Creating an Emotional Bond Between Character and Reader

Coming on August 4: SILENT MELODY, a republication of a Georgian romance first published (with HEARTLESS) during the 1990s. The heroine is a deaf mute at a time when there was no recognized way of communicating with the deaf. The hero is her sister’s brother-in-law with whom she was deeply in love as a girl before he went off to India for several years. Now Ashley is back unexpectedly and Emily is about to marry another man. I will be choosing two winners of signed copies of both books on Monday, August 3. Read on…

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A love story is not just a narrative; it shows the growth of a relationship between two people, a growth through indifference (sometimes even hostility), through liking and friendship and being in love to the ultimate fullness of love itself. The ending of a love story should leave the reader sighing with contentment, convinced that this couple shares a love that will stand the test of time and last forever and even beyond. It should give the impression of happily-ever-after yet the conviction too that it is real. In order to get this feeling, however, the reader has to be drawn into the story and into the very souls of the main characters and into the love connection between them. The reader has to feel these characters, to be emotionally involved in their journey, almost to become them in imagination. It is the writer’s job to make this happen. But how is it done?

First of all, the characters have to seem real. Whether the hero is a tall, dark, handsome macho man or something quite different, whether the heroine is cover model gorgeous or not, they must feel like real people, ones with whom the reader can relate and identify. They really ought not to be cardboard characters with little depth beyond some character details the writer jotted down when creating them. They have to be living, breathing people with strengths and weaknesses, with triumphs and failures and problems, as full of contradictions as real people. The reader has to want to root for them in their struggles and fall in love with them in their vulnerability if this is indeed a love story.

In order to make characters real, the writer has to know them soul deep. It is possible to know a great deal about other people without really knowing them at all. Sometimes we do not even fully know ourselves. Do you ever find yourself saying or doing something that takes you by surprise? Do you really know exactly how you would behave in unexpected circumstances, a life-and-death emergency for example? When I am writing a book, I stop and go back and rewrite time and again before I come to the end and usually it is because I need to adjust the story as I get to know the main characters better. It is never easy because I am not satisfied until I feel I have them right. They are rarely willing to give up all their secrets early or at once. Sometimes—usually, in fact—I end up asking them where their deepest pain is. There always is something. Once I know it, then I can set about bringing that character to some sort of healing so that he/she can come to the point of being able to love and accept love and settle to a lasting, meaningful love relationship. This must happen for both main characters, and they must both be involved in the revelations and the healing. They bring each other to healing and love.

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There must be growth in the characters if the reader is going to invest time and emotion in their story. Admittedly there are action stories in which very little emotional involvement with the characters is necessary, but this is not often so with a love story. If the hero, for example, is just gorgeous and sexy and does nothing but macho things throughout—well the reader might enjoy reading about him being those things but there will be very little emotional empathy with him. He will be a cardboard figure.

The best way I have found of getting this depth of character and pulling the reader in emotionally is by making careful use of point of view. Point of view is the person through whose eyes and viewpoint the story is being told. It can be first person though then the action of the story can be seen through the mind of only the one character (just as our own lives are viewed). I use what I call third person deep interior point of view. I usually alternate between the hero and heroine, though there is no strict rule about it. I tell an episode from the hero’s point of view and then one from the heroine’s. That way, the reader gets to experience the story through the mind and emotions of the character experiencing that particular episode of the story. If you think about it, everything that happens in our lives has an emotional component. We are the ones who experience everything that happens in our own lives, and everything that happens is colored by our own experiences and character and background and emotions—mostly our emotions. Very little happens to us that does not carry some emotion with it. The aim of the writer should be to duplicate that with characters. They are living, emotional beings, and if their story is told from deep within them, then the reader will be there too, experiencing everything with them and feeling with them—living and loving with them.

Creating this emotional connection among writer, character, and reader is one of the greatest challenges of writing a love story, but is, I think, the key to its success. The author needs to make the reader laugh with the characters and cry with them—and fall in love with them.

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To two randomly chosen people who leave a comment below before the end of Monday, August 3, I will send signed copies of both HEARTLESS and SILENT MELODY, which is due to be published on the 4th. Good luck.

The Marriage of Convenience Theme

(Note: The winners of the contest are GLORIA D’ALFONSO and ANNE HOILE. Congratulations to them and thank you to all who took the time to leave a comment.)

“No one does a marriage of convenience like Balogh.”

This is what Publishers Weekly says of Only a Promise (June 2, 2015). I was a bit surprised (as well as gratified) as I hadn’t realized that I had used the theme enough to have earned such a comment. But actually I have. I used it in The Temporary Wife when the hero needed a wife to annoy his father, who was pressing someone else upon him, and the heroine needed money to help support her younger siblings. I used it in Slightly Married, the first of the Bedwyn series, when Aidan Bedwyn needs to fulfil a promise to a dying fellow officer to protect his sister and the sister needs a husband in a hurry so that she will not lose her inheritance and find herself unable to support her adopted children. I used it in First Comes Marriage, the first of the Huxtable series, when Nessie desperately wants to save her eldest sister from having to marry the hero and so offers herself instead. I used it in… Well, perhaps you will think of a few more to mention in the comments below. There are several!

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Now that I know I use the theme, I ask myself why. There are a few definite reasons. First, it is a way to get the characters married early in the book so that the rest of the story can contain all the intimacies of a growing relationship. I don’t have to contrive to bring the characters together in almost every scene, They live together! My books are almost all set during the Regency era of the early 19th century, when young ladies in particular did not have the freedom of movement and the privacy that we expect today. Finding realistic reasons for them to be alone with their heroes, especially in sexual ways, is not easy. But if the couple is married, then the problem goes away.

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Another reason is that the marriage of convenience is contracted for other reasons than love or even affection. The couple has agreed to marry, but they have low expectations of finding emotional satisfaction with each other. That is not why they married. Sometimes they do not even like each other particularly well. Occasionally they actively dislike each other (A Christmas Promise is a good example of that). Almost always they do not know each other at all well and are not planning to share themselves with each other except in essentials. However, these are marriages and in most cases, unless there is a good reason, they do not exclude sex. As a writer, then, I have all the ingredients in the particular set-up I have planned to set the couple in close proximity to each other and in conflict with each other. Gradually they get to know each other, to solve their own problems and somehow to enable the other to solve her/his problems. Liking and respect usually come first as a result–remember that I write love stories and it is not likely the differences will prevail and the story will end up as a continued marriage of convenience! And then at last, by the end of the book, the couple is in love and–beyond the passion and euphoria of that state–truly love each other.

Lastly, and perhaps most important, this approach to writing a story gives me all the opportunity I need to delve deeply into character and to explore a growing love relationship in all its facets. And this is what I love doing more than anything in my writing.

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To two people who leave a comment below before the end of Friday, May 1, I will send signed Advance Reading copies of ONLY A PROMISE, though those copies do not have the pretty cover shown above.

Writing Dialogue

Allison McKowen recently asked this question below one of the blog pieces at my web site after commenting that she admired the dialogue I wrote in THE SECRET MISTRESS: “I have, several times, started to write a story, but get bogged down when it comes to the dialog. How did you learn to write dialog, if such a talent can be condensed into a reasonably succinct answer?”

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I must say that writing dialogue is my favorite part of writing. Fortunately, I think most readers like a lot of dialogue in the books they read. I know I do. So I try to include as much as possible in the books I write. I learned how to do it, I suppose, by doing it! It is only recently that I realized many writers actually study and learn the various arts of writing. Maybe I am just one of the lucky (or cheeky) ones. I have always just written and have never even thought of looking at any how-to books or attending any how-to workshops.

I like to set up a scene before I begin dialogue in such a way that the two characters involved have something to say to each other. Perhaps they are gearing up to argue about something, or perhaps one of them needs to unburden him/herself to the other. Perhaps they have something important to discuss or decide. Or perhaps they have been thrown together and really don’t know what to say to each other but cannot avoid saying something. Whatever the situation happens to be, when my characters start talking, I let them go to it. Much of the time it feels as though I am not directing the conversation at all, but merely listening in and writing it down as quickly as I can. Often they surprise me–in fact, they almost always do. I learn about my characters when they are speaking and interacting. My plot is often determined and carried forward by what they say.

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One thing I have learned about dialogue as I have gone along  is that as the two characters speak, the reader needs to be able to picture the scene as well as to listen to what is being said. I am careful to include details about their facial expressions and body language, as well as the thoughts and emotional responses of the character from whose point of view that particular scene is being told (my scenes are almost always written from the point of view of either the hero or the heroine). I will include a few details about their surroundings–a dying fire, rain lashing a window, one of them getting up to pour a fresh drink, etc. And another thing I have learned from the books I read: I find it hugely annoying if I can’t keep track of who is speaking and have to keep going back to work it out. Even if it may sometimes seem unnecessary always to have the “he said,” “she said,” labels, I still think it preferable to not having them at all.

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I would be interested to read your comments on dialogue. To two randomly chosen people who leave a comment below before the end of Saturday, February 28, I will send a signed copy of LONGING, my March republication.

The Regency/Historical Question

Way back in prehistoric times, when I was first published (it will be 30 years in April of this year–ouch! See the cover of my first book below), my books were called Regency Romances, and though they were historical fiction in the sense that they were set in Regency England between the years 1811 and 1820, they were not known as historicals. Everything else was if it was set before World War II, but Regencies were in a category of their own. When anyone tried to explain why this was so, there were vague answers like the fact that Regencies were gentle comedies of manners–as though no other type of historical novel could be that. Actually they were fun to write and I wrote close to forty of them before deciding that it was time to try my hand at the larger market of the historical.

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I immediately thought that the book needed to be different, larger, more action-driven, more obviously linked to some of the better known events of history. Eventually, a few years later, I was told by a new editor that no, no, I could and should write the sort of books that had made me known, though now they would be called historicals. I wrote MORE THAN A MISTRESS  after I was told that and have been writing the old-style Regencies ever since, except that they are no longer small-market items. But, in the meantime I started writing historicals with BEYOND THE SUNRISE in 1992.

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BEYOND THE SUNRISE is set during the Regency period, and it tells a love story as passionate as any I had written before or have written since. It is also perhaps the most action-packed of any of my books. It is set during the Napoleonic Wars. Although it begins in England, when the hero and heroine as still young teenagers enjoying a sweet but doomed romance, it soon moves ahead eleven years and to Portugal where the wars are raging. Robert Blake is now an infantry captain who is also an occasional spy for Wellington. Jeanne Morisette, now known as Joana da Fonte, the widowed Marquesa das Minas, with her French father, English mother, and Poeruguese late husband, is also a spy–but for whom? Robert Blake certainly does not know the answer. I am not a plotter, but I certainly had to plot that book! I also researched the whole of the Peninsula Wars in great detail even though I ended up using only a fraction of what I knew. I loved writing the story, and I still love it more than twenty years later.

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BEYOND THE SUNRISE will be republished on February 3 in a lovely new trade paperback edition. You can preorder it through any of the buy links shown on Home Page of my web site, or purchase it outright after Feb. 3. BUT, in the meanwhile, you have a chance to win one of three copies of the book by leaving a comment below before the end of Thursday, January 29. Good luck!

The Winners:

The grand winner of a set of the first four Survivors’ Club books (THE PROPOSAL THE ARRANGEMENT, THE ESCAPE, and ONLY ENCHANTING) in the blog contest below is Ellen Solensky. The winners of ONLY ENCHANTING are Jennie Coon and J Tang. Congratulations to all three, and many thanks to all of you who left such great comments.