You probably don’t know Jack.

In between unsuccessful attempts to get some writing done, I finished reading two new romance novels: The Lost Duke of Wyndham by Julia Quinn, and The Charm School, by Susan Wiggs. Quinn’s work offered up one of the most engaging heroes I’ve come upon in a romance in a while, Jack Audley, while Wiggs’ gave me a heroine in Isadora Peabody that was so painfully close to my own experience that I had to put the book down a few times.

Let’s face it: Characters are hard, but characters are also where a story comes from. I almost never start with plot, which is probably why I have such a hard time coming up with middles and ends. I always, always try to craft the protagonist and let the story come from him/her. What do they want to tell the reader? Obviously, in a romance novel, there is a very distinct boy-meets-girl-stuff-happens-and-they-live-happily-ever-after formula, so that even when you’re crafting a strong, effective character like Jack or Isadora, you know “Well, somewhere in the last two chapters, I have to get them together.” But the mark of a good romance is that a reader cares whether or not they get together.

What I found interesting about reading both Quinn and Wiggs, who have been at the game quite a while, is that both books weren’t quite the standard A+B=C narrative. They didn’t use a lot of the standard dialogue that you’d expect in the courtship period or the love scenes. In fact, I feel like Quinn only faltered towards the end when she pulled out a Sudden Revelation about Jack that felt a little contrived.

So, even though I’m not writing a straight romance (ha-ha, in more ways than one), what can I learn from these two authors? Their characters were rootworthy, underwent transformations, and opened themselves up to love. They took chances. Jack used his fantastic sense of humor as a shield. Dora wrapped herself in her flaws because they were comfortable despite the constraints. But the bottom line was that love conquered all, whether that was a love of someone else, a love of self, etc.

In approaching my own text, I guess I should ask: What exactly does love need to conquer? My protagonist’s unwillingness to make decisions? Her reliance on what’s safe, what’s familiar? Her love interest’s habit of serving others before he serves his own needs? Her best friend’s fear that he will lose everything if he shows the world who he really is?

Maybe in answering those questions, stuff will happen and they’ll all live happily ever after.

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