Wednesday, September 28, 2011


by Margaret Birth

If you’ve ever listened to a group of writers discuss the merits of “plot-driven” versus “character-driven” fiction, then you know how contentious and confusing such a debate can be. If you’re wondering what position you, as a romance writer, should take, the answer is this: In order to keep your romantic story on the right road, let your characters do the driving.

Plot-driven fiction places the focus on the plot; characters’ development is secondary, as long as their actions fit the plot. This isn’t to say that plot-driven fiction can’t have likable characters—but characters’ internal conflicts take a backseat to external conflicts, and goals tend to be plot-related rather than emotionally generated. Mysteries, with their emphasis on crime, investigation, and process of discovery, are plot-driven.

Since romantic fiction is, first and foremost, the story of a hero and a heroine who fall in love, it is necessarily character-driven. Now, that’s not to say that all romance authors (particularly aspiring romance authors) write character-driven stories. I’ve seen several romantic suspense manuscripts, in particular, in which what is only supposed to be a suspense subplot (i.e., only one part of the story of a hero and heroine’s romance) takes over the whole story. Here are some tips for avoiding such pitfalls in your romantic fiction:

* Ask yourself what your hero and heroine’s goals, strengths, weaknesses, and motivations are; ask yourself how they act and react to one another, to other characters, and to the situations they encounter. Who your characters are influences why and how they act and react the way they do; and how they act and react (particularly with regard to one another) is what should form the basis of your plot.

* Keep your hero and heroine together as much as possible. Represent time apart by summarizing briefly—for example: “Dani heard a knock at her front door. It was sharp, insistent—the way he always knocked. She couldn’t believe it had been two weeks since she’d seen him last. She ran to open the door, and fell into Justin’s arms.” If you allow your hero and heroine too much alone-time, then too much of the story will focus on what they do while they’re apart, rather than on who they are and how their love grows.

*To really put your story into perspective (if you have a completed manuscript), put one color of Post-It Notes on every page that focuses on the love story and another color on every page that focuses on something else (whether suspense subplot, the heroine’s job, or whatever); for your story to be a romance, at least 60% of the Post-It Notes should be on pages that show the hero and heroine’s developing relationship. ♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor.

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