Jilly: Characters Reborn and Reinvented

Characters reborn and reinventedHappy Easter to all who are celebrating today!

For hundreds, maybe thousands of years the Spring equinox has been a time to salute the coming of light and new life (here’s a link to a Wikipedia article about the goddess Eostre and all kinds of Paschal traditions). Makes sense to me. I’ve always found this time of year to be my most positive, productive and creative. There’s something about the light that makes me feel energized and inspired. I get the feeling everything is new, change is in the air and anything is possible.

I was daydreaming yesterday about how much I’d like that feeling to saturate my current WIP when it struck me that almost all romance writing is about rebirth and reinvention. Maybe that’s why I find it such an effective pick-me-up in the depths of winter or when I’m feeling under the weather.

I love a powerful character arc, a hero or heroine who is changed by their choices and actions under pressure so that by the end of the story they are transformed into their true self, revealed in all their fascinating glory. They can never again be the person they were when we first met them.

I’m thinking the distinction between characters who are reinvented and those who are reborn depends on whether they seek out change or have it forced upon them.

Characters who are reborn die a psychic death. They lose the things they hold most dear and from that desperate loss they emerge, new-minted and triumphant.

Here’s Phin, the hero of Jenny Crusie’s Welcome To Temptation, talking to his mother about Sophie, the heroine:

“She destroyed my life…My life was a fucking wasteland; all Sophie did was clear the brush.”

Or Loretta and Ronny in John Patrick Shanley’s Moonstruck:

Loretta: I’m really afraid.

Ronny: Why?

Loretta: I’m afraid of who I am.

Ronny: I was.

Loretta: And you’re not now?

He shakes his head.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips does this really well. As soon as I see one of her books open with an all-powerful hero, I know his worldview will be reduced to ashes within a couple of hundred pages (Match Me if You Can; Kiss an Angel; Heaven, Texas and many more). And I’d put wonderful, uptight, snobbish Fitzwilliam Darcy in this camp too.

Characters reinvented seek or welcome change, though they inevitably get more than they bargained for.

Here’s some blurb from Sarah Maclean’s Nine Rule to Break When Romancing a Rake:

A lady does not smoke cheroot.

She does not ride astride.

She does not fence or attend duels.

She does not fire a pistol, and she never gambles at a gentlemen’s club.

Lady Calpurnia Hartwell has always followed the rules, rules that have left her unmarried—and more than a little unsatisfied. And so she’s vowed to break the rules and live the life of pleasure she’s been missing.

It works well in a contemporary setting, too. Take Jenny Crusie’s Manhunting:

Kate Svenson may be a dynamite businesswoman—but after three failed engagements, she’s decided she’s hopeless at romance. What she needs is a Business Plan to help her find Mr. Right.

I’m planning to celebrate today by reading what sounds like a classic frothy, frivolous, fabulous piece of reinvention, Susan Wiggs’ The Charm School:

An awkward misfit in an accomplished Boston family, Isadora Peabody yearns to escape her social isolation and sneaks aboard the Silver Swan, bound for Rio, leaving it all behind.

Ryan Calhoun, too, had a good family name. But he’d purposely walked away from everything it afforded him. Driven by his quest to right an old wrong, the fiery, temperamental sea captain barely registers the meek young woman who comes aboard his ship.

To the Swan’s motley crew, the tides of attraction clearly flow between the two. Teaching her the charms of a lady, they hope to build the confidence she needs to attract not only their lonely captain’s attention, but his heart, as well.

Do you have a favorite tale of rebirth or reinvention? Care to share?

7 thoughts on “Jilly: Characters Reborn and Reinvented

  1. Character arc is make or break for me. In the women’s fiction arena, I love JoJo Moyes and Joshilyn Jackson for just this reason.

    • JoJo Moyes was a keynote speaker at the first writing conference I ever went to. She was great – smart, funny and inspiring. She was (maybe is) a journalist and talked about how much teasing she had to endure (‘JoJo’s writing a book, aren’t you, JoJo?’) before she finally sold and found success. I haven’t read any of her books because they sound more women’s fiction than romance and the descriptions sound too dark for my taste, but having heard her speak I’m not surprised to hear they’re really good.

      • I read a Jojo Moyes on an airplane and sobbed all the way across the country. The flight attendants kept asking me if they could bring me something, and the guy in the middle seat leaned so far the other way, he was practically hanging out the window. I’ll be ready for the next one in five or ten years.

        • That’s what I thought. I have no doubt she’s an excellent writer, but I suspect I am not her reader 😉 .

  2. Aw, gosh, now I want to read some of these! I really love the idea of a bunch of sailors teaching a young woman how to be a lady. Do they play it straight? By which I mean, a proper bursar is teaching her proper things? I must admit, my first thought was some salty tar giving advice like: “Don’t be missish when it comes to the grog. Either you refuse it altogether, or you slam it down and ask for another. There be no sippin’ of the grog. And for god’s sake, put your pinky down. You wants the parrot to bite it off?” Parrot says, “Arrgh.” Isadora meekly puts her pinky on the surface of the sanitarily suspicious glass, and echoes, “Arrgh.”

    • I read The Charm School yesterday, and it was a fabulous treat. I think you’d love it, Micki. It’s warm and funny, all about community and very kind. I was planning to say the blurb is a little misleading, but on re-reading this morning it isn’t, at all, nor is the title. It’s an ugly duckling story complete with Hans Christian Andersen quotes for chapter headers. Isadora already knows how to be a lady, but she’s a round, frumpy, intellectual kind of lady with oodles of brains and zero social confidence. Above all, the salty tars teach her to value herself. She gets some hair and wardrobe changes, and a diet and exercise programme courtesy of running around a ship all day, but she also gains self confidence, learns the secret of charm, and puts it to wonderful effect.

      Gotta say, I’d have paid extra for a chapter with grog and parrot lessons 😀 .

      I knew I was going to like this book from the moment the heroine found a role for herself and negotiated herself aboard instead of borrowing her brother’s clothes and stowing away. Isadora has useful skillz, and when the captain refuses her offer to join the crew and employ them, she goes above his head to the owner of the boat, a fellow Bostonian who actually treats her as though she has a brain and who happens to be the father of her great secret crush. The captain’s mother has also booked herself passage on board the ship (to his great dismay), so our heroine joins the crew as herself with a real role to play and the blessing of her family (who are not-so-secretly relieved to have her out of the way).

      • Arrrrgh. There’s a pirate fantasy book in me somewhere (-:. Gosh, I AM a woman who would adore a parrot, but they live almost as long as humans, and I’m not ready for that kind of commitment.

        OK, I’m off to the Amazon to find The Charm School. It does sound like my cup of tea!

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