Writer's Workbook: True North, Character Development, and #notRWA17

July 27, 2017

The RWA National Conference is currently in full swing in Orlando, Florida. My author friend Oliva Dade has put together a virtual conference with giveaways, threads, and sprints. On Twitter, follow the hashtag #notRWA17 to join in the fun until Saturday!

Today I gave a mini-workshop on character development. My thread got a little scrambled, so I'm including the text of the thread in order below. Enjoy!



True North: Character Development Twitter Workshop for #notRWA17

Howdy all. I’m here to talk a little bit about how I approach character development as a romance author. #notRWA17

I’m a hybrid author. I write contemporary and erotic romance. #notRWA17

For me, the engine behind character development in romance novels is the relationship. #notRWA17

Whenever I tried to apply the standard hero’s journey to my early plots, I’d stall out. One character would overpower the other. #notRWA17

One character’s arc would outpace the other’s. The two characters would fall out of step & I just couldn’t get them dancing again. #notRWA17

Then I read Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beats. This craft book taught me to look at a romance novel as the story of a relationship. #notRWA17

A romance novel is not the story of an individual hero, nor is it the story of two individual characters developing side by side. #notRWA17

A romance novel is the story of an intertwining relationship. #notRWA17

Everything satisfying to me about a romance novel emanates from this developing relationship. That includes character development. #notRWA17

Any external plot is a subplot. The relationship plot is the main plot. True North. Everything else must be aligned to it. #notRWA17

In 5th grade, our teacher taught us about negative space by showing us this image. Is this a goblet? Or is this two people? #notRWA17




I’m here to talk about the goblet, not the two people.  #notRWA17

When I start a book, I create loose sketches of each main character—name, basic appearance, job, external problem. Loose is key. #notRWA17

Next, I design the relationship. I map out its conflicts, its milestones, its turning points. #notRWA17

Third, I flesh out the characters based on how they react within this developing relationship. #notRWA17

To help me find my book’s True North, I’ve created a worksheet. (Yay! Worksheets.) #notRWA17

It’s pretty simple, and you can use it wherever you are in the writing process to help clarify your characters’ relationship. #notRWA17

You’re going to fill out one of these puppies for each of your main characters. Imagine each one directly addressing the other. #notRWA17

TRUE NORTH WORKSHEET #notRWA17
(Fill in one for each main character to help you map out their developing relationship.)
I say I hate you because…
But I really love you because…
The thing I dread most is…
Because I crave…
But you provide a better substitute, which is…





Here’s an example of how I have used this True North worksheet for a WIP. #notRWA17

Character Sketch 1. #notRWA17
Marco is an inhibited and hard-working farm manager, in charge of managing labor for a family-owned vineyard in Central California. He’s taking over the business and he wants to make his father proud, but he’s having trouble luring skilled laborers away from Napa, where the wages are far higher.

Character Sketch 2. #notRWA17
Genesis is the free-spirited daughter of the vineyard owners, a recent art school graduate who’s convinced her parents to transform the vineyard into a wedding venue. She’s working on a new website for the vineyard filled with colorful photographs.

Here’s Genesis on Marco. #notRWA17
I say I hate you because…you’re stubborn and closed-minded
But I really love you because…you stand for something
The thing I dread most is…failure
Because I crave…being taken seriously
But you provide a better substitute, which is…deep purpose

Here’s Marco on Genesis. #notRWA17
I say I hate you because…you are spoiled and sheltered
But I really love you because…you make your own path, and I’ve never had the freedom to do that
The thing I dread most is…disappointing my father
Because I crave…his approval
But you provide a better substitute, which is…confidence in my own abilities

Every decision your characters make, either in relationship to each other or while operating within their external plots…#notRWA17

…must reflect your worksheet. This is True North. #notRWA17

For example, when Marco has an argument with his father, he will acquiesce to his father’s wishes because he craves approval…#notRWA17

…even though he knows he’s probably right and his father is wrong.  #notRWA17

For example, when Marco and Genesis express regrets the morning after they sleep together, Marco will be driven by… #notRWA17

…his fear that he’s jeopardized his job and Genesis will feel guilty for…#notRWA17

…taking advantage of her position, acting impulsively. Now no one will take her seriously. #notRWA17

Your characters’ actions must always point toward True North in such a way that your readers understand WHY they behave the way they do. #notRWA17

True North helps readers feel like insiders. Of course Marco would behave that way—he craves his father’s approval. #notRWA17

Of course Genesis would feel that way—she deeply wants to be taken seriously. #notRWA17

The character might not know why they’re behaving the way they do, but the author and reader both do.  #notRWA17

That’s the beauty of True North—a shared understanding of WHY. #notRWA17

Okay, that’s my thread! Please add any questions, comments or your own tips about character development. I’ll be around to chat. #notRWA17

P.S. You can get a copy of Gwen Hayes’ book here (highly recommended): http://gwenhayes.com/romancing-the-beat/ #notRWA17

Thank you, everyone! #notRWA17