Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Taking the Road Less Taken (With Your Characters)

By Kristen Callihan, @Kris10Callihan

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome paranormal romance author Kristen Callihan to the blog today. I first met Kristen at an RWA (Romance Writers of America) conference several years ago. We share the same agent and she was sweet enough to introduce us. (And she has a very inspiring post about Kristen's publishing journey) Kristen is here to share some thoughts on taking risks with your characters. 

Kristen is a child of the 80s, which means she's worn neon skirts, black-lace gloves, and combat boots (although never all at once) and can quote John Hughes movies with the best of them. A life long daydreamer, she finally realized that the characters in her head needed a proper home and thus hit the keyboard. She believes that falling in love is one of the headiest experiences a person can have, so naturally she writes romance. Her love of superheroes, action movies, and history led her to write historical paranormals. She lives in the Washington D.C. area and, when not writing, looks after two children, one husband, and a dog—the fish can fend for themselves.

Her current manuscript, FIRELIGHT, is a gothic retelling of Beauty and the Beast set along the shadowy lanes of Victorian London, published by Grand Central Publishing.

Take it away Kristen...

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost.

To select the road less taken. Most of us are, if not familiar with Frost’s poem, know the sentiment. To veer from predictability and follow that unknown path were anything could happen is to create adventure. As writers, we are encouraged to plot a story in which our characters take that unknown road. I know I heard it often enough when I was in the throes of learning craft. Predictability leads to boredom.

And yet I also know that one of the very first things we try to do when combating predictability is attempt to create extreme situations. Often times, we’ll weave together an elaborate plot, or throw in a crazy twist at then end. There, we think, that satisfies the road less traveled! NO ONE has tried werewolves that glitter and survive off the blood of marmots. Or the lady who lost her first love at sea, only to fall for the mysterious new stranger, who happens to be her lost love, or so she thought, when really he is her lost love’s brother, who had always loved her from afar…

Plot twists and new ideas are all very good. Except, despite all these awesome twists, the characters still feel stale and the reader (read: agent/editor) still laments because they haven’t found anything fresh. And so the writer receives yet another rejection letter, and wonders why. It’s enough to drive a writer bonkers.

Sometimes I think we rather miss the point of what the road less taken means.

Is it the road as it pertains to a strange new plot twist? Or the choices a character makes? A plot can be as convoluted as a theme park roller coaster. But if the character remains steadfast in making safe choices, thinking and acting like a stock character, that unsafe plot-road means nil.

When I started writing Firelight, the set up was this: a woman married off to a masked man, who is reviled by all of London, and on the night of their wedding, she learns that he is the prime suspect in a gruesome murder.

Now that seemed sufficiently twisty. There’s definitely angst. But as I wrote out the scene in which my heroine Miranda learns of the murders, I found myself facing a fork in the road.

She could:

A. Do the smart thing, and run away from him or, at the very least, confront him with her worries. After all, readers appreciate a smart, cautious heroine.

B. Do the less logical thing and stay, decide to follow her instinct and trust him while she discovers the truth for herself. This might lead to readers thinking she’s too trusting and weak. Hmm…

In hindsight, the answer seems simple to me. But at the time, I thought, well hell, I don’t want her to come off as weak. I don’t want her to be an idiot. A stronger heroine would confront him, or leave the house, and make him prove his worth. Right? And yet, I thought, why not take the less comfortable path?

The strange thing is that by deciding to have Miranda stay and follow her instincts, a vast amount speculation occurred. What was it about her character that would have her chose this way? What happened to her that would make her trust another so blindly? Etc. That one divergence from a safe, logical character decision ultimately led to greater character depth and, even better, a stronger bond between my main characters.

Often times I think we want our characters to be likeable, admirable, and so –even though we take risks with our plotting- we have them do the safe thing. If a heroine is going to be kick-ass, she isn’t going to take help from a man, she isn’t going to admit vulnerability. If she’s a historical blue stocking, she’s going to be damn proud of it. If a hero is going to be unforgettable, he’s going to jump from that 100-foot bridge into rough water, or face the monster with only one bullet left, and he’s going to win too. On paper, it all sounds right, exciting, but unfortunately, these are also all very predictable character actions.

When I think of an unforgettable hero–Indiana Jones, for instance, it isn’t his death-defying escapes that I remember most about him. It’s that he’s afraid of snakes, and that, when facing an expert swordsman, he simply shoots the man instead of staying to fight. Ideal heroic behavior? No. Unforgettable? Absolutely.

Is it wrong to want our characters to be likable? Of course not. But ask yourself: by picking the “smart” choice, are you also making your characters predictable?

I am not advocating having your characters run amok and make all sorts of crazy choices, or even opposing that they do. Simply that when faced with a fork in your plot road, consider all the possible options your character could choose and try going for the choice less likely taken.

About Firelight

London, 1881
Once the flames are ignited . . .

Miranda Ellis is a woman tormented. Plagued since birth by a strange and powerful gift, she has spent her entire life struggling to control her exceptional abilities. Yet one innocent but irreversible mistake has left her family's fortune decimated and forced her to wed London's most nefarious nobleman.

They will burn for eternity . . .
Lord Benjamin Archer is no ordinary man. Doomed to hide his disfigured face behind masks, Archer knows it's selfish to take Miranda as his bride. Yet he can't help being drawn to the flame-haired beauty whose touch sparks a passion he hasn't felt in a lifetime. When Archer is accused of a series of gruesome murders, he gives in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to hide from the world. But the curse that haunts him cannot be denied. Now, to save his soul, Miranda will enter a world of dark magic and darker intrigue. For only she can see the man hiding behind the mask.


  1. Always the perfect post at the perfect time. I was just wondering if my characters were too ordinary. It's nice to be reminded that sometimes taking risks with a story doesn't always mean dressing your heroes in black leather and sending them bungee-jumping. (Though that could be fun.)

  2. Great tips Kristen. I'll definitely consider them as my characters face their choices in my stories.

    And so awesome that you and Janice have the same amazing agent that I would love to have too.

  3. Great idea -- I think the balance is not having the character do the safe thing all the time, but also not to have he or she do the stupidest/craziest/strange thing every time. There should be a reason even if it feels wrong to the reader, they should be able to see why the character made the choice. Your example was a good one. Thanks!

  4. Like the Indiana Jones example. Right on!
    Nice article Kristen, thanks for bringing up the safe vs. predictable question. It's those moments of weakness, idiocy, irrationality, that make the story.

  5. Great tips. And as the Indiana Jones example illustrates, I think sometimes make those riskier choices actually makes characters MORE likable. Good things to think about while plotting/character building!