Author of Historical Romance
Creating the Romantic Hero
Your hero is central to the story, the character on which all else turns. He is the very figure of romance, always larger than life, and from his first appearance he leaps from the page and makes the reader catch her breath. This man is the alpha male. A natural leader, he is intelligent, powerful and wealthy. He must also be physically attractive even if he isn’t classically handsome. Heroes are often, but not always, dark haired. Richard Sharpe isn’t but he’s gorgeous nevertheless. The hero’s attractiveness is also more than skin deep. While there may be flaws in his character, his behaviour is always honourable. Otherwise why would the heroine want him? Why would the reader be drawn to him and care what happens to him?
Character flaws should serve to make him more human and more credible. After all, no-one is perfect. A perfect individual would probably be insufferable in real life, and in fiction such a hero would make for tedious reading. We recognise and identify with human weakness because we all possess it. It affords potential for humour as well as grief. Used properly these weaknesses can make your character more likeable and more sympathetic. Thus your hero may have a temper which leads him to say things he later regrets. Possibly he has focused on professional ambition to the detriment of his private life. Perhaps earlier experiences have taught him to be wary of giving his trust or his love. He may have suffered a tragic loss. His apparent aloofness is the defence he creates to protect himself from being hurt again. Whatever the secrets of the past they hold him back from the relationship he wants with the heroine, and provide the inner conflict that must be resolved before he can arrive at the happy ending. It is this emotional conflict that drives the novel so it needs to be carefully created and sustained over the course of the story.
The hero always has a back story, something in his past which he has yet to confront. Through his interaction with the heroine he gradually reveals more about himself and, as the layers are peeled away, is thus brought to face the issues that have long been hidden. Having acknowledged these he can overcome them and move on to the future he wants.
In addition to this are the external conflicts the hero must face, the events over which he has little or no control but which affect him adversely. These might be wars, political or social change, treachery, disease, famine, fire, plague – the possibilities are considerable. The historical period you choose will determine what these are. The hero’s response to adversity says a great deal about his character. So too does his concern for others, particularly those weaker than himself. Ultimately he will triumph, evil will be overcome and justice will prevail.
Essentially the external conflict is there to add background colour. It is the central relationship and the emotional conflicts that move the story forward. If you have created a sympathetic hero the reader will be on his side. If you sustain the emotional conflict it racks up the tension. Your reader will be eager to see how it is resolved and will keep turning the pages.
The Romantic Heroine
The heroine of historical romance must be both likeable and believable. She is someone the reader can identify with and care about from the very start. In this genre the heroine is usually aged between 16 and 25 years. While older female protagonists are plentiful in modern romances they are thin on the ground in historicals. This is an important detail if the story is to be credible. People married younger and died earlier in olden times. By the age of thirty a woman was considered to be middle-aged. Her children would themselves be approaching marriageable age. In historical romance then, a younger heroine is the norm. Youth is associated with physical good looks. It is also concerned with hopefulness, a zest for life, folly and varying degrees of rebellion against authority, all necessary ingredients for an entertaining read. They are recurring elements of the genre.
The romantic heroine need not be stunningly beautiful though she is invariably attractive. Perhaps otherwise ordinary looks are redeemed by lovely eyes and hair or a shapely figure. Perhaps she carries herself like a queen or holds an elusive and mysterious allure. In any event she is the woman who draws the hero’s eye and holds it.
This attractiveness extends to her character. She may be innocent or even naïve at times but she is fundamentally honest, decent and kind. Above all she is feisty, a woman who won’t crumble in the face of adversity. There will be plenty of this to test her across the course of the novel. Nevertheless, she shoulders the burdens that fall to her and becomes stronger because of them. Her willingness to care for and to help others is part of her attractiveness.
Intelligent conversation and a ready wit also define the romantic heroine. She is more than capable of holding her own against the hero in this respect, or even of putting him in his place when necessary. The fact that she doesn’t initially fall at his feet is one reason she stands out from all the other women he’s ever met. Elizabeth Bennett attracts Mister Darcy and earns his respect because she stands up to him. He remembers exactly what she has said when he has long since forgotten the conversations he has had with others. Their lively verbal sparring is one of the delights of the book.
Apart from her witty conversation the romantic heroine is perceptive and often intuitive. She sees through the emotional disguises that the hero creates to protect himself. She is part of his inner conflict. Although she is tactful in handling sensitive issues she is not afraid to confront the hero head on when she deems it necessary. She knows that if they are to have a future together it cannot be based on evasions and secrets. This advances the plot and makes her the foil against which are revealed his character traits.
The heroine is admirable but never perfect. If she were she would be unconvincing, a dull, two-dimensional character rather than a credible human being. Like the hero she has her faults – possibly an over-hasty tongue, a hot temper or a tendency towards recklessness. Whatever the case may be, these traits never cause her to act in a way that is petty or dishonourable. Her actions may be misunderstood by the hero but that is because he is not in possession of all the facts at the time, not because she has acted with ill intent.
It may be some time before the heroine realises and acknowledges that the hero is the man for her. However, the reader should never be in any doubt. A weak or flaky or manipulative heroine is unlikely to engage our sympathy. Why would the hero want to tie himself to such a woman? The romantic heroine is his soul mate, the love of his life, the one he cannot live without. For her he will ride through fire and flood, storm castle walls and fight scores of evil enemies. For her he will risk everything, including his own life, so she’d better be worth the effort.
Writing for Mills & Boon: Be a Front Runner, Not an Also Ran.
Every year Harlequin Mills and Boon receive about 6000 unsolicited manuscripts. From those they might sign up 10 new writers. That doesn’t sound like a lot at first, until you consider that many other publishers take on only one or two new writers in the course of a year, if they haven’t closed their lists altogether. Seen in that light, the take-up by HM&B starts to look encouraging.
The really good news is that this publisher actively seeks new authors. With a dozen imprints each requiring new books every month, that’s a big market. Better still, you don’t require an agent to approach them. Best of all, HM&B issues guidelines for would-be authors. This isn’t like taking a shot in the dark then, and hoping that what you’ve written will be what the editor wants. This is a niche market with known requirements catering for a large and established market. Nor is a there a slush pile propping open the doors at the Richmond office. I know this because I’ve been there. Everything is carefully catalogued and everything is read. That’s why it can take several months to get a reply. In spite of the inevitable delays, would-be writers will recognise that there are massive advantages here. Assuming that you can tell a gripping story and have a good command of English, what could possibly go wrong? What on earth could have happened to the 5990 hopefuls who didn’t make it?
One of the most common reasons for rejection, and the most easily avoided, is a failure to research and understand the market. A recurring theme in my writing workshops is that most of the participants don’t know what the publisher is selling now. The last time they read anything by HM&B was, quite literally, decades ago. Incredibly, some have never read a Mills and Boon novel. Yet they somehow imagine they’ll be able to create a saleable product without knowing anything about the market they intend to write for. It’s a bit like setting out to find the source of the Nile without a map and a compass. The publishing world is continually evolving, and individual publishers either evolve with it or they go under. Like all successful firms, HM&B have adapted to the times and to the requirements of modern readers. They also fine tune their product to suit different tastes, hence the number of different imprints. Therefore, it’s essential to know exactly what you’re aiming at.
It’s easy to find out. If you aren’t sure which imprint you want to write for, I’d recommend reading a wide range of the latest ones. That way you’ll find the line you like best. Having done that, download the writer’s guidelines from the HM&B web site and study them carefully. Now read the books again alongside the guidelines. Understand how the books meet the criteria. By now you should also be getting a good handle on that series. It takes time to do this properly but don’t be tempted to skip it. Careful preparation is never wasted. Perhaps you will also start to get ideas for the story you want to tell.
Which brings me to the next most common reason why so many would-be writers fail: a tendency to let plot overwhelm the central romance. Take it from one who had to rewrite her first book four times before that particular message sank in. In other words, everything centres on the central love story. All else is peripheral to it. Keep your eye on the ball. What is it that keeps your hero and heroine apart and prevents them from having the loving relationship they both want? The answer to this should come from inner conflict, not external influences. If you can grasp that point you’re halfway to success already.
Make sure that you know your characters inside out. It isn’t enough just to know what they look like. You need to know what makes them tick. What are their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, hopes and ambitions? What is their back-story? This matters because it’s the source of the inner conflict mentioned above. Essentially, the more complex the emotional obstacles, the better. It’s worth spending time on these points and getting into the minds of the main protagonists. If your characters aren’t real to you they’ll never be real to your reader.
In this connection it’s worth saying a little bit about planning your novel. There’s no right or wrong way to do this; it’s an individual choice. Some writers do a minimal amount of planning for their story, others draw up detailed charts and chapter notes. While I don’t go that far, I do need to know what the over-arching story is about, and also the pivotal points within it. Those are the key scenes in which an important change occurs in the relationship. These scenes also provide a structure to the novel. The changes at each point may be good or bad, but they always carry the story forward. The process is organic in that the route to those pivotal scenes may change if better ideas occur to me. In addition there is the seat-of-the pants-method of writing which involves no planning at all. It may work for some. I suspect that, in most cases, having no clear direction leads into blind alleys and only produces a drawer full of partially-completed, abandoned manuscripts. That is not only a waste of time, it’s demoralising as well and probably best avoided.
Be prepared to polish your work. Getting the first draft done is the easy part. If you’re lucky enough to get detailed feedback on your submission you should feel hugely encouraged. It takes hours to write a detailed critical appraisal so it means that a busy editor thought your work was worth the effort. Don’t be precious. Get down and make the suggested changes. You’re one step closer to success.
Writing any novel is a huge investment of time, effort, commitment and emotional engagement. While there are no cast-iron guarantees of publication, it makes sense to give yourself the best possible chance. Believe me, there is nothing like the buzz you get when the publisher calls to say that they want to buy your book.
Joanna Fulford 2012