The best romantic heroes and heroines sweep us off our feet and make us believe in love again. Mediocre protagonists barely register.
As a romance writer, your priority is crafting characters that we remember long after putting the book down. Hard to pull off? You bet.
But heroes from long-dead civilizations, like Homer’s Odysseus and Helen of Troy, still resound today. There’s a good reason for it. Powerful characters live on by embodying mythic traits that we also associative with ourselves.
What can you, the humble romance novelist, learn from myth? Here are five traits every romance novel protagonist should have to stand out from the crowd.
1. They are Better Than You
Unsplash.com — Cristian Newman
Betty Bombshell, your romance heroine, is a high-powered magazine journalist living and working in New York City. She seems to have it all: a penthouse, a loyal dog. But something’s missing from her life.
We don’t just relate to our romance protagonists; we look up to them. The best romance protagonists allow readers to fantasize about living in their shoes. They present an idealized version of real life.
We don’t want to watch Johnny Casanova sit on the couch and pick lint out of his bellybutton, but we want to feel like we’re still party to everything going on in his life.
2. But They are Still Deeply Flawed
Unsplash.com — Larm Rmah
But we don’t want them to be too perfect. They need to experience challenges and conflict too.
Think of mythical heroes like Odysseus. Odysseus is an idealized Grecian man. He’s got a kingdom and a devoted wife. He’s known for his sharp wit and tremendous courage. But most of the terrible things that happen to Odysseus throughout The Odyssey happen because he’s too prideful and rash. This tragic flaw is also known as hubris. For example, he gets himself into trouble with the god Poseidon because, after blinding Poseidon’s cyclops son, he is quick to boast about his deeds.
Being able to see a character’s flaws and the trouble they can get her into allows her to come across as human and relatable.
3. They will Venture Out of Their Comfort Zone
Unsplash.com — Soroush Karimi
Even if their life seems comfortable on the outside, the story and their quest to find love will force them out of their comfort zone. This new found zeal might see them run off to New York on a whim to meet their true love (see Sleepless in Seattle). Whatever they might do, make them uncomfortable. Force them to make desperate choices. But, as you’re going to see in a second, whatever they do must feel worth the effort.
4. They will Risk Everything For Their Reward
Unsplash.com — Sweet Ice Cream Photography
Romance protagonists have one main goal: to get with the guy (or the girl). No matter what kinds of crazy misadventures Betty Bombshell and Johnny Casanova get into, the reward must be sweet enough to justify the journey.
Cinderella, depending on the version of her story, goes through a lot of crap. She’s got a stepmother and stepsisters who abuse her. She’s a servant in her own house. But by the end of the story, she struggles on to reach her (well-deserved) goal — marry the prince and leave home.
Because she’s willing to risk everything (the wrath of her stepmother, more abuse) and we know how much she stands to lose, we want her to win and succeed.
No matter how charmed your protagonist’s life may seem from the outside, we need to feel that she’ll lose everything if she doesn’t get to find Johnny Casanova.
5. It is Almost Destiny
Unsplash.com — Les Anderson
It’s hard to describe but, in a way, your heroine or hero is the best possible person to meet their love interest. The story and the circumstances that surround them almost feel destined.
We can’t imagine Romeo without Juliet. Or Scarlett O’Hara without Rhett. Your protagonist seems like, or becomes, the right person for the job, even if they don’t believe they are at first.
When creating your romance fiction, be sure to make your romance novel protagonist someone your readers can look up to. But heroine or hero needs to have one or more flaws to keep them human like the rest of us. Push them into uncomfortable situations where they’ll risk everything for their one true love.
Imagine that you are a writer new to Medium. Question abound. What do I write about? What will people read? What has been written before? What will break through the noise?
In thinking about these questions and because I normally write about writing, I was curious to see what the “Top Writers in Writing” were writing about and how they got that designation.
I don’t know Medium’s algorithm of how to attain top writer status on Medium within any tag, but I do know that it is not based on the number of followers. My best guess is that is based on the number of 30-day recommendations within a tag. If anyone does have the definite answer, please clue us in with your response to this story.
Being something of a data geek, I decided to input the titles of the top three stories of the top 50 writers in Writing into a word cloud generator.
The lovely image above does give us an instant gratifying view of what people like to write and read about on Medium (within the “Writing” tag). However, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
I wanted to focus on the separate word occurrences to see if any interesting themes emerged from my small data set (see image below). I could have focused more on the titles themselves, but I was curious to see if the individual words would tell their own story.
The Writing tag is an odd one. Anyone can pick any tag they want for a story, and in a sense, all stories on Medium are “Writing” and some may pick that tag even if their topic isn’t specifically about writing. This caveat and other disclaimers are to say that my little data experiment is not perfect.
Indeed, the way I choose the themes and which words should fall under what theme was entirely subjective and an intuitive exercise. But it is my exercise so there. You can duplicate my work with any Medium “Top” tag. Knock yourself out.
The image of my spreadsheet handiwork is under the themes. There you will see the color key of the themes and the number of word occurrences and the words. For this exercise, I only worked with words that showed up at least twice.
Once I looked at all the words, I decided on the themes and color-coded them. Then I added the total of word occurrences for each theme. The total in each theme then allowed me to order the themes. Some words like “awesome” did not get included in a theme.
What is a little deceptive about the word cloud and the separate word occurrence is demonstrated by the word “Medium.” This word occurs the second most with 14 occurrences. So while writing about all things Medium is on my top theme list, when you add up words by theme, it comes in sixth.
The Top Themes
This theme surprised me a bit. I assumed that most writers would be focused on writing and writing skills in the “Writing” tag, but it does make sense when you think about it. After all, writers are writing for people to read. In this theme category, I included words that spoke to human emotions and desires like “love,” “want,” “comfort,” and “defeat.”
I think that most of us that have been reading stories on Medium for any length of time have seen that writing about improvement is HUGE. It is, therefore, no surprise that writers want to read and write about improving our writing.
3. Writing about Writing
Again in the “Writing” tag, probably a no brainer here. For this theme, I also included the words, “storytelling,” “blogging,” and “book.” I could have put Book also under the Reading theme.
Here is another theme that we would expect to show up in the “Writing” tag. I am not too surprised that it is number five, though. It is more difficult to write a definitive “How to” story about how to be more creative. Medium does seem to favor articles that are practical and step-wise. Here perhaps is an opportunity gap of popularity with a sparsity of good stories. Get writing!
One of the fascinating things I find about Medium is how much we all love to read about becoming more successful on Medium. The more you read about the platform, the more nuances you learn. And we love to read about other’s successes and what hasn’t worked. Let’s admit it, we are all obsessed with our Medium stats, yes? It is no accident that the word “Medium” had the second highest occurrence in top 3 stories for the top 50 writers in Writing.
I’ve heard it said that Medium is the YouTube for readers. And as writers, we should be reading whenever possible. I’ll spare you the Stephen King quote, but here’s some Faulkner for good measure:
Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.― William Faulkner
Takeaway for how to attain top writer status on Medium
People! Improve your writing — make time to be creative on Medium! Keep reading!
When Joseph Campbell wrote his comparative mythology opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he set in motion the embracing of a mono-myth that would launch hundreds of Hollywood and novel writer’s careers.
As you may have noticed, both of these works are based upon a male hero figure. For many years, most writers with female protagonists assumed that her journey or character arc would be no different. But it was Campbell who remarked,
“There are no models in our mythology for an individual woman’s quest. Nor is there any model for the male in marriage to an individuated female.” (cited in The Bridge to Wholeness: A Feminine Alternative to the Hero Myth)
Luckily, a few writers have rectified this situation, but before I get to the heroine’s journey, for those not familiar, I will recap Campbell’s hero’s journey (from Vogler’s work mentioned above):
Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where
they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE.
They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
are encouraged by a MENTOR to
CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
they encounter TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.
They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold
where they endure the SUPREME ORDEAL.
They take possession of their REWARD and
are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World.
So, finally, with all that background out of the way, we can look to the heroine’s journey…
One of the first to write about the heroine’s journey was Maureen Murdock. Her book is entitled, The Heroine’s Journey.
What I like about this book is she provides two plot outlining worksheets, one for the “Feminine Journey” and one for the “Masculine Journey.” She also gives us a side-by-side comparison of the differences.
A few of these differences include:
a circular or episodic framework versus a linear framework
the heroine’s need to prove herself to herself (rather than the group)
traveling a path of allowance versus a path of resistance
Whether or not you agree with Schmidt’s take on the heroine’s journey, or even if you think there is no difference from the hero’s, if you are crafting a female protagonist, you should see if Schmidt’s ideas creates or expands a different way of being for your character.
There are now many great creative writing and online fiction writing courses. You could probably write a short story or outline a novel in the time it will take you to research and compare what’s out there. So, without any more time wasting, we’ve put together a few top courses that will get you back to writing…
This course taught by Karen Prince will help you to master all the major features of your Scrivener writing software to write ebooks and paperback books. The course consists of 44 video lessons that will teach you all of Scrivener’s basics from setting things up, writing, sorting and editing to compiling your book for export.
This course taught by James Burchill is perfect for self-published authors. Includes BONUS a “BestSeller” Mindmap. The course contains 31 video lessons to cut right to the chase of exporting your ebook in MOBI, EPUB, PDF & more.
In this course taught by Mike Dickson, learn the Hollywood secret to completing a comprehensive novel outline in as little as 2 weeks. After 42 video lessons, you will understand what a comprehensive novel outline should look like to give you the best chance at writing a complete first draft.
This course is taught by Jeff Gerke, a five-time Writer’s Digest author. It has 45 video lessons from getting your best story idea to constructing your fiction proposal. Some of Jeff’s Writer Digest’s books include The Irresistible Novel,Plot Versus Character, The First 50 Pages, Write Your Novel in a Month, and The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction.
This course taught by Steve Alcorn will help you turn your idea into a published novel, step by step. with 27 video lessons. Whether you’re a first-time novelist still planning your story or an experienced author looking for ways to bring your fiction to life Novel Writing Workshop will help you from your story structure all the way to getting published.
This course taught by Anya Achtenberg is a guide to taking your fiction writing and memoir writing beyond the same old formula and telling unforgettable stories. It consists of 39 video lessons that aim to free you from the tyranny of the rules and offer a solid foundation of techniques, or roads into writing, that expand your understanding of the workings of creativity, language, and story, and help you discover and bring forward your own best work.
This course taught by Rebecca Sky will introduce you to online fiction writing and you will learn the frameworks, techniques, and strategies for establishing, engaging, and growing a community around your work. 11 video lessons cover today’s writing landscape, tips for serialized fiction, merchandising individual stories, and marketing your work to build your personal brand — all to help you find success.
This course taught by Ellen Brock will help you learn how to edit your own novel for traditional or self-publication with the help of a professional editor. In 29 video lessons, she walks you through examining your story structure and pacing, point of view, chapters and scenes, dialogue, and punctuation.
This course taught by Jessica Brody is a comprehensive, step-by-step insider’s guide to selling your book and becoming a paid, published author. With 61 video lesson, she takes you from understanding the types of publishing, the entire publishing process, working with agents, creating your pitch and query letter, selling your novel, and navigating your book contract.
“They” say you should write the same kind of fiction (or books) that you like to read. Oh, dear. I’m screwed.
I like to read historical fiction.
I mean there is historical fiction and then there is Ken Follett.
For the last few weeks, I have been listening to his, The Century Trilogy (see below). A few years ago, I had read his book, The Pillars of the Earth: A Novel and had been astounded by the level of historical detail, the richness of the characters, and the intricate plots and subplots.
Follett makes no secret of his painstaking writing and rewriting process. After creating his detailed outline and first draft, he asks his editor, agent, family members, subject matter experts, and “ anybody else who will take an interest” to make copious notes:
I type up all these notes by page numbers and collate them using large ring binders. For example, I might have four comments for page 80 of my typescript, one from an editor, one from my agent, one from a family member and perhaps one from an expert I’m consulting, (like an FBI agent or a scientist or an historian). I put the two pages opposite one another in the ring binder so that when I come to rewrite I’ve got my first draft on one side and people’s comments on the other side. (Source: https://ken-follett.com/masterclass/completing.html)
Follett’s books are quite long. For some writers that might mean fluff that should be edited. I have never found this to be the case with Follett, and this quote gives us a clue — every sentence is reconsidered in his rewrites:
For the final six months, I go through the file page by page, rewriting.
I don’t edit my first draft. I don’t put the first draft on the screen at all because I find that makes me lazy. I key every word in again because that forces me to reconsider every sentence. You can almost always find a way to improve just about every sentence that you’ve written. I can, anyway. (Source: https://ken-follett.com/masterclass/completing.html)
All of Follett’s time and attention to detail is amazing, but what makes his historical fiction beyond exceptional is just that, the historical accuracy and his research. What makes me say, “I’m screwed” is how Follett does some of his research:
I often use the services of professional researchers, mainly Dan Starer of Research for Writers in New York. Dan produces reading lists on, say, earthquakes, clones or eighteenth-century criminal courts. He finds learned articles, out-of-print books and old maps, people for me to interview, experts and historians, detectives and FBI agents. Most of my books are checked for factual errors before publication by at least one technical consultant. (Source: https://ken-follett.com/masterclass/research.html)
Right there I’m lost. With all of those juicy historical goodies to pour through, I doubt I would ever get to the writing.
However, don’t let my trepidation stop you if you are stout of writing heart. Read more of Follett’s process here — his short Masterclass is free:
But first, of course, make sure to read some of his books if you haven’t yet.
To give you an idea of how epic (in all ways) and research-rich his novels are, his three book series, The Century Trilogy comes in at a whopping total of 3,024 pages.
The Century Trilogy Trade Paperback Boxed Set
Or, if like me, you need to multi-task your fiction reading while you work out, or commute, the three books on Audible will take you a total of about 99 hours of listening time. That’s 297 miles for this slow walker!
The Century Trilogy consists of:
Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy
Winter of the World: Book Two of the Century Trilogy
Edge of Eternity: Book Three of the Century Trilogy
You can read more of the individual book descriptions yourself, but in short, Follett weaves the loves and losses of several sets of families and generations from different classes, from Russia, Wales, England, Germany, and the U.S., through World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and all the way to the 1980’s.
Follett’s deft handling of fear, death, prison camps, torture, and all the rest of humanities’ hellish inhumanity in the midst of war is a master class in itself.
But you will need to read Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy to discover more yourself.
Poetry: Prose poems, haiku, sonnets, verse, and many more types
It might take many years and lots of writing before you know what you enjoy writing the most. You don’t have to pick one kind or genre…many people write fiction, articles, and poetry, or some combination, but you might discover that your writing “voice” is best suited to one genre or type.
Don’t worry too much about finding your writing “voice” at this point. You will discover that over the course of your being a creative writer.
Spark your Imagination
No matter what kind of creative writing you decide you enjoy, finding ways to connect to your imagination is key.
Some writers use their dreams as a starting point, like Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein.
Other writers may start with photographs like Ranson Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
Many writers like Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, and Edward Abbey use nature to spark their imagination.
Still, others have started writing from artwork. This practice is called, exphrasis. Homer, Keats, and Ruskin are known for this type of writing.
Take some time to explore each of these sources of creativity. Also, don’t be afraid to start with a line of existing poetry or other writing and use this as your jumping off point. Sometimes we need to have some words on the page to get the creative writing juices flowing.
Learning from the Masters
Unsplash.com — Lia Leslie
And speaking of the blank page, some writers suggest that you write out poems and fiction to learn how each sentence or phrase is constructed. Not too many people have patience for this, but if you want to understand how great writers write, there is no substitute for learning how to write a masterful sentence.
Indeed, many poetry creative writing classes still require that students memorize whole poems and then recite them. It is standard practice for students learning to paint to try to duplicate a masterpiece. Why should it be different for the creative writer?
When you get older, you will discover that a large part of being a creative writer is finding the time for it. Now is the best time for you to build in good writing habits — write every day! — because before you know it, you will have a job, school, kids, and all kinds of other distractions that will compete for your energy and focus.
“And then there is inspiration. Where does it come from? Mostly from the excitement of living. I get it from the diversity of a tree or the ripple of the sea, a bit of poetry, the sighting of a dolphin breaking the still water and moving toward me, anything that quickens you to the instant. And whether one would call this inspiration or necessity, I really do not know.” –Martha Graham, Blood Memories
What has inspired you to write?Brainstorm and write down as many of these things as you can. Pick one of these and write from the emotion it invokes in you. It is okay to write from anger or sadness. Any strong emotion is a great starting point for your creative writing. And don’t forget that you have a body! Write how it feels in your body and what your senses are experiencing in that moment.