I had two reactions:
A) I HATE when people ask me that (and it’s one of the most popular questions, right up there with “Where do you get your ideas?”)
B) It’s actually a good seed idea for a blog. (“Can you say ‘cognitive dissonance,’ boys and girls?”)
The reason I hate the question is because it’s real Sophie’s Choice territory—which of your children do you love best? That’s as hard for me to answer as it would be for most parents.
If pinned down about favorites, I’ll usually mention Reggie Davenport, the alcoholic hero of The Rake. Certainly he was attractive and witty and tragic, and he did a lot for my career. (Thanks, Reg!) But I didn’t love him more than Stephen Kenyon, the terminally ill ducal hero of One Perfect Rose. Or Kenneth Wilding, the battle scarred veteran and spy with an artist’s soul from River of Fire.
Each character is special to me, and if I write them well, they are convincingly special to their partners. I can’t write a hero or heroine without loving them, and that love is based on their individuality. Characters must be both universal and unique.
More than any other genre, romance is character based. If the characters aren’t vivid and engaging, who bother to write them, much less read them? I suspect that romance writers tend to personify things around us more than most. Witness the well-developed characters of the Wenches’ dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids, and stuffed animals.)
Years ago, an editor told me she could usually guess which aspiring writers would become published because of the way they speak about their characters. “The ones most likely to succeed talk about their characters as if they’re real people.”
My thought was “Of course my characters are real! They just don’t happen to have bodies.” Which probably proves the editor’s point. <g>
My characters are generally smarter and braver than I am, and my heroines may n ot always be beautiful but they all have great hair and skin. They are creatures of my imagination (unlike the cats in my books, which are always based on real cats).
At the same time, they have traits that resonate within me, or I couldn’t make them convincing. I am not half-Chinese and raised in a xenophobic culture like Troth, the heroine of The China Bride. But who among us hasn’t felt like an outsider, awkward and unwanted? (High school is pretty much guaranteed to produce such feelings!)
Projecting that sense of not belonging into a character brings her alive, and also makes her sympathetic. Especially for the writer—once I’ve given my characters some of my own vulnerabilities, how can I not care about them?
Even villains have to have traits that find some echo inside of me. Not that I am a latent serial killer—when wasps get into the house, I capture them alive and release outdoors. But selfishness, egotism, greed, anger—these are just about universal human traits. (The Dalai Lama might be above such weakness. But probably not.)
As to villains in general—I tend to make mine operatically awful so I won’t mind killing them off. If one has any redeeming characteristics—well, I might just have to make a hero out of him. And then I’d have to fall in love with him. <g>