Many things (ha!). But at the very top of that list is an exceptionally-crafted hero and heroine. You know the kind I'm talking about. The stories you read ten years ago that you still remember. The woman you spent two months imagining yourself as. The man you wished had an existence outside of a fictional reality!
Last time I spoke with my agent, Karen Solem, about my newest novel, she said something so wise. She told me to spend time crafting a heroine my future audience would want to imagine themselves as. Instantly it clicked for me, because so many times I've caught myself doing this very thing. As a teenager, I fell absolutely in love with Robin Jones Gunn's Christy Miller series. I can't tell you how many times I imagined myself as Christy, or how I secretly pretended she was a real life friend. Then years later, I found out that one of my best friends in college had done the same thing when she'd read these books! Maybe you did too. If not with Christy Miller, I'd be willing to bet that if you're a writer, you've been impacted in this way by a character somewhere along the line.
And do I even need to mention the power of a well-crafted hero? Romance just doesn't work if we don't like the guy. I, for example, am not going to spend 300 pages with an alligator-eating, woman-demeaning redneck unless I know he's got it coming in the end. I would, however, spend another 700 pages with Mr. Darcy, any day of the week. Especially the BBC version. What is it about Colin Firth, anyway? (I hope everyone appreciates that I expanded the image above to "large" size. It's almost like he's staring into your eyes, right?)
So we know the draw this kind of hero and heroine can have upon the reader. But the question is, how do we create this appeal, this tension?
Creating An Appealing Heroine...
2) Make her brave, unique, strong. Something about your heroine has to be larger than life to encourage the reader to aspire to new places in her own life and faith journey. While you do want your heroine to be relatable and believable, she should also convey an inner strength that is unique to her, just as the gifts of God in our own lives are unique.
3) Make her likable. I chose a picture of Meg Ryan from You've Got Mail to exemplify this because really, who doesn't want to be Kathleen Kelly? Your heroine might have a great conflict and might be very realistic, but if we don't have a reason to like her, we aren't going to care what happens to her in the end--whether she ultimately finds love or not. Try to find ways to endear your heroine to your reader. My heroines, for instance, tend to love animals because that's something that's close to my own heart and is easy to write. Maybe your heroine will help the homeless or work with autistic children. The possibilities are endless, but we need a reason to cheer her on.
Now On To Those Boys.... Creating A Hero Who Makes Us Sigh
1) Make him strong. Self-confession time--I like to write sensitive men. I can't help it. I've always gone for the artsy musician type. Blame the literature-lover in me. So when I say your hero needs to be strong, I don't mean he has to be built like a football player and grunt a lot. Maybe in your book he does. And if that's the case, his character arc can be learning English. Just kidding! But in all seriousness, women like a strong man. We do. It's just a fact. We like someone who's capable of rescuing the heroine but who's also sensitive enough to wait for her to choose his rescue.
2) Give him an "awww" moment. I learned this concept from Rachel Hauck and Susan May Warren. Early on in your book, your hero should do something active that endears himself to the reader. Maybe he helps an elderly lady cross the road or teaches kids how to read in his spare time. Maybe it's as simple as donating a few dollars to the baseball team raising money outside Publix. No matter what you come up with, we need to see his kindness in action so we know his heart and can forgive any insensitive moments he may have with the heroine after that point.
3) Make him good at something, and make him suave. Have you ever seen Tristan MacManus on Dancing with the Stars? I'm loosely basing my hero off of him for the reason I'm about to discuss (and let's face it--being Irish means extra points). Like the heroine, your hero should have a strength that is uniquely his. It could be something about his personality, his career, his family, a talent he has, etc. The important thing is, we need to see his skills in action so that we feel like he's competent to take care of the heroine (who we already love), and also so he wins us over as readers. And this is romance after all, so it needs to be... well... romantic! Even if you aren't writing straight romance, if you have a romantic thread, make sure you spend time really developing the reader's attraction to the hero, not just the heroine's attraction to him. One way to do this is to make him, for lack of a better word... sexy. Dancing, kitchen-cleaning, fire-fighting, dog-loving sexy.
Your turn! I want to hear who your favorite hero or heroine is (they could be from a book, a movie, or real life!) and why these people left such an impression on you. How can we strive to create those qualities in our own writing?
Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog and herTumblr. She's also on Facebook and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.
Photos from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/4001426/, http://chickflickchic.blogspot.com/2012/03/tuesdays-with-nora-youve-got-mail.html, http://www.threedonia.com/archives/47783