Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Writer's Wednesday - Quirk Me Up: Making Characters Surprising

Pink Heart Society regular, Avril Tremayne, is talking about how to quirk up your characters...

I’ve spent a lot of years writing – a lot of years writing crap, that is. 

It’s never been a style issue for me; ever since high school, I’ve been able to string words together quite nicely. And it hasn't been about plot; I've always had a tale to tell and a way to get to the end. 

Nope – the one ingredient that made my writing crap, was my cardboard cut-out characters. Which is, of course, the one area that is non-negotiable in the good v. crap stakes.

I blush, now, to think of the one-dimensional wide-eyed ingénues, black-hearted villains, macho men, plain Janes, nerds, and gutsy girls I forced to bend to my will. I threw those poor folk into some risibly dramatic situations with monotonous regularity – not because any half-normal person would actually do those things, but because I liked the kapow! factor.

Until, two years ago, two of my characters finally arced up and told me to back the hell off and let them do what they wanted. Those two characters were Sunshine Smart and Leo Quartermaine, and the book they were in, Here Comes The Bridesmaid, ended up being a top 10 finalist in Harlequin’s 2013 So You Think You Can Write competition. To be honest, I thought those two were too crazy for anyone to publish – and yet, there they were, fully realised, telling me what to do and when, and I couldn't help but obey them whether the book got published or not.

Here Comes The Bridesmaid, which I'm happy to say did get published, kick-started what I call my ‘opposite’ strategy of character development. Very simply, the main traits of my characters lead to the ‘opposite’ traits as well. I keep going, matching each trait to its opposite, until the characters are so multi-dimensional, so real, they basically order me around.

So… Sunshine Smart is a hippie – but she’s also a fashion-conscious businesswoman; she’s a carnivore – but can’t bear to think of how lobsters going in the pot; she’s manipulative – but so tender-hearted that when she gets deservedly angry at the hero, she kisses him better almost by reflex. She even has two different coloured eyes. The result was that she ended up surprising me – and I loved her like crazy.

I was thinking about Sunshine Smart during a recent Facebook conversation about how publishers tend to prefer ‘feisty’ heroines. Now, I’m all for a bit of feist, but I couldn’t help thinking that if every writer’s heroines were ‘feisty’, how boring would it be? Same deal with our heroes. Do they all have to be chiselled, muscular, good-looking chick-magnets?

My answer is a resounding ‘no’. Where's the surprise, otherwise? So now I’m going to draw on one of my all-time favourite authors to demonstrate: Georgette Heyer, who wrote quirk better than anyone. Although I could rabbit on forever about her fabulous characters, I will (reluctantly) limit myself to two – one heroine, one hero – who are the epitome of surprising.

The Quiet Gentleman 

I ask you, how many romances have you read that have a heroine as atrociously named as Drusilla? I love The Quiet Gentleman for that name alone. This is the hero’s first impression of poor Drusilla: ‘Her figure was trim, but sadly lacking in height, and she was rather short-necked. She employed no arts to attract; the Earl thought her dull.’ 

Short-necked? Dull? Our heroine? 

Well, she is certainly no beauty – something every character in the book agrees on. She is also practical, sensible, pragmatic...and I adore every unromantic bone in her body. 

How does she steal the Earl’s heart? 

Well, exactly because she is practical, sensible and pragmatic – qualities that enable her to save the hero’s life a time or two, but also end up delighting him.

Kitty is the ward of a clutch-fisted manipulator who insists she will have his fortune on his deathbed only if she marries one of his nephews. She longs for the handsome, muscular, sporting Jack to offer for her hand; but when he decides not to have his strings pulled like a puppet, Kitty inveigles the reluctant Freddy Standen into a fake betrothal, in a fit of pique. 

I was so sure Jack would turn out to be the hero of this book – but how absolutely brilliant that Heyer chose Freddy for that honour instead. 

Freddy is a dandy, has perfect manners, can dance superbly, is the go-to man for fashion advice…but he certainly isn’t an intellectual, a rebel, or a heartthrob. 

His sister has this to say: ‘For this I will say Freddy! – however stupid you may be, you are by far the best dancer in London.’  

Stupid? A hero? 

But as it turns out, there is something else Freddy possesses – and that is a kind heart. And following the characters in Cotillion and seeing how that one true thing about Freddy saves the day is pure magic.

These two examples demonstrate beautifully that feisty or firm-jawed aren't the only ways to be fabulous.

I'd love to hear if you have any favourite quirky characters – or, on the flip side, any stereotypes you're tired of reading about.

Meanwhile, I will get back to my own quirky characters: analytical economists who think a sex contract is normal, black book wielding heroes who like baking biscuits, rugby league players who watch the Discovery Channel, bankers who paint works of art in their spare time, and – in one of my favourite recent releases, heroines who do not develop crushes on movie starts the way I do myself...   

Avril's latest book, Wanting Mr Wrong, is out now:

Evie Parker has never been one to swoon after celebrities - give her a neuroscientist over an actor any day! So when she develops her first movie-star crush, she's determined to date her way out of it, starting with the next good-looking doctor she sees.

Yet hovering on the fringes of her life is her gay best friend's determined brother, Jackson J Stevens, a famous actor who comes with trailing paparazzi.

The one thing worse than a celebrity in Evie's eyes is a media circus, so Jack isn't an option no matter how hard he flirts with her.

Evie knows what she doesn't want; Jack knows what he does. And somewhere in the middle, pheromones are making things go haywire every time they're together.

For more information about Avril Tremayne, check out her website, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Hi Avril

    I do love characters in stories that are a bit different ones that will make me smile and there have been many over the ears but of course because I am trying to think of them at the moment my brain is blank I don't think I am tired of reading about any certain type as long as a story pulls me in and can make me smile or cry happy or sad I am happy :)

    Have Fun

    1. I agree on that - and I also think that the story will only pull you in if the characters are strong, and what they do makes sense for them to be doing. Freddy and Drusilla, for example, stayed true to their personalities, even while they were surprising us along the way.

  2. I loved your entry in the SYTYCW contest and was so pleased when "Here Comes the Bridesmaid" was published. I had to buy it of course and enjoyed it as much the second time as the first! It was because of their quirkiness that I loved your characters. Looking forward to reading more of your books.

    1. Thank you so much! You've made my day. You know, I've had six books published but Here Comes The Bridesmaid is still my favourite. (Although the one I just finished writing may just give it a run for its money.)

  3. I really don't want to say this, but Freddy has always been my favorite of Heyer's heroes. Because he's so socially aware, he can cope with pretty well anything. And lovely Drusilla - I thought she was too good for the bored earl she married. But she didn't, so I shouldn't complain for her. I just wanted someone for her who loved her to pieces. He didn't have that in him. Sob.

    1. Could you believe it when Freddy turned out to be the hero? I was so shocked, but so happy. A gutsy move, and he is just so wonderful. I reread Cotillion recently and laughed so much - even Freddy's father is fantastic. And Drusilla - she is the heroine I aim to be in my own life. I think the reason Gervase fell for her was because she was the antithesis of boring.

  4. I think my favorite quirky character of the moment has to be my Bethany Kindred. She is seen by everyone as a harmless space cadet, yet she has a great head for business. She pushes all of her friends to be real with themselves and go after what they want, yet she often folds at the first hint of resistance in her own life. She's a sweetheart and will do anything for anyone, but she has a quick temper. She can barge into a banker's office and demand to know why her loan was rejected, but she can't tell a man she likes him. I'm still working on her, but I think my soul cycling instructor who loves junk food is well on her way to a normal level of quirkiness.

    I may get shot for saying this, but I'm so tired of rugged cowboys. *ducks* Alpha male Sheikhs are also getting a little long in the tooth. I think any kind of character can get that way if the writer doesn't bring something new to it. I DO read both cowboys and Sheikhs if I like the writer and know she'll do something different with them.

    1. You have a soul cycling instructor? That makes me so happy, because I have a close friend in Los Angeles who is always talking about soul cycling. Your instructor and Bethany both sound like my kind of quirky!

      There are an awful lot of cowboys and Sheikhs out there. I have story ideas for both of those heroes but of course there will be a very big twist in their characters that I've already worked out in my head...

  5. I truly love Freddy. And Leo and Sunshine from Here Comes the Bridesmaid are a pair for the ages. Love your characters, Avril. You always manage to add the unexpected. I have read all your books and can't wait to read more!

    1. I'm really happy at how many people love Freddy, given he's such an oddball choice for a hero. And of course, I'm happy you love my own two oddballs, Sunshine and Leo. Thanks you so much for the comment.

  6. Avril, I love your books and your blog posts. I am amazed at your encyclopedic knowledge on all romance books. Astounding and brings back such good memories of long ago reads. And yes, your Sunshine Smart and Leo Quartermaine are movie-worthy!

    1. That is so kind. Some books really do just stick in my mind, and Georgette Heyer's books are amongst my all time favourites. Of course, I'll remember Sunshine and Leo forever too. How I would love to see them in a movie.