary can create villains where heroes once stood.66b122ce13521ae8465d4a4f1184d673
  • Ursula (The Little Mermaid) is a pretty simple villain and yet she also stands in for an important archetype — the villain as guardian. Changing from a mermaid to a person is not something people should take lightly.  Any time your hero seeks out magic, money, or power they don’t understand, they may be striking a ‘Faustian bargain’.  Even though Ursula wants revenge on the sea king, her role is an important one: she is the holder of great magic.  Cerberus, guardian of the underworld and many other Threshold Guardians also challenge the hero, temping them to make a choice that will change their lives forever.  The villain may feel the hero deserves the price they pay for their foolishness.bd70b46e58e8760f895a77b53149cbe6
  • Loki (Thor) is the brother of Thor, God of Thunder.  Loki seeks the approval of their father Odin and to protect his homeland of Asgard.  He and his brother are alike in their desires.  But Thor is a strong, brave warrior in a culture that honors those traits, whereas Loki is sly, smart and good at magic.  One could argue that ‘chance’ turned Loki into a villain, but unlike Harvey Dent, cruelty and neglect (from Odin and Thor) were what changed Loki, not an accident.  Loki truly believes that Thor is the wrong man to lead Asgard and so acts from a hero’s POV — he’s trying to prove himself while saving his people.  His actions are more interesting because what he is doing is so wrong while he believes that he’s doing right.  Some antagonists will also work against our hero while believing they are doing it for the greater good.  Agent Sadusky (National Treasure) knows our hero wants to steal the Declaration of Independence and so is pursuing our hero, not knowing that the hero is trying to keep the Declaration from a group of thieves who will destroy it.  Sudusky’s limited POV makes him work against our hero — much as Loki’s inability to imagine Thor growing into a great leader limits his perspective.8951e6104707d54b865cf972803cdf1b
  • The Joker (The Dark Knight) also represents chaos in Batman’s life, but he has no sympathetic back story — in fact he tells many versions of ‘how I these scars’. One may be true, or none.  The Joker just wants to watch the world burn.  He is ourselves turned loose — instead of using his unmooring from society to achieve power or money — he just does what brings him glee at the given moment.  There is something very appealing in letting ourselves go — this kind of character is enjoying every minute of the ride — and even the end may not bother him.  For this type of character just remember to dig deep into their happiness — they may be doing the most appalling things but loving it.f8ebd12ed0f285adc863002cec7344a9
  • Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal) is smart, cultured, polite — and he eats people. He also is interested in our hero Will Graham and honestly believes that he can help Will break out of his shell as a ‘good person’ and become more —  more like Hannibal — and self actualized.  While Hannibal makes some choices just ‘to see what would happen’, he seems to sincerely want to help Will transform.  That Will neither wants nor may survive such attention is of little matter — Hannibal sees himself as giving Will a chance to better himself — the rest is up to Will.  The tough drill sergeant who tries to ‘break’ our hero, or Annie Wilkes’ (Misery) desire to improve her favorite author (and his writing) are other example of mentor/villains ‘helping’ our heroes, even to the edge of death.873a5f419fe71362ae6c840364dc0d1e

In the end, villains are some of the most colorful, exciting characters to write.  They don’t have to play by the rules and they give us writers a chance to explore the shadowy underside of the human psyche.

But remember to make them human first and foremost.  If a motivation wouldn’t be good enough for your hero (‘he likes money’) then it’s not good enough for your villain.  They may act crazy, but a good villain is using logic — no matter how skewed — to try to achieve his aims, be it for order, respect, illumination, teaching others a lesson, protecting what he loves, having a good time, or changing our hero into a better person.

That the villain should fail will be your story, to know that his failure is a tragedy shall be your goal.

Lord Vader by Marie Bergeron

Lord Vader by Marie Bergeron


Note:  We have now completed our fall schedule of free writing classes.  Please look at our ‘Upcoming Events’ page to see what we have planned so far for Winter/Spring 2016.  And as always, anyone interested in teaching a class is encouraged and appreciated.  Please contact me at to arrange a time and date.


Let Your Characters Plot Your Novel

For those of you who couldn’t make it to AWA founder Katherine Cerulean’s class at the Athens Regional Library in August, please enjoy this handout — 

Plot is one of those words that can strike fear in a writer’s heart –at least, it does for me.  Especially when I was a beginning writer.  Characters I like, dialogue is fun, words are magic — but plot, plot is tricky.  Plot is so bold, so important.  Plot’s what happens, what surprises people, what keeps people reading until they fall in love with your characters.

It is said that there is really only one plot – the resolution of a problem.  It’s also been said there’s 2, 3, 7, 20, and 36 plots — just so you know, options.  Before we talk about our characters, let’s talk a little about plot.

What is a plot?

The main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.

Ernest Lehman said —

  1. ‘In the first act, it’s who are the people and what is the situation of this whole story.
  2. The second act is the progression of that situation to a high point of conflict and great problems.
  3. And the third act is how the conflicts and problems are resolved.’


What does character-driven and plot-driven mean?

‘Character-driven writing is focused on the characters and the internal change, more so than the events and situations that take place while plot-driven writing is focused on the actual happenings and the external changes of the story.’ — from

More ‘literary fiction’ is character based, while some genre fiction is action-packed and the characters don’t learn or grow as much.  In an action-filled story, your characters may still make important decisions that change the plot, but they are less likely to change themselves in major ways (think about Indiana Jones or James Bond: they don’t change [much] but their choices and actions still save the girl, the day, or the world [the external challenge].)


Do I HAVE to plot out my novel?

No.  In ‘On Writing’, Stephen King writes, “Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”

From — ‘But for writers striving to create something unique and surprising, the kind of work that will grab the attention of agents and editors, the thorough plotting and planning can be a matter of life and death. By that, I mean that planning your novel ahead of time increases its likelihood of being dead on arrival.  It may fly in the face of your tried and true approach, but I’m going to ask you to consider a different tack: Don’t plan. Write.’

Having a couple of page outline can help you understand the major ‘beats’ of a novel, and give you a distant landmark to head toward, but too much planning can ruin the moment.  Do what feels comfortable to you, but be open to feeling uncomfortable as well.  I was recently writing the last third of a novel when a conversation with my sister led to a stunning revelation about my story.  I HAD to go in an entirely different direction than I’d been planning.  I was quite concerned that I was ruining my book, but I trusted myself, kept writing, and now it’s my favorite novel I’ve written.

When in doubt, trust yourself.  Or, as I’ve had written on an index card on my wall for almost 15 years — ‘Trust the story’.  The true, beating heart of your story will never lead you astray.


How do I let my characters ‘plot my novel’?

The idea here is to relax and trust.  If you think about your story, the story world, and each of your main characters, you have all the ingredients needed to plot your story as you’re writing it.  It’s been said that ‘In life, one thing happens after another.  In fiction, one thing happens because of another.’  Your life is being plotted out all the time, sometimes intentionally by you (the protagonist), and sometimes by others (supporting characters), and sometimes by acts outside human control (your two page ‘blueprint’).

Just remember that we are in control a lot more than you’d think.  Look at these scenarios —

  • Car broke down?  . . . and your hero hadn’t changed the oil in the last 6 years.
  • He had a heart attack — after decades of a two-Big-Mac-a-day habit.
  • Your hero got turned down for admission to Princeton for having bad grades.
  • His wife leaves him.

In the first three, the hero made choices (somewhere along the way) that led to these seemingly out-of-their-hands situations.  But what about the last one?  Did he take his wife for granted?  Stop saying thank you and asking how her day was?  Or did she meet someone else, become wrapped up in a daydream, and leave a great life and husband?  Maybe they were both in a life-changing car crash, or won the lottery, or just grew apart.  The important thing is to remember that even in an external action, ‘plot-driven’ story, characters are making choices all the time.

Liam Neeson’s character in ‘Taken’ has no control over the fact his daughter was kidnapped (that was the writer’s big picture ‘blueprint’ of the story they wanted to tell).  However, when he says ‘I do have are a very particular set of skills’, that is pure character.  He’s not mouthing these words so we can jump from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in the story, that character is speaking from personality, anger, and experience.  He won’t just go to the police.  He will find and hunt the perpetrators down.  Bryan Mills (the character) had no other choice in that moment — it’s a character-driven action.

Trusting and following your characters, step-by-steps

  1. When you first develop your story, trust your landscape even if it looks like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle.  Leave room for more characters to appear.  And believe that the whole story exists out there, complete, and that in time you will discover it.
  2. Envision scenes with your characters talking to each other.  Watch for clues — why does he change the subject when she asks about his past?  Why does she call herself Mrs. Callaway when we know she’s never been married?  What made him become a doctor when he just said the law was his first love?  You want to observe these things quietly, and investigate them surreptitiously, as to not impose or change the story world — just watch, ask questions and probe deeper.
  3. Pick a great hero (or know you’ve been picked by one).  Honestly, half the battle of plotting is won by an interesting, inquisitive, and active protagonist.  You should keep digging and working with your hero until you can really hear and see them, and then hopefully they will talk and act in ways that will move your story forward.  Even if your character was told to sit in a bare chair in a empty room and wait, you should know (see) what action they would take next.  How long would they wait?  Would they light a smoke?  Pace?  Sleep?  Sneak out of the room and spy on others?
  4. Keep writing forward.  In your first draft, don’t keep polishing.  I allow myself to re-read what I wrote last session, correct a few typos, then move forward.  That’s it.  If you have those few, big events planned out, start writing toward them (i.e. she leaves for college) and just watch what she does.
  5. Don’t skip ahead.  Once you start writing, stop thinking and plotting it out in your head (work on future stories instead).  If you’re excited to see what happens next, discipline yourself to wait till you can sit down and write what happens next.
  6. Let your character Choose Her Own Adventure.  Ever read those charming second person stories like ‘Cave of Time’?  Now it’s time to put your fourth grade skills to work — only now your hero is doing the deciding.  In the example of someone leaving for college, what might happen?  Her mom suggests a going away party.  Look closely at your character.  Is she — excited about any party?  Annoyed at her mom for mentioning it?  Wants to spend all of her remaining time packing and planning?  Little choices will tell you a lot about your character, and may lead to big choices (even ones you didn’t plan on) later in the story.
  7. Gage your excitement level.  When your plot goes one way (huge blowout going-away party!), think about how you feel.  Are you excited to read/write this part?  If not, skip it and just have your character bring the reader up to date (‘The worst party of my life.  And then HE showed up).  Now you’re interested, right?  Write that encounter.  Since you’re not plotting out every little scene, it’s important to feel that internal compass — and be willing to throw out a page or two and back up if you find yourself getting bored.  As my grandmother use to say about knitting — ‘Be a cheerful ripper!’
  8. When you and your characters disagree, you yield to them.  Say you plan on your hero meeting the love of her life, a shy CompSci major, in college and getting engaged fast (which brings on troubles with the mom back home).  And so you start writing it that way, only you’re getting bored writing about their first date and then your hero wants, after using the restroom, to sneak out of the restaurant and never look back.  NOO!  You try to write it right, but your character’s whole personality suggests this other action.  She wants to run out.  You kind of want to see what would happen if she did, but it will ruin your whole plan.  Or would it?  If your story is about growing up, confrontation with parents, and becoming the person you’re suppose to be, then shy Derek doesn’t matter — you just thought he mattered.  Tell yourself you’ll just write a few pages to ‘see where this goes’ and you’ll probably find more interesting, and more original, ways to get her to the point of the big blowup/confrontation with her mom.
  9. If you get stuck, wander.  We are not a wandering world anymore.  You’re either hard at work or hard at play.  We have become allergic to dawdling, saunters, and the meandering path.  But if you lose the flow of your story, think on different locations and people, flip forward in time, even change viewpoints.  Search for the heart of your story, and let what’s interesting guide you back to the trail.
  10. Trust the power of the rewrite.  Your second draft (and third and forth…) is an easy place to cut, add, and polish.  I have never had to change much, but I have made stories immensely better by adding a couple of little scenes, wrapping up characters arcs for characters who disappeared after page 50, and getting voice stronger from beginning to end.  Just have fun with the wild ride of a first draft (follow your heart), and know you can make it more perfect in later drafts.
  11. Let it wobble.  This is a strange concept.  But as you move away from a perfect, detailed structure and start following a real, breathing world full of characters that make weird choices, resist the urge to tie up all the loose ends, make the world pristine, or only leave in lines that are related to your through plot.  Like a bowl spinning but not tipping over, let your story have some odds and ends that don’t quite match and meet up.  Obviously, you want your story to be building tension, and be mostly tied together, but I believe you also want space, room to breathe, and little gaps where a reader might stop and ponder — ‘Why didn’t he finish school?  He just left and we never found out why.’  Or ‘It was pretty cool when her dad talked on and on about space and the planets.  It didn’t tie into the story, but it made me think of my own dad.’  Or ‘Why did he say London reminds him of Paris when he hates London and loves Paris?’  In life we don’t have all the answers in front of us — shouldn’t fiction be the same?


“Follow the light of your intuition, and keep away from the darkness of convention.”
                                                                             ― Michael Bassey Johnson


When you plot out your novel, you are using your reason and experience.  But you’re not creating in the same way.  You’re guessing, and you may get scared and conservative.  You’ll do what you’ve seen done in stories before — and that would a great shame and a repetition.  But if you trust yourself, believe that you know the characters and the world well, and listen to your character’s heart and voice, you can find you’ve written a story wilder than you had planned, more twisty than you could conceive of, and more refreshing (and exciting) than you’ve ever dreamed.

And isn’t that what a plot should be?  





Discovering Great Characters

By Katherine Cerulean

— For all those who couldn’t make it to my class on characters, here’s the handout to spark your creative fire —

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” — Han Solo, originally a green-skinned alien with gills


“If by my life or death I can protect you, I will.” — Aragorn, not part of the story until Tolkien ‘saw’ him sitting in the shadows in a pub in Bree.

And do Bladorthin the Grey, Pansy O’Hara, and Count Wampyr ring a bell?  The creators of Gandalf, Scarlet, and Dracula once had very different ideas about what to call their characters.

When we see, hear, or read about a great character, we are drawn in.  The plot’s more exciting, the romance more meaningful, and many of our favorite stories are really just showcases for amazing, living people that have claimed a place in our hearts forever.

For me, characters are always real and fully-developed.  Assume that the character exists out there — they may be fictional, but they want to be discovered, not made.  Knowing they are alive out there takes the pressure off you — you don’t have to build them, just spend enough time with them that you start to hear them speak, see them act in strange ways, and — eventually — go against your plans and your plots.

And when that happens, watch out!  You’ve just discovered a great character.


How to Discover Your Characters — beginning

  1. Ask ‘Who live here?’ “Who has the most to lose in this situation?’
  2. If an image comes to you, fixate on it. Stephanie Meyers had a dream about a girl and a boy standing in a meadow, and the boy was sparkling like diamonds in the sunlight.  From that single image came a lot of success and reader happiness.
  3. Allow room for magic and mystery. Understand that you don’t need to (or even want to) understand everything about your characters and stories in the beginning.  For my novel Fall Street, I had a very clear image of my hero Clare standing at the top of some stairs when a boy walks up and hands her a rose and she thinks ‘It had to be ____’ but  who it had to be was a mystery I didn’t solve till quite late in the story.  Trust your story.  Think about it long enough, and love it enough, and the answers will come.  Remember Stephen King never knows how his stories will end until he’s writing the ending.
  4. Find what you love. Follow the stories, books, movies, and TV that have fantastic characters you love.  I love Jay Gatsby and Vin Diesel’s Riddick.  Both characters inspire me.  No you gets to tell you what to love.  Just remember the more opportunities you have see successfully created characters, the more bold you’ll become in your own writing.
  5. Flip your character. When you’re first trying to even discover a wisp of your characters, try the Orson Scott Card trick (from his great book Characters & Viewpoint) — when you come up with an idea, flip it 180 degrees.  Make your guy a girl, your lawyer a bum, your famous knight an underappreciated squire.  Your first impulse may, subconsciously, be the very thing you’ve seen done before.  As with every aspect of writing, you get to make the call in the end.  You may really want that hotshot pilot — just be aware you’ll want to dig a lot deeper than that.
  6. How many people live here? You’ll probably add more later, but discovering your main characters helps you start honing in.  Think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — two of the main characters are right there in the title, but who discovers Narnia?  A little girl named Lucy, but also her sister and two brothers, and one of those brothers is a little bad…


How to Discover Your Characters — middles

  1. Get your characters talking. How would Lucy describe her family to you?  What would that teach you about her family, and about her?  Have your hero narrate their story, talk about their childhood, or show off how they can sell ice to Inuits.  You don’t have to write this down — just hear what they are saying (and not saying) and how they communicate.  Are they using long words, pausing out of shyness, do they not want to talk?  That also tells you something.
  2. Find the things that speak to your characters. Songs, jewelry, etc, can be used to inspire and pick up on the character’s mood and personalities (see more on this toward the end).
  3. Become a historian. We are impacted by where we come from.  Write down a history of your character.  With ‘Caged Heart’ I wrote down the parents’ histories for my main characters.  It was fascinating to imagine how those lives impacted my heroes.  Your story is like a iceberg with only the tip showing.  Some characters, though, would be bored silly talking about their family — let them tell you what matters to them.
  4. Never be bored or needy. If you think ’I need my hero to have a sister to tell her problems to’ but nothing comes to you —stop.  If you force yourself to think of a ‘sister-type’ and she’s the worst collection of clichés you’ve ever seen in your life and you fall asleep writing her dialogue and wish it were done already — stop.  Just stop.  Imagine instead ’What if your hero had no sister?’  Or what if her own sister bores her to tears and so she tells random clerks in stores her problems?  And what if one day, one of those clerks is the man of her dreams?  You could open up whole new ideas just because you’ve stopped trying to force your story to fit into space you provided for it.  Your discoveries will always be better than your ideas.  The good news?  You can claim credit for both.
  5. Watch scenes. Long before I write anything down, I start seeing scenes in my mind.  How did these two meet?  What led him to be trapped here?  The more you can play in your mind (like a kid with clay), the more you can change things.  I recently had an idea about a teenage boy who lived in a medieval fantasy world and had the problem that he had been cursed and everyone thought (and saw him) as a girl.  Only his best friend Rena saw the truth.  That idea floated around for a couple of days, cloud-like, and then I realized they were children in our world, who played in this fantasy world.  And the boy was a girl but trans-gendered, and later when he was a teenager, he ran away back to the land where he was his true self.  And no one, not even his best friend, knew where he’d gone.  I got all that from watching scenes like you’d watch a movie.


How to Discover Your Characters — ends

  1. As you start writing, slow down in each scene. Really hone in on the emotions of your characters, think about what they would and wouldn’t say.  Try to control people as little as possible.  Remember you don’t have to agree, or even like, what they say.
  2. When you are ready, they will come. Many writers report that they do not write their characters — they only dictate.  I thought this sounded crazy when I started and knew it would never happen to me — now I can’t imagine how I did without it.
  3. Take a hike. For me, there’s nothing like a walk in nature (especially with music) to inspire me and give me a chance to hear my characters and watch their lives assemble.
  4. Be gentle with yourself. A first draft isn’t the final word on your characters — it’s just a first conversation.  Listen to the voices in your head, play with your world, and know that character just grow more and more beautiful the more time you spend with them.


Tips & Tricks

  • Songs are one of the best ways to discover your characters. If you hear a sound on the radio (or ‘all shuffle’) that speaks to you, add it to a playlist.  Hitting repeat on songs that tell you about that world and characters (especially while walking) can really put you in a creative state of mind.
  • Jewelry is another way. Find a talisman or pendent that means something to your character (or a watch, scarf, etc).  Wearing it all day can make you understand your character’s day more.
  • What inspires them? What excites them?  Printout quotes, find paintings — it all moves you closer to their truth.
  • Remember that everyone is living their life in a full, important way for them, and to the best of their abilities. Never doubt how different your life could be if you’d been born a different sex, race, religion etc.  No one is a stereotype at their heart.  Shrug off the easy answers.
  • Write more. In the beginning my characters were clichés, but now they are real to me, and I have every hope that they will get more and more interesting as time goes by and I keep telling their stories in the full, rich colors they deserve.

10 Tips for Building Believable Love Stories

For those of you who couldn’t make it to our April 6th class, Building Believable Love Stories (led by Katherine Cerulean), 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-around 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’s first kiss is 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 my novel 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 Juliet. 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’s 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.