Over the past few days, I reread two of my favorite romance novels. Although I read much more MG and YA these days, I grew up reading romance novels, starting when I was 11. This may seem young, but there wasn’t the strong category of YA or MG books then that there is now, and I’d already read every Nancy Drew book out there. I’m a happy ending kind of girl, so romance novels were a perfect fit. I always knew they’d get together in the end, that they’d overcome whatever got in their way.
One of the first full-length romance novels I ever read was A KINGDOM OF DREAMS by Judith McNaught, and it remains a favorite today. I’ve read my copy so many times the spine is covered in tape. I went on to devour every book she ever wrote. I’m not sure there will be any more at this point.
This is the first time I’ve read these books as a serious writer, as someone who’s continually working to improve my craft, and I finally understood why I love these books so much. It’s about her characters. They do some really awful things to each other, the kind of things that would probably make you cut someone out of your life forever. If you’ve read WHITNEY, MY LOVE, you’ll know about one thing in particular that I’m not going to mention here. But even so, the other character forgives them, and perhaps even more important, I, as a reader, forgive them.
Why? Because Judith McNaught is an expert at character development. Note: Although the female characters have flaws, too, I’m going to use the masculine for my explanation. She shows why the character is the way he is, what led to the flaws that cause him to act the way he does. By the time the character does something that seems unforgivable, it’s entirely believable and even inevitable that he would do exactly that. She also makes it clear that the love interest understands why the character acted the way he did.
Once Judith McNaught takes the character to the lowest of lows, she digs him back out, showing the remorse and the change. Because that’s the most important part when a character has a serious flaw–he has to change and grow into a better person. The flaw doesn’t go away, but the character learns how to control it. As a reader, I care not only about the romance side of things, but that the character will triumph on a personal level as well.
As writers, that’s what we need to figure out how to do. Our characters should have flaws. And if they do something horrible as a result of those flaws, we need to make sure they’ve earned it, that there can be no misunderstandings about why they did it. Then, when their flaws have gotten them into serious trouble, they need to rise out of the ashes and figure out how to change. Don’t mistake this as making the flaw going away entirely. It’s much more powerful if they figure out not how to eliminate the flaw, but how to live with it. After all, our flaws don’t really go away in real life. We just learn how to deal with them.
What books have you read with characters who stay with you? What flaws do they overcome?