|You're writing a romance and your hero is engaged to the boss's daughter. They're happily planning their future when -- Bam! The heroine, a woman he loved but thought he'd lost, reenters his life. What do you do with the boss's daughter, the hero's fiancée?
Is she scheming and dishonest? Does she discredit the heroine at every opportunity? Watch it. You may be headed for a stereotype instead of an archetype. Must your antagonist be unsympathetic?
Consider the romances in two popular movies: TWISTER, and SWEET HOME ALABAMA. In both stories, the protagonist is about to marry another but must first finalize the divorce with spouse number one.
First, look at TWISTER. Bill drives his new truck out to where his estranged wife, Jo, is storm-chasing. With him is Melissa, his fiancée. As soon as Jo signs the divorce papers, Bill is free to wed Melissa. Jo's heart is breaking but she is cordial to Melissa. We sympathize with Jo, but do we hate Melissa? No. Melissa is gracious, attractive, and perceptive. As soon as she realizes Bill belongs with Jo, she bows out and wishes him well. Melissa is not the stereotype at all, which makes Bill's choice all the more difficult, and the conflict of the story strong.
Likewise, in SWEET HOME ALABAMA, Melanie has the world by the tail. Politician Andrew Hennings, potential future president, proposes marriage. He stands up to his mother, the mayor, and proves to be a well-rounded gentleman with class. Hero Jake, Melanie's once immature and un-ambitious husband, has refused to sign divorce papers for seven years because he still loves her. We have as much trouble choosing which is the better guy for Melanie as she does. Again, the fiancé is likeable, not a stereotypical jerk. The story tugs at the heart because we like both men and share Melanie's angst.
In the Director's comments, the story changes. There is another character in the original SWEET HOME ALABAMA, Erin Vanderbilt. Erin keeps bumping into Andrew and is the perfect match for him as his mother sees it. Wisely, the scenes with Erin were cut. We know Andrew later marries her by a newspaper article shown during the closing credits. Had we seen that Andrew's heart wouldn't be broken for long if Melanie broke their engagement, we wouldn't experience the full impact of Melanie's dilemma, thus weakening the story.
Think of other stories that are unforgettable. They are the ones in which the characters face the really difficult choices. Remember SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE? What a tough choice the heroine faces. Would the story be half as strong if Meg Ryan's fiancé was a jerk? But he isn't. He's an attractive and caring guy.
Even if a romance ends happily, we don't want it to be predictable or clichéd. That's why characterization is important in writing. Bring your characters to life, even the antagonists. Don't make the ex-wife or ex-husband one dimensional. Make the reader care and you, too, will write an unforgettable story.
Cheryl Norman is the author of four novels, including the EPPIE-winning LAST RESORT. Visit her website at www.cherylnorman.com.
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