Romance. It's a literary genre built on tropes, on familiar storylines told in unfamiliar ways. You've probably heard the shorthand before: Marriage of convenience. Secret baby. Virgin bride. Single father. May/December. There are a couple dozen more, but you certainly get the idea.
Each tried-and-true storyline relies on stock characters – the alpha male, the wounded warrior, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the shy virgin…
And if those snapshots were the only basis for romance novels, the genre would have burned itself out long ago. But tropes are only the beginning of a romance novel. Stock characters are only the bare outlines.
The real fun starts when the author colors between the lines.
When I started writing the Diamond Brides Series of short, hot, contemporary romance novels about the players on the (imaginary) Raleigh Rockets baseball team and the women who love them, I knew I was going to rely very heavily on tropes and stock characters. With each book limited to about 150 pages, I didn't have time to build minutely detailed character stories, to provide volumes of background information, to sketch carefully shaded essays on psychology, sociology, and anthropology.
Instead, I selected traditional plots within the romance genre and peopled them with unique characters.
The trick was knowing just how to make my characters stand out as individuals, how to make them quirky enough that readers can remember them as specific, well-defined people, without giving in to the pressure to make them outright bizarre. As an author, I needed to structure details, building them as carefully as a baker balancing rich cake between layers of frosting.
Take DJ Thomas, the hero of Perfect Pitch. He's an athlete at the pinnacle of his career, experiencing the best season of his life. But that's only the surface definition of the man.
He's a man attracted to a woman who seems to outclass him in wit, confidence, and public sympathy. He's a single father who is often exasperated with the child he doesn't understand. He's a son who is wounded by his own father's domineering need to win. He's a teammate, struggling to do his best so that the other Rockets players have a chance of winning a championship.
But even those details weren't enough to define Perfect Pitch's hero; I needed to drill deeper. As a man attracted to a woman (whom he's inadvertently insulted on national TV), DJ has to deliver the script prepared for him by the Rockets' publicity team. But at the same time, he wants to communicate his own, personal apology. Even as he desires a deeper relationship with the heroine, he worries about what that public status will do to his professional reputation, to his personal image, to his paternal obligations and his filial ones. Late night phone conversations with the heroine after ball games played on the road become fraught with meaning, with traps for the romantically unprepared.
And the complexities spin out further, like ice crystals on a freezing window pane, as DJ factors in all his other roles. Suddenly, my "Athlete Hero" isn't just a stereotype. The precise details add up to a specific love story about unique people.
Writing nine novels in the same ballpark (see what I did there?) has given me a chance to exercise my authorial muscles. For each book, I need to look at my conventions, to analyze my stereotypes and to determine how I can make the characters and stories unique. You can get more of an idea of my approach by reading a snippet here: http://www.mindyklasky.com/index.php/books/passion/diamond-bride-series/perfect-pitch/
And you can buy Perfect Pitch at its value price of $0.99 here: http://www.mindyklasky.com/index.php/books/buy-books-here/#pitch
What are your favorite novels where stock characters are transformed into something specific? What tricks did those authors use to delineate their unique stories?
Thanks for a wonderful post Mindy! I know a book about an assassin who started as a stock character and then transformed into an artistic pack rat. I can't recall the title or the author.... ;>