Ins and Outs of M/M Romance: “Know Your Characters” by Ally Blue

I’m so pleased to have the wonderful author Ally Blue on the site today. The first time I got to know Ally was when I interviewed her almost 2 years ago. She was really delightful (still is) as well as knowledgeable about her craft and today she’s going to impart some of that knowledge in hopes of helping fledgling M/M authors.

Hi all! Ally Blue here. I’m excited to be the one to kick off Wave’s new series, giving advice to up and coming (so to speak g) authors of gay romance.

When Wave first asked me to do this, I thought, “What on earth am I going to say? What kind of advice could I possibly give to new writers in the genre?” But I thought about it, and I realized that maybe what I should do to begin this series is get back to basics. I guess we’ve all read those books where an author seemed so anxious to write A Hard-Boiled Detective Story or A Romantic Comedy (or a Gay Romance?) that they forgot they needed to write a story about people first and foremost.

 So that’s what this post is about—the most basic, and in my opinion the most important, part of the book: knowing your characters before you start writing.

I don’t just mean know your male characters or know your gay characters, though of course you do have to know those aspects of them, especially in a gay romance. But you also have to know who your characters are as complete human beings. Where did they grow up? What kind of families do they have? Does your hero #1 bite his fingernails when he’s nervous? Does your villain collect Chia Pets? Does your hero #2 have a habit of sticking his gum under the desk? Do your star-crossed lovers share a passion for environmentalism? Does their knowledge of solar power and recycling help bring them together? Do their religious views push them apart?

You see where I’m going with this. No detail is too small to know about these (fictional) people with whom you will be spending a huge chunk of your life while you’re writing their story. You need to know as much as you can about them, even if those little details never show up in the book. For instance: your readers may not ever see the villain’s Chia Pet collection, but the fact that he or she collects them at all tells you, the author, something about that person. Maybe Valerie Villain always wanted to grow flowers but manages to kill every plant she touches, so now she resents the world. Maybe that resentment over the fact that the only plant she can grow is a Chia Pet was her first step on the road to villainhood. Not a great example, but you get the point. It’s a facet of her personality that potentially stems from or affects other aspects.

Or not. Maybe her Chia Pet thing is a just a weird thing she has. But if Our Hero is languishing in Valerie Villain’s dungeon waiting for Our Other Hero the Super FBI Agent to rescue him and sees VV’s Chia Pets arranged on a shelf over by that window that’s way too small to crawl out of, that makes old Val more interesting to the reader. More importantly, it helps make her human and not just a caricature.

 While you’re working out those details—the particulars of the characters’ past and present, their physical look, their habits, their family, their quirks, all of those concrete things—you also have to think about the not-so-concrete stuff. Get into your characters’ heads. Find out what makes them tick. What are their dreams? Their fears? Their hopes for the future? What makes them joyful? Depressed? What one topic gets them on a soapbox to the point where no one wants to listen anymore? Do they believe in a higher power? Reincarnation? Karma? Think of situations and dilemmas with which you’ve been faced and imagine how your characters would react.

In my opinion, it’s incredibly important to always, always know how your characters will react when faced with a crisis of any sort. When you are writing fiction, you are giving them conflict, which means they are going to face a crisis. If your characters do not react to that crisis in a manner consistent with the people you have written them to be, readers will notice. I do. I know you do, when you have on your ‘reader’ hat. That’s why it’s important to know who your characters are as people. Know as much as you can about them. If you do that, then the characterization will come easily, even if nothing else does.

Luckily, there are lots of tools out there for writers to use in characterization. If you ever have a chance to hear Donald Maass speak, for FSM’s sake do it. I went to his workshop last summer at RWA. Not only is he an excellent speaker, but that was the single most helpful workshop I’ve ever attended. EVER. It was great. In lieu of hearing him in person, you could pick up his book Writing the Breakout Novel, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/158297182X/mewo-20, which I’m told contains what I heard and more and is an awesome and very useful book. Helpful with plotting as well as characterization, BTW, and integrating the two.

Holly Lisle is an author with several different helpful mini-books on writing, one of which is a character clinic, . I don’t have this one, but her plot clinic is pretty good and people I know who have used the character workshop have really liked it.

I have several different “questionnaires” on my laptop that I use to help me get to know my characters before writing a book. I also have some notes that a friend took at a Donald Maass workshop a few years back. I’d be happy to email any of those to anyone who wants them. My email is ally@allyblue.com. I wish I could remember who all came up with the character questionnaires but sadly I have no idea, so if I send you one and you know who created it please let me know.

Nothing I’ve said here is new or different, but I feel it’s important and bears repeating. Thanks again to Wave for asking me to do this, and thanks to all of you for listening!

Now I dare one of y’all to write a villain who collects Chia Pets O_O

Ally Blue’s Website

25 comments

  • Thanks for this peek behind the curtain. I kind of like to leave authors to be The Magnificent Oz, all flash-bang and magical up front there, and not think too hard about the very human being working very hard out of sight.

    No matter how much with the how-to’s, the end product can still be amazing and magical.

    Reply
  • Ally, do you like to know every detail, big and small, about the characters before you start writing? Or do you leave some room to discover them as you write?

    Or does that happen naturally anyway as they take on a life of their own once they start walking and talking? Or have you got all that nailed beforehand and have them well under your thumb by the time you write the story?

    I have had characters surprise me as a I write before, but I think that’s not about not knowing them well enough, but more that my unconscious knows them better than my conscious mind ever can, so that’s what turns around and say “nope, not doing that!”

    Reply
    • That’s a good question. I like to start out knowing as much as I can, but there is always room for new discoveries about your characters. I have yet to write a character who I don’t learn things about as I go. Some more than others. I’ve had one or two actually change a LOT between my initial getting-to-know-them period and the first few chapters of the book, to the point where I had to go back and re-do my notes to make sure everything stayed consistent!

      Yeah, I have notes about my characters’ traits. I’m anal like that. Heh.

      Reply
  • Great post, Ally. Thanks for sharing your wisdom & experience with us – and also for mentioning the books etc. you think are helpful: there’s so many around it’s hard to know where to start with sifting through to find a good one…

    Reply
    • Absolutely my pleasure 🙂
      I tell you what, Donald Maass was for REAL awesome. I couldn’t take enough notes to keep up with him, because everything he said was so damn good. If the book’s as great as his live workshops, then it’ll be a fantastic resource. And I like Holly Lisle’s workshop books because she includes lots of practical (and fun) exercises. They work with Scrivener, too, which is great because that’s the program I use for writing (she uses it too).

      Reply
  • Hi y’all! Thanks for stopping by, I’m glad if I can be helpful 🙂 Wave, thanks again for asking me!

    I’m still at the EDJ. Ick. Taking a tiny little break because my brain is on the verge of ‘sploding, and making the housekeepers clean brains out of the carpet and off the desk is just mean. Heh.

    Wren, I got your email and will be sending you goodies tonight! Tam, my dear, I anxiously await your Chia Pet villain story. You can totally take John’s most excellent suggestion and make him/her a shape-shifting Chia. That would be BEYOND awesome O_O
    **anticipates**

    Reply
  • How about a shapeshifting chia pet? That’s not an idea I would write about.

    Maybe that window ledge with the chia pets is hiding a clue to release hero #2’s lover. grin

    Thanks for braving the waters to be the first.

    Reply
  • “always know how your characters will react when faced with a crisis of any sort. … If your characters do not react to that crisis in a manner consistent with the people you have written them to be, readers will notice.”

    Very true. Thank you, Ally, for the great advice plus links! 🙂

    Reply
  • PLEASE NOTE

    Ally is a nurse and she’s probably on her EDJ (Evil Day Job) right now but she will be here during the day, so please leave your comments. She would LOVE to hear your thoughts (and that includes you Tam) 🙂

    Reply
  • Oh shit, Ally threw out a challenge. I have difficulty resisting one of those. Hence a hamster shifter. I’m blaming Wave for that one.

    Great piece Ally. There is nothing worse when you’re reading about a calm cool and collected character who suddenly turns into a blithering idiot. You wonder what happened to the other guy and if alien abduction was involved.

    Reply
  • I will not be that person as I have not the slightest clue what chia pets are.
    Sounds advice Ally. I am always curious about how people drink their coffee and what it tells me about them.

    Reply

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I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports - especially baseball
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