An American Editor

October 24, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part I)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: For subsequent essays in this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part II)” and “Plot or Characterization? (Part III).”)

Anyone can write romance and make big bucks off it. You just have to know the formula.

Sorry. I was dreaming. Romance fiction used to be the most reliable way to make money in fiction. In 2011, unknowns could breeze into Amazon and other such places, and their indie stuff would sometimes rake in amazing sums. One untutored author I know picked up a million bucks in her first year of indie fiction. Harlequin wouldn’t have her, and what’s now Harlequin Enterprises had long been accused of paying most of its authors on the down side.

Unfortunately, the marketplace even for indie romance is glutted now because everyone sees romance as a quick and dirty way to make a few bucks without breaking much of a sweat.

I’ve been reading short-form romance fiction for more than four decades. So could I write it for the indie market? Of course not — it takes a careful understanding of the audience for this sort of work and an odd sort of wit.

It’s also essential to put out roughly (the word roughly used advisedly) a book every two months; otherwise, readers find someone else to glom on to. I’ve been able to edit contemporary romance, but writing romance and winning readers can be tough. And the rules for success are many and often confusing.

The manuals and the trends in the short romances that I like to read fly in the face of Aristotle’s position that plot comes first and characterization second. Here’s what the ancient philosopher says about tragic drama in his Poetics:

The plot then is the first principle and as it were the soul of tragedy: character [ēthos] comes second. It is much the same also in painting; if a man smeared a canvas with the loveliest colors at random, it would not give as much pleasure as an outline in black and white. And it is mainly because a play is a representation of action that it also for that reason represents people.

To Aristotle’s way of thinking, giving characterization pride of place offers up something like modern art. It can be pretty, but not everyone gets it.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Your Romance Published doesn’t agree. In Chapter 7, we learn that “Characterization is probably the most important element of your story.”

Former Harlequin author Leigh Michaels might seem to find middle ground here in On Writing Romance. Though she says that character is all-important in romance — see Chapter 3, “Essential Elements” — she has to start out with the framework, which means plot. I have to add that The Complete Idiot’s Guide mentioned above also walks you through plot before moving on to character. But we’re all romantics. And those manuals were written before the indie revolution.

And if your romances go on for only 55,000 words, you can’t flesh out even the protagonists, let alone add vivid minor characters. Or at least the standard conventions since about the year 2000 won’t let you do that now. The hero is almost always an “alpha male,” quite often a billionaire (even if he’s a backwater fire chief), with a fear of commitment and often bent on ill-considered revenge. The heroine doesn’t have to be a virgin anymore, thank heavens, but she has to have greater moral fiber and less money than the hero to be able to delta her alpha.

Still, writers who focus on characterization give it the old college try. It took Harlequin/Mills & Boon some time to allow the man’s thoughts into the equation, and in the beginning it was a good thing, but now it can be all thought and little action, even in the sex scenes. We get pages and pages of mooning and lust and insecurity, but the plot doesn’t move forward. In fact, the conflict and the revelation scenes are sometimes lost in what I’d call not head-hopping but head-hugging drama.

And at least in indie romance, this tack seems to fail. I’ve followed a few authors of contemporary indie romance on the Amazon boards, and the only one who has been making it consistently into the top 100 of paid Kindle authors of any stripe doesn’t seem to be distinguished by good characterization or good writing. Tight and careful plotting doesn’t even matter all that much in her books. But a lot happens, and there’s a lot of conflict.

One more thing is important in the indie market. The author I just mentioned is careful to put out a new ebook roughly every two months. You have more leeway in publishing houses, but for readers of Kindle books and the like, fans will wander off to other writers if the adrenaline fix isn’t in quickly. And they can get thousands of cheap or free fixes through sites like BookBub and BookGorilla. I amassed more than a thousand of them before I bailed. No, I haven’t read them, but you never know when you’ll get desperate.

Customer reviews on Amazon, iBooks, and the like can be useful. The first batch isn’t — fans on an author’s “street team” (in this case, people committed to promote a favorite writer on social media), or the invited group of Facebook beta readers, will be urged to rush off and give five stars.

Soon after, you’ll get the grumblers. “I paid for this?” In the one-star reviews, you’ll see a lot of people recoiling at the filthy language and explicit sex scenes. Yes, you have to wonder why the poor saps didn’t do a little more research. “Sweet” and “inspirational” romance is out there and easily found, though it doesn’t sell the way sex does. Go figure.

But the other complaints head another way. Some dissatisfied customers speak of cardboard characters — what did they expect from barely edited romance fiction? — yet readers seem to growl more often that the protagonists are thinking or feeling all the time and that it all gets boring. The thrill is gone when you’re slogging through the initial disgust and the endless sexual tension on the way to the “HEA” — the happily-ever-after — when there’s nothing to watch. And you should see the howls from readers when they thought a book was going to give them the story that they really wanted but left them hanging at the last minute. You got the first book for free, perhaps, or maybe for 99 cents, but you have to buy two or three more to find out that Aristotle was probably on to a good thing.

After this cliff-hanger, we’ll learn better things about the value of characterization next time. Maybe.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

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