Guest Post: Carolyn J. Rose
Please welcome back author Carolyn Rose to the blog, with a deeper-than-the-usual look at what makes for chemistry between protagonists and heroes in books. Not to mention a much-funnier-than-the-usual look at marriage. Her own.
Leave a comment with your own thoughts about how an author depicts genuine feeling between characters, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of Carolyn’s A PLACE OF FORGETTING. This not-a-love-story, not-a-mystery book is something pretty special, crossing genres and appealing to readers who like their emotion real and laid out for the reader to feel.
Recently, I looked up from a mystery and said to my husband, “I just don’t feel much chemistry between the protagonist and her love interest.”
Mike, who had read the book a few weeks earlier, frowned. “I did,” he said in an insistent tone.
Now, anyone who’s been in almost any kind of a relationship knows that the other person will sometimes take the opposite view not because he or she has a firm grip on that 180-degree opinion, but for a number of other reasons. Those can be based in the history of the relationship, conflict-riddled events within that history (recent or dredged from the distant past), or the desire to play devil’s advocate, stir things up to break the routine, or just be a pain in the butt for the amusement value of doing that.
But, I digress.
Grilled about his statement, Mike seemed sincere about his impression. He stuck to his contention that he felt a chemical reaction—indeed even significant heat—between the characters. I maintained that I’d see more sparks if I struck two slices of bread together in the rain. (Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but on a character chemistry scale ranging from icy to sizzling to three-alarm blaze, my needle got no farther than tepid.)
Neither of us would budge. So my choices were 1) to consider that he was misreading, misguided, or missing no opportunity to tweak me, 2) to determine whether I had some prejudice against the characters, 3) to admit that I might have missed something crucial, perhaps while reading too rapidly or in a near-sleep state one step above coma, or 4) to examine the text for evidence to either back up my opinion or change it.
I studied the alternatives presented by this four-tined fork in the literary/emotional road. Choice number 3, admitting to a weakness of my own, seemed, well, weak. Choice number 1, putting the blame on him, seemed like, well, the same old same old. That left me to examine whether I was carrying baggage where these characters were concerned—baggage from previous encounters or baggage based on their backstories. Had I read an earlier book and not liked it? Did one of the characters have a name I loathed? A name of say, a former boyfriend?
Nope, no baggage.
So I was down to choice number 4, examining the text for the elements that I feel create chemistry between characters.
First I looked at whether the male character filled a hole in her heart, satisfied a need in her life. It seemed that he did. Then I searched scenes where they were in conflict and found several. Good. I winnowed through the dialogue hunting for witty exchanges. Check. Quite a few of those. I considered their faults and then whether he seemed to have been created simply as a love interest or as a character with other purposes. No problems there. Plenty of faults. Plenty of other reasons for him to exist.
I dug some more. And that’s when I discovered what it was about the male love interest that kept me from seeing him as a satisfying match for the protagonist, a smart, strong-willed woman, capable and independent.
It was mostly a matter of adjectives and verbs and how those descriptive modifiers and action words resonated with me—or in this case, didn’t resonate with me—as a reader/voyeur watching the protagonist and her lover.
But it went deeper than that. I found I also responded to those words as a woman—a woman projecting herself into the role of the female protagonist and imagining herself involved with that man on many levels—intellectually, emotionally, and sexually.
And I just couldn’t see it. He wasn’t my kind of guy.
For one thing, he didn’t have enough bulk, enough physical presence. He was tall and slender. Tall is good. Slender? Not so much. Weighing in right on the line (and sometimes a smidge on the wrong side) of a body mass index number that’s barely acceptable, I gravitate toward clothing that makes me look thinner. Why would I pick a man who would make me look heavier?
And, this male character was enchanted with people and things. That seemed too much like a prince in a never-gonna-happen-to-me fairy tale. I grew up in a practical family populated by carpenters, nurses, and teachers. That could explain why the guys I go for aren’t enchanted or beguiled or enraptured or charmed or intrigued or captivated or delighted or infatuated or dazzled or even fascinated. The guys I go for are hooked, riveted, excited, stimulated, fired up, overwhelmed, or overpowered.
The male love interest walked softly. He may even have danced or skimmed in the course of the story. I want a man who puts his feet down with purpose. I want to know where he is when he’s walking around the house.
I always knew that verbs were important, but now I saw how they burrowed into my mind, linked up with my personal backstory, and formed opinion. Now I saw why the love interests I created for my characters had some heft to them, some degree of earthboundness. (And, yes, my computer insists that isn’t a word, but I’m going with it anyway.)
Pleased with myself for putting in so much effort and thought, I thumbed through the book, citing evidence for my conclusions as I presented them to my husband. “See,” I said when I finished, “you sort of became him when you read this and you felt a connection to her because she’s the kind of woman you like. But I sort of became her and couldn’t connect to him because I’m still me and he’s not what I look for in a man, so I didn’t feel anything between them.”
He glanced up from the TV, considered for a second, and then said, “Well, I still think they had plenty of chemistry.”
What could I do after spending hours thumbing through pages, highlighting phrases (it was a paperback and I owned it), and formulating a theory?
I threw the book at him.
Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Now getting her quota of stress as a substitute teacher, she lives in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking. She is the author of a number of novels, including No Substitute for Murder, A Place of Forgetting, An Uncertain Refuge, and Hemlock Lake.
She has also authored five books with Mike Nettleton, her long-suffering husband. He recently released a solo effort, Shotgun Start.
I like a bit of good old fashioned UST for characters. In our Belle’s books the characters can lust but not love because they are vampires and that is the killer, the desire to rise above the carnal to something purer and of course good old denial. They love but cannot admit it. they all work well.
Comment by Belle Marsh — February 10, 2012 @ 2:06 pm
At least it’s obvious that you have chemistry with your own husband.
Comment by Judy — February 10, 2012 @ 2:16 pm
I never “got” the chemistry between a married woman and an insane, filty sword-toting barbarian whose idea of romance was yelling “spread yer legs wummin” ….in one of the world’s bestselling romances ever. Everybody else seems to “get it.” It just makes me sick and wonder what’s wrong with people.
Comment by SavvyBlue — February 10, 2012 @ 2:27 pm
I wasn’t following you until this:
That could explain why the guys I go for aren’t enchanted or beguiled or enraptured or charmed or intrigued or captivated or delighted or infatuated or dazzled or even fascinated. The guys I go for are hooked, riveted, excited, stimulated, fired up, overwhelmed, or overpowered.
You hit the nail right on the head. This is absolutely perfect and I couldn’t have put it better.
Toss the book at him again, for me.
Comment by Julie D — February 10, 2012 @ 2:30 pm
That’s funny about throwing the book at him. Seriously, it’s good that you re-examined by book and discovered specifics of why you found it lacking.
Comment by Morgan Mandel — February 10, 2012 @ 2:31 pm
My favorite new author found in 2011! Actually, I “found” her when I was promoting authors, along with my own mysteries, through my now defunct All Mystery e-newsletter. I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of her books, all without stopping for a pee break, the whine of dogs and husband for mealtimes and working on my own writing. Her “Place of Forgetting” is wonderful! Delightfully original characters and a surprising, charming story line. See my review of it on Good Reads.
Comment by RP Dahlke — February 10, 2012 @ 2:37 pm
Uh oh, I think I just discovered why my males have some heft to them. Never mind. Throwing the book was the only option at that point!
Comment by Kaye George — February 10, 2012 @ 2:49 pm
LOL – I think this topic struck some nerves – or at least sparked a lot of opinions. And I’m so glad we all have different opinions or life would be pretty darn boring.
Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — February 10, 2012 @ 2:59 pm
Oops I should specify that my rather rabid-sounding post above by NO MEANS implies I think I’m right– the rest of the country thinks its a great book and I couldn’t write a hot relationship to save my life. It just goes to show oeople’s differences when they think of chemistry. That’s what I meant to emphasize.
Comment by Savvy blue — February 10, 2012 @ 3:45 pm
Fabulous post, Carolyn! One of the best I’ve read on this subject (I admit, in part, because my husband and I have similar discussions about novels and TV shows, so I was cackling like mad at the end). It’s funny how so many of us look for interesting romantic situations in novels that aren’t expressly romances, but often dislike the “romance” genre for seeming so formulaic.
I think your point about the types of verbs used really comes into play here. The Victorianesque descriptions of the somewhat effete man you were reading about sound far more at home in a shallow romance novel than in, say, a modern thriller with two strong male and female characters, who feel more “real” in the context of their setting. “Keeping it real” in relationships is something I’ve striven to do in my own work, with the added challenge of making a love triangle feel realistic, not contrived (if a heroine is attracted to two different men, they both must be appealing for different reasons, and characterizing all three of them fully is crucial). Now I’m going to go back and look at my heroine’s exchanges with both men and see what verbs I used, and how effective they were. Thank you so much for the tip!
Comment by Becca — February 10, 2012 @ 3:56 pm
Interesting point, Becca, about all those in a love triangle having appeal. Some of us will like one, and some the other, and we’ll be in suspense until she makes her decision. If it’s obvious which one she’ll pick, we might put the book aside.
Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — February 10, 2012 @ 5:37 pm
I totally agree, Carolyn. I sometimes think a few series get into trouble when they drag out the triangle for too long without any interesting (and believable) changes along the way. It seems like a different challenge altogether when writing for a series (currently, I’m doing a stand-alone novel, so the story threads are a little easier to organize). I’ll often find myself walking away from series I used to like because there’s either too much sudden change between the protagonist/love interests or there’s no real change at all across several books, and the mystery plot lines aren’t compelling enough to compensate. Seems like it’s quite a skill set to figure out how to parcel out developments in character relationships from book to book.
Comment by Becca — February 10, 2012 @ 6:37 pm
I agree that I have to be attracted to the man or it just won’t work for me (romance wise). I like big men who are not too pretty and who have a vulnerable side. When I find that in a male protagonist VavavaVOOOOMMM!!!
Comment by Kathleen Valentine — February 10, 2012 @ 8:00 pm
Long-suffering? Naaah! Sometimes annoyed, peeved and occasionally full-barrel ticked off? Sure. Hey, I lost five arguments with Carolyn just between here and the first stop light on our way to run errands. I think the modern in-car world’s record is 6.
But on balance my twenty seven years with and around Carolyn have been a gas. It’s occasionally contentious but always fun. As to her theory about what we like in characters I agree to a point, but have a theory of my own. I do like smart, outspoken even uppity women if you will. But I also suffer from the big man’s secret fantasy. To be tall, lean, lithe and light on my feet. I’d like to glide across the floor and not have anyone hear me. I’d like to be more sensitive and artistic. I’d love to have some beautiful woman think of me as a potential boy-toy. But, instead, I guess I’ll just have to settle for heft.
Comment by Mike Nettleton — February 10, 2012 @ 8:41 pm
Very entertaining blog, esp. the line: “Why would I pick a man who would make me look heavier?” Maybe men should phrase their personal ads this way: “You’ll look really skinny next to me.” Clever ending, and I didn’t even see it coming. Wonder if Mike did.
Comment by Sarah Scott — February 10, 2012 @ 10:14 pm
I like your analysis a lot. I think the “projection” aspect of reading is part of the black box of editorial decisions, too. (What else would account for all those irritating novels about women in their 30s who live in Manhattan and date? ;^) )
Comment by Sara — February 10, 2012 @ 10:47 pm
Excellent post, and I love the way you worked through the different aspects of character and writing to figure out why you reacted the way you did. Great insight!
Comment by Lucy Francis — February 10, 2012 @ 11:23 pm
Some thing tells me you guys have a ton of chemistry-and sometimes, we get books thrown at us
Some protagonists satisfy, but don’t always produce that ‘oh I have crush on him’ feeling and some do. I read a lot of series books, and the lack of chemistry is due to too much talking about, and not enough action (of all kinds). I’m looking forward to your new book.
Comment by Lil Gluckstern — February 11, 2012 @ 12:01 am
Sara – I hadn’t thought about projection being part of the editorial decision-making process, but that’s an interesting point.
And Sarah – I’ll be laughing about that personal ad for a week.
Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — February 11, 2012 @ 1:58 am
Interesting post. Mystery authors have to walk a fine line between two much steam (lust, love) and not enough, and they can’t please every reader. One of the Amazon commenters on my page said she liked the story but not the hero because he was too perfect. My reply was that since I was making him up I saw no reason to make him anything less than rich, handsome and sexy. Actually, he’s not perfect, but he is in charge of his life, and I do like that. Definitely my kind of guy.
Good luck with your books — my favorite will always be THE HARD KARMA SHUFFLE — one of my all-time faves.
Comment by Pat Browning — February 11, 2012 @ 3:55 am
Hi, Pat. Thanks for the compliment on one of my first books. My male characters seem to be a little less than in charge and sometimes pretty flawed – but rich is good and handsome is fine. Maybe the next one I create will be more along those lines. That could change everything.
Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — February 11, 2012 @ 10:06 am
Interesting post, Carolyn. For me, I think chemistry between characters is enhanced by tension. Julia Spencer Fleming is a great example of sustaining that tension over many books. Much sexier, I think, than if she’d let Clare and Russ make love in book one or two.
Comment by Anita Page — February 11, 2012 @ 1:11 pm
So, after you revamped it to your “chemistry between them” satisfaction, did Mike reread it? Probably not; no reason for him to – he was already there. But how in the heck do you satisfy both male and female readers? That’s a toughy.
Comment by pam stanek — February 12, 2012 @ 1:21 pm
If I knew how to satisfy male and female readers both, I’d bottle that elixir and hand it out to all my writing friends. Right now I’m sticking to the “can’t please all of the people all of the time” school of thought. The fact that not everyone likes everything makes writing more interesting than it already it.
Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — February 12, 2012 @ 1:59 pm
I loved this post! Besides being informative, it was hilarious!
Comment by Connie — February 12, 2012 @ 3:53 pm
Great post, Carolyn! It reminds me of an interview I saw with Joss Whedon (TV writer), where he talked about writing a difficult, pivotal scene between one of his major characters and a new love interest that he knew the audience was resistant to. He said, “I knew I not only had to make Willow [the character] fall in love with Oz–I had to make the audience fall in love with him too.”
I often think of that when I’m writing my own character relationships–that maybe it’s less about trying to depict how the character feels about their love interest, and more about convincing the reader to fall for him/her. Puts a slightly different focus on the process for me.
Thanks for giving us much food for thought (as well as some entertainment!).
Comment by Lauren S — February 13, 2012 @ 12:29 am
Great thoughts, Carolyn! I will pay extra attention to the verbs used when I find myself feeling the “heat” between characters. Ironically, I often feel chemistry with a male figure I would personally never get involved with. Forgive me for using a tv reference but I immediately think of the character Sawyer on LOST. The guy oozed sexuality and yet was a total con artist. No one I’d hook up with but oh so fun to watch!
Comment by susan skipwith — February 13, 2012 @ 11:06 am
Lauren – I’d never thought of it that way, and now I will. Thanks for the comment.
Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — February 13, 2012 @ 11:20 am