The longer I move in romance circles – reading, writing, studying, editing, coaching – the more apparent the phenomenon of every man vs. no man. I suppose this could apply to other genres, as well, but it seems prevalent in our romance heroes.
I finished ghostwriting a romantic novella last week. In it, the hero falls nicely into the brooding/tortured/loner archetype, but every single aspect of this guy is something fresh, something I haven’t read before. Every cliché I thought of, I twisted. I had some freedom with this. It’s a NA take on a modern Gothic. He’s eccentric and complex, as layered as Dante’s Inferno. He hangs the clothes in his cottage on antlers and keeps a yellow matchbox car on his mantle and leaves his house in both a Santa suit and a birthday suit. When a plot twist gives him exactly what he professes to want, he does the exact opposite. The number of actual men who might fit his mold in real life could probably only fit in my backyard. And maybe not even then. He is a “no man,” like no other man.
Simultaneously, I edited a contemporary romantic suspense from a long-standing client. Her hero is everything a romance reader wants: weak-knees kind of handsome, smart, protective, altruistic, rich, great in the love department…did I mention handsome? He rakes his hand though his dreamy hair when he’s upset. He pins the heroine up against walls (in a good way), listens when she has a problem and gets all up in his alpha when she’s in danger. Yet, we don’t witness idiosyncrasies like putting socks on that don’t match or how he walks one block out of his way to avoid a certain storefront or is obsessed with JFK history or that when he picks up a magazine, he leafs through it back to front. At some point in the story, the reader seamlessly superimposes her ideal man on him. He is “every man.”
The thing that baffles me?
They both work. Absolutely and unequivocally, work.
As writers, we’ve always heard that the golden ticket of characterization is uniqueness. But the power of a writer to gift-wrap a hero that will appeal to the greatest number of readers is not only brilliant, but savvy marketing.
Do romance readers want to fall in love with one particular guy or the particular guy they want?
Yesterday, the annual bombardment of perfume and cologne samples clogged my mailbox, slipping from glossy Black Friday ads like seduction bombs delivered by the cosmetic industry. Here’s the thing: as a writer, I save every one of them.
Remember how I always say that music is the short cut to Storyland? If music is the short cut, fragrance samples are the high-octane vehicle that gets me there. Sure, some smell more like the inside of a heiress’s steamy regrets, but sometimes I am able to attach just the right scent to just the right character and magic ensues. One whiff, and I’m right there with that imaginary character.
So in celebration of this olfactory phenomenon of writing (and because some of you may be considering purchasing a fragrance for a loved one – don’t, please don’t – that never works out), I give you the latest four that just tumbled from my mailbox:
Estee Lauder – Modern Muse
Aside from the writerly squees that occurred to me at this perfume’s title and the pitch line: Be an inspiration, this scent is one of your rich characters. Heels most of the time, the target market of every DeBeer’s commercial and just a hint of spice to indicate she moonlighted as a high-priced escort to pay her way through college. No PTA mom here. This chick will cost your hero. And betray him.
Coach – Poppy Wildflower
This character is a kindergarten teacher before she has crayola paint and boogers smeared on her skirt. She’s your little sister, Taylor Swift and Paris in the sunshine all rolled into one. You adore her initial sweetness, but it suffocates after a time. Like headache suffocate.
Ralph Lauren – Romance
Seriously, could this fragrance be any more targeted to my demographic? The ad even portrays a hunky guy and a woman trotting side-by-side on twin white horses. He leans over for a smooch, but kisses her eyeball instead. To so boldly proclaim that these notes of odoriferous emanation will deliver romance is a heady promise. What does it truly deliver? The perfect balance of everything, with not too much of anything but the glue meant to hold the sample closed. It’s like the Switzerland of Romancelandia. Kinda forgettable. Except for the eyeball kiss. And at $91 for 3.4 ounces, I would have expected something more. The UPS guy, for instance, to give an eyeball kiss upon delivery. Something.
Donna Karan – Cashmere Mist
Oh, wow. The name is already trying too hard, right? It’s like someone shoved a Harlequin novel into a phallic bottle. No man on this ad to suggest anything more than a scent, which is a good thing. This one is your futuristic antagonistic heroine who rose to too much power and must now be taken down. She doesn’t live entirely in her steel-and-glass fortress. Every now and then, she ventures out into the cashmere mist to frolic with squirrels.
Bottom line, don’t throw the samples away and don’t sniff them to death. Even if you dislike the scent, you never know when it will be the perfect connection to a character.
What do your favorite (or not-so-favorite) characters smell like?
I’m at the point in my manuscript where I know my characters as first-draft acquaintances. Sure, we’ve shared some flashbacks, seen each other in action under pressure-they from internal and external forces, me from the cruel whip of self-imposed deadlines. But, now, as I’m fully entering what Robert Ray calls the Meditative Draft, our relationship takes on a whole new level of intimacy.
Drinks are on the house for our first ever Character Party, lasting all weekend long. If yours wants to mingle, email me your character’s name, photo you use for inspiration and a line of dialogue overheard at the party (firstname.lastname@example.org). A click on the (…) will take you to the character’s creator.
“This ‘rusty nail’ concoction is proving stronger than Dr. Morton’s Ether Dome at Massachusetts General.” ~Michael Koristiaan (…)
“Ah might could have another one of those crab cake Hors d’oeuvres. Now, you want my opinion? Invest your stimulus package deal into waste management. Garbage is always a growth industry.” ~Curtis Waggstaff (…)
“Gimme a fast car, a woman who isn’t a witch from hell and a good burger–not necessarily in that order.” ~Dean Winchester (…)
“My current project is like Blair Witch meets the original , except not so funny. And with zombies. I’m opposed to all traditional distribution. We’ll be leaving bits of the 16 millimeter out-takes in bus stations to create a grassroots following. Where’s the restroom?” ~Roz Denks (…)
“Even teaching can be outsourced. Kids get tutored online via Bangalore. Summer classes, college prep: all online. I have to bring
added value to the classroom to stay relevant. By the way, this Pinot Noir is excellent.” ~Esteban Quiroga (…)
“A man could lose himself out west. Disappear, if he wanted.” ~Chester A. Farr (…)
“You got a beer?” ~Chaz Trahan (…)
We’re going to try an experiment here next Friday, a mixer of sorts for the characters populating our current novels. Scan photos or send me links (email@example.com) to those people who inspire you as you’re writing a scene. If you’re a reader, send who your mind’s eye pictured for a character. Include the name of the character and one line of dialogue they’re most likely to be overheard speaking at a party. Let’s see what kind of crowd we can gather.
I came across a perfect example yesterday of an author who used a character’s name as symbolism. In Peter Abraham’s A Perfect Crime, he named one of the lead characters, a man who discovers his wife in the throes of adultery, Roger. This character, screwed over in the literal and figurative sense of the word, makes for wonderful symbolic characterization the reader can sink into when they’re grasping for a foothold in a new story. Even “Jolly Roger,” the sarcastic nickname by which another character refers to him on page five, begins to carve out the nature of his character.
In Chasing Midnight, it’s no accident that my cast of characters battles the death of the heroine, Emma Parrish, throughout the entire novel. Spelling it “Perish” would not only have been rare and less believable, but would have been too obvious–the equivalent of a symbolic gong instead of a subtle whisper of character.
In Chasing Destiny, the sequel to Chasing Midnight, the hero’s name is Cole Renton. Cole is a man trying to escape the shadow of his father, the leader of a rogue, black organization intent on operating outside the lines in the interest of national security. A play on the dark connotation of “coal” not only conveys the hero’s own past, but establishes his frame of mind in the novel’s opening scenes.
When corralling your cast of characters and browsing your baby and heritage naming books, consider using a name that’s not only a label, but also suggests something about the character. What about a salt-of-the-earth hero named Clay? A prostitute named Mona? You get the idea.
Can you think of any examples of character names as symbols?