Kay: Making Characters Behave

Colored etching by Thomas Rowlandson, 10 October 1810 (Wellcome Library, London)

Colored etching by Thomas Rowlandson, 10 October 1810 (Wellcome Library, London)

I’m huffing and puffing along with my WIP, in which every word, action, relationship, plot twist, and characterization is driving me nuts. This week my nightmare is the relationship of my hero and heroine. I can’t seem to find a reason why they shouldn’t get together. And sometimes I can’t find a reason why they should.

My hero is a wealthy guy, very successful in his first career, and now, embarking on his second, looking to make a fortune there, too. My heroine is a Spunky Girl, also in her second career. She made a spectacular splash but not a fortune in her first job and now, having located to be closer to the hero, is determined to become the best in her new line of work. Because Backstory, it’s important to her that no one think she’s a gold digger or riding on the hero’s coattails, so she’s careful to take things slowly.

This is book two; in book one they cemented an attraction. My plan for book two is that they get engaged. To move that arc, my plan is that in the beginning, the hero wants her to move in and she won’t, and by the end, he’s proposed and she’s accepted. But why won’t she move in? If she doesn’t want to be perceived as a gold digger, all she has to do is not act like one. She’s being an idiot.

And because she’s behaving like an idiot, I’m having trouble seeing why they should get together. If she’s got a problem demonstrating her independence with people who earn a lot more money than she does, she should just marry a nice civil servant. Problem solved.

I’ve been revisiting the old goal, motivation, conflict ideas to get over this hump, but nothing has gelled so far. So I cast around looking for help on the internet, and I ran into an interesting article. It turns out that if your romantic relationship has hit rocky ground, the way to fix it is to celebrate more, and celebrate the small stuff. According to a bunch of researchers who’ve looked at this question, divorce isn’t usually caused by an increase in problems, but a decrease in positive feelings. If you want to build a better relationship, spend more time celebrating the good and the small.

Okay, my peeps can do that. They’ve been mired in work. They need to have more fun. Check. And if they have fun, appreciating the good things they already have and doing or saying something to show how they feel, they’ll be happier. Expressing good feelings multiplies the happiness, according to those who study such things.

So my hero wants the heroine to move in with him. How can he reach this goal? By providing celebratory rewards, according to one researcher. Every time he encourages the heroine to do something at his house—behavior he wants to replicate—he reinforces that behavior with a reward. It works like this: if you exercise first thing in the morning, and you treat yourself to a coffee or some chocolate after, you’ll be more likely to exercise again tomorrow.

How can my hero do this without seeming like a manipulative bastard? Perhaps if he thinks about what the heroine needs and supplies it at his house. Too creepy? I’m working on it.

As a treat, here’s a 12-minute TED talk on happiness. It’s not exactly related to this post, but it’s funny, and it made me happy. I hope you enjoy it.



15 thoughts on “Kay: Making Characters Behave

  1. I feel your pain, Kay! I’m okay with my hero and heroine (for now) but the next few scenes introduce some new characters – the Big Bad, and later the hero’s mother and sister. I don’t know them half so well as the main characters, and it’s not so much that they won’t behave as that I’m not nearly clear enough about how I want them to behave. I have a general idea, but not the detail I need to write decent scenes. I really hope they’re going to help me out.

    I don’t think your heroine can hold back because of what people will think. That might happen in real life, but in fiction I don’t think it would make her sympathetic. If she thinks the hero might be The One and she needs to establish balance in their relationship to give it a shot at working in the long term, then I’m with her. The hero is a problem solver, so the way he’ll seem like a hero and not a manipulative bastard is if he figures out why she’s resisting an idea that makes great practical sense, and makes the reason go away. And definitely not finding a way to manipulate her into his house if it feels wrong to her. That’s the way to blow up a good relationship. More like finding a win/win. Maybe he should move in with her 😉 .

    I don’t know whether you read Nora’s In Death series – I’ve only read the first few, because they’re a little violent for my taste, but they’re a nice portrayal of how the dynamic of a romance between a loaded, powerful guy and an economically challenged, independent, hardworking cop could work.

    • I’m going to check out the In Death series today. Thanks for the tip! And the other advice. I hear you: fiction has to be better than real life. And I love the idea of my hero, with his 15-bedroom house, moving into my heroine’s one-bedroom apartment. That sounds like a lot of fun.

  2. Great links Kay. I love the idea of celebrating stuff to build the relationship. I definitely need to give that some more thought.

    Is your heroine’s hesitance to move in with the hero because she thinks it will make her look bad or she thinks it will make him look bad? If she’s worried about his reputation instead of her own, that might make it seem less like she’s “acting like an idiot”. Just a random thought.

    Interesting that you brought this up today. The book I just finished a few days ago had a rich hero / not-so-rich heroine. There was a lot of conflict as she insisted on paying her share of things and he said something along the lines of “that’s dumb; I have the money let me spend it” and “you have other things you contribute to this relationship”. A lot of the discussion in the story was around the idea of whether things needed to be “equal” in a relationship or whether each party contributed their own strengths in their own ways. The answer was pretty much glossed over in the story, but I found it an interesting idea to ponder. Not sure I have any conclusions about it, but something I am still thinking about.

    Good luck with your characters. Hope inspiration strikes all of you.

    • Totally tangential, but I read an interview this morning between David Bowie and the designer, Alexander McQueen. McQueen said he’d dated a really rich French guy once (industrial aristocratic wealth, he said), but he insisted on paying his own way with the guy. Something like, “And he thought it was a sexual technique — going dutch.” Funny. Anywho, it really is common problem. Wanting to be on equal footing and not “beholden”. But obviously, we are not all created equal. A partner could be rich, or talented, or charming, or any number of things, but not all number of things. And that person’s partner probably isn’t going to be equally strong in the exact same way.

      What does she bring to the relationship that balances out their power imbalance?

      • I have to think about this. I think she’s not worried as much about a power imbalance with him as she’s worried that the people she needs to impress in her new job (not just her boss, but the clients) won’t take her seriously because she’s this guy’s girlfriend. She has confidence in her own abilities, but she thinks that any success she has will be thought to be because of his influence rather than her own efforts—that she’s using his name and wealth to get where she wants to go. So she wants to become successful before her name is closely linked to his. She wants to go out with him, but she’s not moving in. Maybe if I can show some situations where she has good ideas where he’s nowhere in evidence, that will move me past this trouble spot.

        • Or perhaps where the people she’s working with/trying to impress ask her to call on him for a favor or something and she’s determined to take care of it herself. Tix to a show, an in with someone famous or a particular client/business…she can either try to do it herself or she can tell the client to take a hike, that she’s not here to foster favors. She’s here to work.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book. The money question: for example, in general, in real life, I have no problem with how people spend their money. I’m more of a saver, but I don’t mind if a friend wants to max her credit cards every month on feather boas—I figure it’s none of my business. In this book, though, I’ve got that heroine who wants to be independent and respected, and the hero’s money gets in her way. So why can’t she just think it’s okay for him to spend his money the way he wants, including spend it on her? So far, she’s been okay with his taking her to the diner. I’m going to work on an expansion of that, and also think about your idea of what everybody contributes to the relationship. Must cogitate!

    • Just riffing, but I think there has to be a balance in the relationship. It doesn’t have to be financial balance – one can be loaded and the other broke – as long as they both value the other’s contribution – and know the other values theirs – and the money (or any other factor) doesn’t give one party all the power. They just have to figure out the ground rules that work for both of them. She might say it’s okay for him to buy her a priceless diamond on her birthday (if she liked diamonds, which I’m guessing she doesn’t) but not her work clothes.

      Or he can give her half his money, no strings attached, to level the playing field, so she can buy him stuff too. Or… I dunno. Just trying to think of some fun, crazy solutions here.

      I like SEP’s It Had To Be You, where the hero is the coach of the football team owned by the heroine. There’s a line near the end that says he intends to take her to the cleaners in his contract renegotiation to pay for the diamond necklace he plans to buy her. It totally works for them.

      Or here’s an example from real life. For all my childhood my dad had a steady job. My mum had her own business until we kids came along, and then she sold it and stayed at home until we were in our teens. When we went to high school (ish) she took a part time job she didn’t enjoy at terrible pay because it fitted in with our school hours, and because she wanted to be able to buy my dad birthday and anniversary presents out of money she’d earned herself. He didn’t care, but it was important to her. When we were grown she started another business and did very well. The financial balance changed significantly several times as I was growing up, but the emotional balance between them never shifted at all.

      • (-: I see Jilly has said what I wanted to say. I love the example from real-life, too. One doesn’t like to think one is wasting one’s own potential and coasting on the coattails of other people . . . .

      • I love the story about your mom and dad! That is so terrific. My mom and dad had something like that, not as complicated, but for the first 10 years they were married, my dad had his own business and mom worked as a substitute teacher occasionally, I guess to keep her hand in and earn a little extra. And then my dad got sick, so mom went back to teach fulltime. When my dad had recovered as much as he was going to, he got a part-time job, I guess to keep his hand in and earn a little extra. My mom said the earnings shift was tough on my dad, but I never heard him complain, and I was very conscious growing up that family economic conditions could change, but as long as everybody pulled together, things would work out.

        I like the idea of my hero’s giving half his money to my heroine! I’m going to do that, I think as an engagement present. I’m not sure I explained the problem very well in my post; it’s great to get these responses so I can see other ways to approach this problem. It’s not so much that Phoebe can’t come to grips with Chase’s money per se—she doesn’t feel unequal in her relationship to him—but more that she thinks other people (her new boss, the clients, her fledgling friends, her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, Chase’s employees, etc.) will think that she’s coasting to success on his influence, which is huge in this town. She doesn’t want to be seen as cashing in on the relationship with him, so she’s resisting any situation or event that to her seems like she’s taking advantage of his wealth and fame. Maybe she should have an experience that turns out really well, or she saves the day precisely because she’s his girlfriend—so having that relationship would have both an upside and a downside. That could work, too. I think Phoebe wouldn’t mind if Chase wanted to give her a nice present. 🙂

  4. Oooh! I was struck my a thought: maybe your heroine’s lesson isn’t “learn how to not act like a gold-digger” but rather, “be careful whose labels you choose to adopt.” Someone specific is calling her a gold-digger, I assume, and it’s someone whose judgement she values or esteems in some way. Why? And is that a valid reason?

    All I know is that that’s been one of my biggest life lessons: don’t accept other people’s labels unless that person has some credentials for judgement. Being a parent isn’t necessarily a credential for judging character; neither is being a teacher or a boss. You do have to mold the surface for school/work expectations, but you shouldn’t have to carve your core to bits.

    Don’t know if that helps, but maybe it helps me (-:.

    For my WIP, I think the two will want to be together because of that joy that love brings. The romance isn’t so much about why they want to be together. It’s about the obstacles they have to overcome. So often we choose other things over joy. Duty. Or trivial, quick pleasures (gambling, the internet, one-night stands). We do have to make some current sacrifices for a future pay-off in joy; that’s natural. But sometimes we go overboard, and let our present be sucked dry of joy for some imagined benefit that may not compound with interest over time. Such a balancing act of now vs. future. And it works both ways: sometimes we reject the joy of now in order to have some sort of safer future. And other times, we choose stupid pleasures and indulgence instead of putting in the hard work (the arguments/discussions, for example) that will pay off in future joy.

    LOL, I’m going in circles. At any rate, a lot of it is a matter of luck in real life. We choose, and then we see if the damn thing comes up tails or heads.

    • What I’m thinking is, my heroine is the apprentice in a two-person office. She comes into work, and the client says, “I don’t want her. She’s here only because she’s Chase Bonaventure’s girlfriend.” And this isn’t true—she’s there because she’s smart and resourceful. But it’s hard arguing with entrenched positions. And Phoebe wants to hit the ground running in this new job. Well, if she gets an unwilling client and then saves the day, that would help to shift entrenched positions.

      I think you’re right that in real life, success probably has more to do with luck than we’d like to think. You have to pick somebody nice, but then it takes a lot of work to make it succeed.

      • This is GREAT! A much chewier, more interesting problem than the one I answered above. She’s starting a new business, and she’s the junior partner, and she wants to do well, but her business depends on her credibility, and right now she hasn’t got any, because the whole town sees her as Chase’s girlfriend. That’s a real issue, and not quickly fixable, but it can be done – I’ve been trying to think of real-life examples that don’t involve acting dynasties. What about Stella McCartney? That’s father/daughter but it’s the same problem. I wonder how long it took for her to become a highly successful and respected dress designer and not Paul McCartney’s daughter playing at being a designer? I bet to some people now, he’s Stella McCartney’s father.

        Moving into Chase’s house is just a part of that problem, though in this context I see it as a valid concern. This problem could drive a large part of the book – half the clients don’t want to work with her because she’s Chase’s girlfriend, the other half do, for the same reason. The parade of clients could be hilarious. Phoebe’s going to have to establish herself, and whether she decides to take the willing clients or the unwilling ones, and how she handles them, will say a lot about her tenacity. If she has time on her hands, maybe she could start digging around the town’s biggest cold case, too, and who knows what that could reveal?? And maybe she says to Chase “when the Small-Town Mercury calls me Phoebe X, without adding ‘Chase Bonaventure’s Girlfriend,’ I’ll move in with you.” I love it when I read a statement like that, because I know exactly what’s going to happen by the end of the book.

        Funny how it’s always so easy and enjoyable to riff on other people’s book battles. My own…not so much 😉 .

        • Ah, I see. Chase is famous, so his girlfriend is going to be plastered all over the local (and possibly national) gossip papers. It’s not like they can just be professional in the office and unprofessional in the bedroom (hee-hee). The clients are going to know.

          Very interesting. I’ve seen this handled in stories, but it’s always a minor stumbling block. Usually, the heroine pins the skeevy bastard to the wall with an ancient Asian martial arts technique, or otherwise proves that she is not fluff. In real life, it just isn’t that way.

          You know I’m obsessed with David Bowie this year. That’s the first celebrity couple that comes to mind when I think of the problem you have. But she was a super-model and she is a successful business owner. And, she can smirk, she got David Bowie. Which is a bit of an accomplishment all by itself.

          I’m thinking of other celeb couples. There’s Stephen Pinker who has married a series of less-famous (but it seems like they are quite prominent in their fields) women. At least two of those have wound up in divorce, and I don’t think the details are on the internet for nosy writers like me.

          What you need is a celeb who married a nobody, and then that nobody went on to become somebody, and they are both still married and happy. I think? I’m sure it happens all the time, but a lot of women are just subsumed by their more famous spouses (OK, and many men also are subsumed by their more famous spouses). Then interview her, and find out what she did (-:.

          Abigail Adams? You can’t interview her; she’s dead. But . . . she held her own. Possibly the Clintons, but I feel like David Bowie and his first wife, those two started out in relative obscurity, and made a commitment at the beginning to launch him first. Not what you are dealing with. But maybe some food for thought.

          OH! Maybe this: 10 famous men who adore their wives. The pic shows Tom Hanks. http://www.purpleclover.com/entertainment/3227-10-famous-men-who-really-really-love-their-wives/

  5. Damn. I missed the party again. I save this link in my inbox because it looked so interesting, and I was right. Just went out and watched the TED talk (I love TED talks. I love watching people talk about what they’re passionate about.) So thanks all around. (Hope you’re characters are behaving better.)

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