If I don’t love the character, neither will the reader

Since finishing a novel I absolutely love, with two characters I adore who are perfect for each other (though they don’t know it at first, naturally), I’ve started on the next project, a royal romance with a royal who is petulant and trapped. And I’ve written myself into a miserable corner with this one.

My nonbinary hero, Remy, is trying to figure out how to manage their identity with the duties of the monarchy. But instead of this struggle coming off as painful, Remy is leaping off the page as a total brat. I don’t like them. And that’s a big problem. If I don’t like them, neither will readers.

As a romance novelist, my job is to sell readers on the fantasy world I create. My characters should be desirable – flawed, yes, but in ways that heighten the reader’s attraction and empathy. I’ve seen bratty characters in other romance and erotic stories, and presumably the writers found them adorably terrible. I really didn’t. I couldn’t buy in.

I think you can tell as a reader when a writer is in love with the idea of a character and not the character as a whole person. When I was in a playwriting class in college, one of our assignments was to create a character. I made this perfect, handsome, smart, sensitive, wonderful guy who wore black turtlenecks (chic at the time, okay) and whose family had embraced his coming out wholeheartedly. My professor scoffed. “There’s nowhere for this to go,” she told me. “It’s not interesting if he’s perfect.” I was in love with the idea of who that character, whom I had appropriately named Adam, was. He wasn’t a real person. He was an archetype of Gay Man. No one else would ever care about him, but he wasn’t beautifully flawed the way real humans are.

My professor was right, and of course, the inverse can be true, too. It’s not interesting if the character’s “charming” flaw becomes their entire personality. I once read a m/m romance novel in which one of the protagonists was constantly described as “blushing,” “giggly,” and “little.” His entire personality became bound up in his demureness. I could tell the writer was enamored with this highly nonthreatening man she’d created. I hated him. In Remy’s case, their frustration and outspokenness have killed any charm or vulnerability they should and could have. Instead of creating a character I’m so in love with, I’ve gone too far in other direction, and no one will ever care about them. They aren’t beautifully vulnerable and sometimes weak the way real people are. Real people don’t have a sassy response to every single thing. Real people still get excited about things. Real people – especially romance characters – still fall in love. Remy’s become such an enfant terrible that I can’t imagine them ever giving into their emotions to fall in love. And that is a huge problem for a romance novel.

For now, Remy is going to take a much-needed timeout while I figure out how to retool them into a smart-mouthed but charming royal, someone you simultaneously envy and desire. Someone you want to be and want to be with. Stay tuned.

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