Characters can be where a novel succeeds or fails, and each genre has different expectations for their starring roles. In last week’s First Draft Friday, romance author Tamie Dearen discussed the elements needed to create a lovable character, and the do’s and don’ts of this important piece of the novel puzzle.
In the 30-minute chat, we discuss:
- How male characters are judged differently by readers than female characters (in romance novels)
- Which character flaws are permissible and add dimension) and which are big no-nos
- The worst flaw that a romance hero can have
- Why it’s important for readers to recognize themselves in main characters
- How to avoid repeating yourself when creating characters
Interested in learning more? Click below to watch our discussion!
Keep scrolling for the full transcript of our talk. You can explore our other First Draft Friday chats.
Tami Dearen’s books and site: www.tamiedearen.com
Explore Marlowe (our A.I. manuscript analysis tool): authors.ai/marlowe
Full chat transcript
Alessandra Torre: Hi everyone. My name is Alessandra Torre I’m with Authors AI, and this is another edition of First Draft Friday. I am so excited today to be joined by Tamie Dearen. And we’re going to be talking all about characters, so how to create characters that readers love or, at minimum, how to create characters that readers don’t hate, or if they hate them, they love to hate them. So, do you want to introduce yourself?
Tamie Dearen: I’m Tamie Dearen. I’m not a full-time author because I am still a working dentist. I’m also a grandmother, which is probably the most important thing that I do. But I’ve been writing books since about 2013 before that it was like poetry and songs and that sort of thing.
Alessandra: What genre do you typically write in?
Tamie: Mostly I write in the romance genre; sweet romance, Christian romance, and then I also write some young adult fantasy which has a little bit of romance in it as well. So usually, I don’t write anything that doesn’t have some romance in it.
Alessandra: And are your books mostly in a series or are they stand-alones?
Tamie: Mostly series.
Alessandra: Series. So characters especially are important. I’m also a romance author, I write suspense also, but I think we’ll have a lot to talk about in terms of characters. And romance is a little bit of different genre because you really do need your main two characters to be likable. When you write suspense or horror, it’s OK for them to hate the character or it can be an antihero. But with romance, you really want those readers rooting for these two characters, and you have to sell them on those characters. So, I think it’s a great conversation for us to have. So if you’re watching, don’t be shy, feel free to pop questions into the comment section. We’ll try to get as many answered as we can. But what are your main tips when you’re thinking about sitting down with a character or sitting down to write a book, are you thinking about characters first or plot first? Where do you normally begin?
Tamie: So for me, my stories are all character-driven and so the plot happens to let the characters act out their character. I like my plots and my characters to be a little more complex. I don’t really like the simple, just, yeah, just where they meet and then, you know, gradually fall in love and then married. That’s real life, but that’s just boring to me. So I always want to have complications, and I like for my characters to have some faults. But you know, they can’t have too many faults or they can’t have the wrong faults. They can have certain faults, but not other faults. And one of the things that I’ve found and this is partly in writing, but also just in the study of humans and research and stuff, I’ve learned that men can get away with just about anything. They can get away with murder. I mean, that’s what they have. They have bully romances.
Alessandra: No, I don’t get those. They are very popular.
Tamie: You know, mean, they have the grumpy boss, and we all know that if that was reversed and the woman did those exact same things that she would get called the B word, right? It’s not fair, but that’s just the truth of it. Women, they get judged much harder. So like men, the things you have to be careful about with them, women, they like for guys to be sweet. Usually they really like a sweet, hidden side that he doesn’t reveal to everyone. They don’t care if he’s grumpy, but he can’t be weak. So, if he looks like he’s being pushed around or that’s necessary for the plot, then it needs to be something that the reader finds out he’s doing it for a strong reason. Like, he’s putting up with it because…
Alessandra: When you say weak I just want to make sure everybody understands – you’re saying like wishy-washy or emotionally weak? Can you give an example?
Tamie: So it could be any of those things. So like wishy, you know, if they don’t stand firm on their beliefs, that’s not attractive to a woman. She wants to fall in love with this guy, so she doesn’t want it. She wants him to stand for things. She wants him to stand up to people. She doesn’t want him to be pushed around. If he does get pushed around, say by like a father or something like that, there has to be a reason that he’s doing it that’s noble.
Alessandra: Pretty much noble.
Tamie: Characters can do anything if they’re protecting someone. If… he’s protecting his grandmother, who the father is going to do something terrible to if the hero isn’t careful or if there’s a sick child, that always works. I always like to say that the men, they need to be somehow, no matter what they’re like in the end, even if you have this grumpy guy, he finds out that he’s in love with this woman, and then he needs somehow to prove his character. So, I like to think of this example, but it’s really old. You might not have seen it, but if you’ve ever seen Air Force one with Harrison Ford.
Alessandra: I’ve seen it.
Tamie: Well, he, in that movie, his wife is on this plane that gets hijacked and Harrison Ford gets, I mean, he risked life and limb to get on there and he’s going to rescue her. He bought metals everyone, they tell him he can’t do this. He does against convention. You know, it doesn’t matter, his why is the most important thing. He is going to rescue her, and at the end of that movie, if he had asked me to marry him, I would have probably divorced my husband. I mean, that’s like, this man, he will do anything. He would die for me. I love him. And so you want to get that across in the romances in particular, you want to get across that this guy will do anything for her. You know, it doesn’t have to be so strained that he’s risking his life, but you need to have that feeling that he would do anything for her. Then you get to where your characters say has to a lot of times in your plot, you need him to doubt her, maybe believe some terrible lie about her.
And you see this plot, you know, he sees something that he believes that she doesn’t really love him or that she’s done something she’s been hiding something, and all of a sudden, he is like rejecting her, this temporary thing before the resolution. And usually, the guys can get away with that pretty well. Just a little bit of – all you need is a little bit of background that says they’ve been betrayed before and you go, “Oh, of course he just can’t handle that.” Now if it’s a woman, that’s a different story because we expect her somehow, for some reason, this is just how we are. We expect the women to have grown. And so even if they’ve been rejected in the past, if they temporarily believe that the guy did something wrong and they reject him, it can’t last as long. They need to have immediate remorse. They need to doubt it. They need to go, “Maybe I was wrong. How could I think that, because look at how he’s been?” So the woman isn’t allowed as much, in my opinion, she’s not allowed to make as many of those kind of mistakes.
It helps I think to have background or you have something in their past, but the thing that helps if you’ve got to have your character do something that’s that, that the reader’s going to go, “No, how could you do that?” It helps if they get advice from someone who is trusted, that is confirming that this is what they need to think. It’s not just coming from inside their head where you would just be furious at them, but they’re getting this conflicting advice that’s telling them this, and this is from somebody who loves them, someone they’ve always trusted until they have a reason to doubt the guy, even though the reader goes, “No, you can’t doubt him. He loves you. How can you do this?” So I think it helps a lot to have somebody from another source that’s telling the character to do something that they shouldn’t do.
Alessandra: So if we divide it into the hero and the heroine, right, so with the hero, like they shouldn’t be weak. Are there any other kind of unforgivable flaws?
Alessandra: Yeah. That’s an easy one.
Tamie: I mean, no, they can’t cheat. The woman can think that the guy has cheated, but he can’t really cheat. I mean, that’s just my opinion. I’m sure that the people write some with cheating in there, but I won’t read it if I know it’s got it in there, and if I read it, I will hate it.
Alessandra: That’s one of those hard limits for a lot of readers I experience, you know, no cheating whatsoever. Doesn’t matter if it’s justified. I don’t know what justified cheating would be, but yeah, that’s a hard limit for many. And what about like an abusive, like if he is abusive, that would also be…?
Tamie: That’s a hard limit for me, for sure. Now, there seem to be some women who like to read some that… I don’t know, some of that stuff really borders on abuse in my mind.
Alessandra: Well, especially dark romances. Yeah, and that can vary by genre. What about like drug and alcohol use?
Tamie: So in sweet romance, you know, there’s…
Alessandra: There’s none of that.
Tamie: In outside sweet romance, I think there’s some allowable, but even at that, if we’re talking about somebody getting drunk, always got to be viewed as wrong. Especially with drunk, and then they say things they shouldn’t say or do things they shouldn’t do, they have to regret. And in my mind that also needs to be a character arc that they progress out of. You don’t want to have the girl ends up at the end with some guy who is going to at any moment get drunk and turn on her and become some kind of a monster. So like I say, the dark romance, I don’t read that, so I don’t really understand some of that. Maybe they can get away with that in dark romance. But of course you can use the opposite of these things for your villains. Villains can do all of these thing.
Alessandra: Villains do everything and anything. You hear a lot about the tortured hero, and I think a lot of that is they’re tortured by normally something traumatic that happened at their past that is causing that. And whether that’s their failure to commit or failure to trust, or like they have a vice of some sort, whether it’s gambling or something else. Now, you do said they need to have some flaws, so what are some common, easy flaws that you can kind of slip in there that the reader doesn’t really have to struggle to accept?
Tamie: So I mean, this would be cross hero or heroine. I think that being snarky can be both pro and, you know…
Alessandra: Weird or snarky.
Tamie: And with the men, they can get away with a little more snarkiness than the women, the women have to watch it. Women, it’s usually OK if it’s in response to snarkiness. Definitely not OK when somebody is being nice to be snarky to them. We’re expected to be better than that. So yeah, so women can be snarky. And if you have a character that that’s kind of like her thing is that she’s like a little bit mouthy, then it helps if you show something else about her that is just absolutely adorable that you just can’t help, but love her even though she can’t control her mouth. And it can help a little bit if she goes, “God, I can’t. Why do I say this stuff? I can’t keep my mouth shut.” You know, like that regret and going, “I know I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have said that.” Then it doesn’t matter so much that she said it, and then she kind of apologizes or makes up for it.
But if she also, in addition to that is going to be the person that, like if you have a sniffle, she’s going to make you chicken soup and bring it to you. And you know, she’s going to be the one who her friend has a problem, she’s going to stay up all night and talk to them on the phone. She needs to have some strong things to counter if she has some faults that might be irritable. The thing is, I think, this is personal opinion, but think what we do is we recognize those faults that we have in this heroine. So we don’t want to look at this character who has the same faults we do, and have them be an unlikable person. You want to, “h, those faults don’t matter.”
Alessandra: You don’t want to think of yourself as unlikable.
Tamie: It’s great if you have these recognizable faults because people can really relate, but what you want to do is make this character has these little flaws like this. Maybe they lose their temper. Maybe they’re absent-minded. Maybe they’re a little bit clumsy. Maybe they’re awkward around public places. Maybe they don’t speak well, maybe they stutter if they have to give a speech. They can have all these little flaws, but then you need to make them really cute and very likable and add these other things that totally counter that, because people will go, “Oh, that’s me. I’m like that. I have a little flaw, but look how lovable I am.” So that’s, that’s what you want to do, but make sure that you counter any little flaws, especially common ones that everybody has with these really nice likable things, so the person can go, “That is me. That’s totally me. I’m just like that, but I’m just so adorable. And look, the hero is wonderful and he fell in love with me,” because, you know, that’s what we all do, we all fall in love with the hero in the book, and we put ourselves in the place of that heroine.
Alessandra: We had a question from a viewer – Margaret said, “Do you show the reason, the background to why a character might be snarky?”
Tamie: Maybe I might … with a snarkiness … I might show a background to that. I usually do…
Alessandra: Some people are just kind of snarky.
Tamie: Nowadays. I might do it more with other flaws. Like if you had somebody who can’t commit or somebody who is afraid to trust, that’s one of those flaws that’s real common, you know, the fear of trusting usually because they’ve been hurt in the past, and so I’ll do that for sure. Most of my characters have some kind of background issues either with an old boyfriend or with their parents or something that makes them feel insecure in a certain area. And so, I think most of us, if we’re honest have insecurities, and so we like to see somebody who has insecurities that overcomes that and succeeds because then you know that we’re really going to root for that person because that could be us.
Alessandra: Can you have a character that’s too, like a hero that’s too perfect, syrupy sweet or something, and you lose the reader because they’re just boringly amazing.
Tamie: Yeah. I mean, I can, so it really just depends because a lot of people, they write kind of perfect. I’m just not as interested in those, they’re not as compelling for me, but it’s a matter of taste. If you just ask me my opinion, I would say, yes, they can be too perfect. They can be boring or unbelievable. Like, they can’t really be that perfect. A lot of times the best part about a hero is if he has these flaws and the heroine sees the real guy that’s hidden behind these flaws and brings out the best in him. In fact, you know, it’s usually the best if the heroine brings out the best in the hero and the hero brings out the best in the heroine, then you’ve got a win-win situation. So, yeah, I like flaws and mistakes and kind of more complicated plots. One of the reasons why I kind of got into this, thinking about this a lot was because I did the series – my Billionaire series my four main heroes were guys who met at a computer camp for kids with disabilities.
Since all of my heroes had disabilities, then I had to really think, you know, how do I get past that so that the reader is going to fall in love with somebody that they normally wouldn’t think, “Oh, you know, you see this guy, he’s perfect. I’m going to fall in love with him.” He had this physical flaw that I had to totally get the readers to look past. So that was kind of a challenge, but it made me think a little bit more about what it is that made us really loved these heroes. We all know, we all say it’s not just their looks, it’s not that they’re all perfect, but they can have a lot of flaw and still be really, really appealing.
Alessandra: This is a great question from Kit, who is joining us from YouTube. She said, especially when with romance books, where there are so many books in a series, how do you avoid repeating yourself when creating characters?”
Tamie: I mean, that’s a great question. A lot of times I have a tendency to kind of think of a person and sort of model my character after a real person. I know you’re not supposed to do that.
Alessandra: I do it all the time. Or I’ll pick and choose, like I’ll meet, you know, a friend, a friend’s dating a guy and I’ll be like, oh, like this is a really unique part of that individual. And it might be something totally dumb. Like he collects, I mean, I don’t know, bumper stickers or something like that. It might be something just odd like that, or he’s super into comics. And that’s not necessarily the sexiest thing in the world, you know, a guy who’s really into comics, but it’s something unique about him that I could potentially use in a future character.
Tamie: I mean, I think that’s awesome. And so you’re not just one person, but maybe characteristics from certain people that you put into it. A lot of times… I mean, I’m a pantser, and so I would think that that question works really well for a plotter, for somebody who plans; they can sit down and they can look at… I know people who use the Myers-Briggs seen personality, and I sort of do that. I will have – I know how my character is going to respond and it’s going to be different based on what their personality is, but I just don’t plan it out in advance. I kind of get to know my characters as the book progresses. But I do think that I, for myself, tend to avoid the moodiest characters, just because I have a little bit harder time figuring it out how to make them as likable, as if I have the characters who aren’t quite so moody.
I’m not fond of characters who are real negative. If they are feeling sorry for themselves all the time, that’s not appealing, you know, it’s not fun to be around a person like that. And so, you know, even if somebody has had a real hard time in life, in my books, my character is either going to hide that and it’s going to come out in some of the things that they do or they’re going to be this kind of person who is like grown and become strong because of it or grows and becomes strong because of it.
Alessandra: Yeah, my biggest pet peeve when I’m reading, is weak heroines and heroines that constantly doubt, like, why is he attracted to me? Why is he with me? You know, low self-esteem is the hardest for me. I just want to like shake him and be like, you know, because we as readers, normally that author gives them great qualities, so we see their good things. I’m always like why, you know, you should be deciding whether you want to be with him, don’t be worried about him with you. But with my character is I like a lot of times to play opposite. So if I have a female character in mind, then I try to make the male character very different from her, whether it’s like, she’s a neat freak and he’s messy. Though normally it’s the opposite for me because I’m messy, so my female characters are normally messy. Or she’s from a small town, you know, he’s from a big city or so that they have very… I always find that it’s easier for me to write their scenes and to give them some natural conflicts, just the differences in their lifestyles.
Tamie: Right. I mean, I love opposites attract. I mean, my husband and I could not be more different after 39 years together, but that’s just marriage. We were four years of dating before that, but we are complete opposite of each other. I am a very intense kind of person and a little bit more uptight. We always say if you were going to get any more relaxed, he’d have to be dead.
Alessandra: I love that.
Tamie: So yeah, I definitely, I hardly ever have my characters similar just for that reason. It doesn’t even seem natural to me. It seems natural for them to be really opposite each other. It’s funny though, on the other hand, my daughter and son-in-law the ones that are in Spain, the one who’ve interrupted me, they are like so alike. It’s easy. I mean, it’s one of those things that people are like, they’re like both these crazy book nerds and real intellectual and like to do things like go to museums together. But to be honest, it probably wouldn’t make that good of a book.
Alessandra: Did it all the time, like to do everything together, go with the flow.
Tamie: How boring is that?
Alessandra: Another chapter where everything’s going perfectly. Yeah.
Tamie: I did actually steal though a real life thing from them for one of my books because they had this sweet little dating relationship. Like they just gone out a couple of times and he went to her door and like walked her to the door and she thought maybe he was going to kiss her for the first time. And we were all kind of teasing her about it because ahead of time, you know, we were like, OK, just like, “Kind of put your arms around him and just kind of tilt your head back.” We were like trying to tell her things to do to get him to kiss her. But sure enough, like he got to the door and he like hugged her, then she like went in and then she was like, “Dang it, he didn’t kissed me.” She went and she was like making some tea or something in the kitchen and the doorbell rang and she goes to the door and he’s standing there and he said, let me try that again. It’s like the sweetest thing. Oh my goodness. So I did steal that scene. I mean, even though they’re boring because they were incredibly alike, that was just too cute.
Alessandra: I love that. We are pretty much out of time, but there are two questions, so anyone listening, shout out, this is your final chance, but two questions just came through. One from Facebook says, “Don’t flaws and characters contribute to the dramatic tension. Do you agree with that statement?”
Tamie: Absolutely. Yeah, I just think they’re boring if they don’t have flaws; you just need to make sure that the flaw isn’t something that’s going to make the reader hate the character. Either they’ve got to overcome that flaws somewhat, or they’ve got to have overriding other good qualities that make up for that flaw, especially the heroines.
Alessandra: In one of my books, the Ghostwriter, my main character, it’s not a romance, but she’s very unlikable and you don’t understand why she’s so grouchy and just hateful until like 70% in. And I had to convince the readers like to keep reading even though, but so I had to give them constant hints that there is something, you know, they know that something has happened to her husband and child.
Tamie: That’s perfect.
Alessandra: Readers went along with it until they finally, and in the end they love her, but gosh, you know, I really have to…
Tamie: All the way through there, they probably would have given up on her.
Alessandra: Yeah, second chapter they would’ve been like, this girl is horrible.
Tamie: I think that’s a great way to do it. And the tension that you build with that is just awesome because they want to like her, they want to know what it is. What’s the reason behind, and then you tease them with it 70% of the book. That’s awesome.
Alessandra: And Elaine says what’s the oldest romantic character you’ve created?
Tamie: Oldest. Well, so main romantic characters would be a 50 year old that was in her best match. But in that book, I did have his grandmother having a relationship. Yeah, and we’re talking like 90 there.
Alessandra: What was the book that you…?
Tamie: Her Best Match. So that was about, she was 45 and he was 50 and she’s a widow.
Alessandra: I know you’ve said the name of the book twice, but is it Arrest Match? Is that what you said?
Tamie: Her Best Match.
Alessandra: Her best match. OK. Perfect. All right. Thanks.
Tamie: First book that I ever wrote, and back then, I had no idea what I was doing. You know, just kind of roll my way through it. It’s like three times as long as a romance novel needs to be, but it’s still one of the most popular things I’ve ever written. And for her, since I didn’t know I was going to be a writer at the time, I was just writing for my friends. And I wrote her, she is pretty much me, except that she is outgoing and I’m a huge introvert. She’s outgoing and otherwise, her personality is pretty much mine. I didn’t know anything about how to write a character or how to invent one, and so that was the only thing I knew to do was just write myself. And so, what a challenge it is to be an author?
Alessandra: That’s how I did my first book, easiest thing on your first book, because just take yourself, put it in a situation because you know how you would react and what you think and what you sound like.
Tamie: Exactly, yeah.
Alessandra: She said, well done on that 90 year old. We are officially out of time, so thank you so much, Tamie, for joining us today. And if someone’s interested in reading your books, is there one that you suggest that they start with?
Tamie: I think Her Best Match is a great place to start. It’s not my best work, but it’s free. And then, if you really – I think my favorite series is my Billionaire series; that’s the ones with the guys that have disabilities. And my first character is blind and I love him, and that’s the Billionaire’s Secret Marriage, so it’s pretty fun.
Alessandra: Perfect. So, I put her website up, it’s tamiedearen.com, so you can check her out there. And if you’re interested in checking out Author’s AI, we have a fantastic artificial intelligence that can read your book and provide feedback on it within a matter of minutes. So I would love for you to meet Marlowe, that’s her name visit authors.ai to run your manuscript for free and test her out. So, thank you guys. Thank you for joining us on First Draft Friday, we will see you again in two weeks. Bye.