The Essence of Hero and Heroine

Early on we learn conflict makes a great story. Conflict elicits emotion. Tension is necessary to keep the story flowing and the readers turning pages.

In romance, it’s easy to put the hero and heroine in conflict with each other. They are the main players, the key figures on the stage and well, why not have them at opposite goals, fighting, arguing, hating one another.

Donald Maass says, “He’s hot, she’s hot, but they can’t stand each other.”

Well, true, that does make for a good story. But in our ameturish hands, a fighting hero and heroine can come across snarky, mean, petty and well, too stupid to live.

What we need to demonstrate is WHY the hero and heroine belong together. What is it about her that he loves? Why does she need him?

Let’s look at Luke and Lorelei from Gilmore Girls. He’s a grumpy diner owner. She’s a quippy inn keeper with a daughter. He’s working class. She was a debutant. They are opposites. She challenges him. He challenges her. They pull each other out of their comfort zones. They call each other’s bluff and we like it.

But Luke and Lorelei are soul mates. They have the same core and essence. Luke and Lorelei are both outspoken, independent and fierce about they way they want to live their lives. She’s antagonistic with her family. He’s sentimental about his. Luke hates the town politics. Lorelei loves everything about Stars Hollow. They are best friends. Luke is cemented in his ways, in the diner and in the town. And so is Lorelei.

Of your hero and heroine, dig deeper and find out what they have in common, what makes their hearts connect. Why do they belong together?

This is the core of every romantic relationship. Whether the story is straight up romance or one with romantic elements, we must convince the reader these two belong together! Convince the reader there is no one for Harry but Sally.

That’s not to say there is no conflict. Or tension. Or that your love birds are not direct opposites.

In the movie The Proposal, Drew and Margaret are both ambitious, book loving editors. She’s his boss. He does everything she wants in order to one day become an editor in his own right. Even if he has to fake loving her. He’s sarcastic. She’s bossy. But he has one thing she doesn’t. Family. A hometown. Roots. He’s comfortable in his life. She’s terrified of hers. But Drew gets her. He doesn’t let her get away with her arrogance. He calls her out on her stuff. He doesn’t coddle her. Margaret eventually opens up to him and realizes she cannot force this endearing man to marry her. She chooses right and leaves town. And we love them both for it.

In my recent book, Dining with Joy, Joy Ballard is a cooking show host who cannot cook. Enter the hero, Luke Redmond, a Manhattan restauranteur by way of Oklahoma. When he joins Joy’s show, he believes they are a kindred spirit. Joy tries to hid her little flaw, but because Luke can really see her, he eventually figures out her secret. At first, they need each other in a usery kind of way. She needs him to help her do the show and keep her secret. He needs her to help him rebuild his foodie reputation after loosing his Manhattan restaurant. But it becomes about more. Luke is draw to her determination, to her family and her wit. Joy is fascinated by his strength and peace. Like Luke and Lorelei, they don’t let each other pull punches. They speak the truth to each other without hesitation.

Okay, so where are you with your characters? Are they too much the same? Or do they argue and fight all the time and no one, including you, can figure out why they are breathing the same air?

Here are a few things you can do to help create the essence of your hero and heroine:

What about their personalities are alike? What is different but complimentary? List character and personality traits that they have in common, but can cause conflict. What is the story goal for each of them? How do they tie together? Is there an object or sentiment to use as a metaphor that ties them together? Dig into their work, homes, town, family and background to find common threads. How has past loves disappointed or delivered? What characteristics does he have that she admires? What makes him think the day isn’t right without seeing her? What issues do they  call each other on? How do they challenge each other? Don’t let your hero and heroine cover for or enable each other.

Next create a scenario where they have to work together. As that plot line unfolds, you’ll see their opposite traits began to gel and cause them to succeed, and thus, fall in love!

Does this help? Good. Now get writing!

How to “undress” your character!

I’m on my way to Portland today – going to teach at Chip MacGregor’s Master Seminar on How to Write Best-selling Fiction. 


So, I’m sitting on a plane. 


Next to people. 


They may talk to me. 


The thing is…sometimes they tell me more than I need to know.  Have you ever been on a plane where the seatmate begins to talk to you…and suddenly they are going into their life history, and their recent divorce, and their children’s problems, and the house she’s trying to sell and how she’s on her way to visit their mother who has shingles and….


So, already, I know way too much about her. 


This is why you want to reveal your character slowly, layer by layer.  You don’t want the reader to put in their earbuds and turn to the window in the fetal position. 


We have the components to his backstory. Now let’s clothe him in his layers, then begin to reveal them:


Layer One: His Attire: (which reveals his Identity) mannerisms, clothing, public goals


Going back to the question about his identity, we’re going to build an initial impression of our character, the one he gives off to our heroine, and our reader. There will probably be inaccuracies, just as real impressions are, but underneath the exterior, we want to glimpse his essential identity.


I am going to use excerpts from a book I wrote a few years ago: Escape to Morning. The hero is an undercover Homeland Security agent who is posing as a reporter. But Will’s essential identity is protector. He is from South Dakota, so we’ll dress him like a cowboy, and he’s pretending to be a reporter, so he’ll have some of those curious attributes as well. His goal is to get our heroine, Dannette, to trust him. Later on, she’ll realize that he lied to her about his identity, but he can’t totally divest himself of who he is, and we see this in the first layer:


Here’s a scene where I reveal Will’s first layer:


He did look sorry. She read it in his furrowed dark eyebrows, the grim slash of his mouth under his dark goatee, even the concern pulsing from his way-too brown eyes. The fury she felt dissipated from her muscles, leaving only relief. “I’m okay. And so is Missy.”

He supported her arm as she rose.


Dannette had always been a tall person, able to look most men in the eye. But this near-killer stood a nose over her, and in his rumpled leather jacket, faded jeans and cowboy boots, he emanated a quiet, unobtrusive power. Maybe it was the way he held himself, feet planted, his head slightly angled in concern. She felt his gaze run over her, and it wasn’t at all invasive. “I didn’t see her. It’s a good thing you yelled.” He said it without defense, with sincerity.


Later she says:


Oh, a cop. No wonder he radiated this you’re-okay-now-ma’am aura. Funny, with him standing a foot away from her, she sorta felt that way. Okay, now. All he needed was a badge and maybe a beat-up Stetson to complete his old-west-hero guise.


See how Will’s identity as a protector shines through?


Once we’ve established that first layer, we’re ready to move on to our second layer.


Layer Two: His Behavior (which reveals Character/Values/Competence): This layer reveals how he treats people, his habits (which also reveal values), his reactions to stress (which reveal past hurts and his essential character).


Our character’s values and Noble Cause will begin to surface, even at the beginning, in small things, like when Will nearly kills my heroine’s dog in the beginning, he takes her out for a meal. Yes, he’s after information, but she’s just come off a search and looked hungry and tired, and he wants to help her. It’s that protector coming out in him.


Think about your own life – what do you do every day that reveals who you are?  How do you react to stress?  What are your habits?  These are the things you’re looking for when you’re thinking about revealing your character in this layer. 


This scene is from the hero’s Point of View (POV) and the first part is his protector instincts coming out. Then it’s a hint at his dark past, revealed through his habits and how he reacts to others.


Will rose and walked over to the far end of the room where, in a stone fireplace, a meager blaze sputtered, gasping for life. He took a poker, moved the ash-covered logs around, added another. He replaced the poker and grabbed a napkin from another table, and wiped his hands.

The woman said nothing, still cocooned in fatigue . . . or thought? as she twirled her fork.

“So, I never did get your name,” Will said, returning to the table and squelching the urge to take the fork out of her hand. Tension laced the gesture and he felt the errant and weird urge to help her unwind. He’d been on the dark end of body recovery a few times and knew that only time erased those images, if at all.



And, the key is, for a romance, for the heroine to notice. 


But, you also want the heroine to see it:


Obviously she hadn’t totally run Cowpoke Masterson out of her head. And, if she were to be honest, he wasn’t totally disgusting. Not with his devastatingly sweet smile. The way he helped her rub down Missy and settle her in the pickup had charmed his way too far into the soft spaces of her heart. She could hear the cowboy in his words, a soft western twang that spoke of broad skies, lazy days, slow laughter, and sardonic humor.



In Will’s POV, we dropped a breadcrumb about his past to reader, but we focused on his reaction to others in delivering that breadcrumb. Then, in Dannette’s POV, we showed that he is essentially a gentleman. The idea is that we want to hint that there is more underneath that cowboy persona . . . through the eyes of both the characters.


And remember, we’re also trying to unlayer our character for the reader. Often these two layers are revealed during Act One of the emotional journey.


Once his second layer is revealed through his habits and reactions to others, then you are ready for the third layer.


Layer Three: His Choices (which reveal purpose/Noble Cause): This layer reveals his external struggles regarding plot, his greatest dreams and why he thinks he’ll never find them, his obstacles to love.


In every chapter, your character should have a conflict or dilemma he has to solve. As you are facing those, you hint more and more at why his past and his Noble Cause determine those choices. You also want to reveal their greatest dreams. In this layer, you’ll also reveal his competence, or the things he does well.


For example, after Will lies to Dannette (Dani), we don’t want to hate him for his crimes, we need to hint at what his Noble Cause is that made him lie to her:


Will breathed deeply, suddenly missing the smell of prairie grass, the low of cattle as they roamed wide fields. How many times had he sprawled under the sky with Lew, hands behind his head, dreaming of their futures? Lew’s always included Bonnie, and Will had endured painfully many torturous soliloquies of love and longing from his best friend.

            Still, Lew had something that Will envied. Still envied. Honesty. A relationship with a woman that went beyond expectations. Bonnie had believed in Lew, had let him free to serve his country, knowing that Lew’s heart stayed at home. Bonnie’s love had given Lew a strength that Will still couldn’t understand. Or maybe that strength came from something more.


Will put his hand to his chest, as if pushing away the burn inside. Memories of Lew always seemed to stir up the longings and attune Will to the vacancies in his life.


See, now we know that there is something noble that Will wants—a home, a wife, a family . . .


Another technique to reveal this layer (besides narrative) is through dialogue. Letting the hero and heroine tell each other things about themselves—either deliberately or not—allows the other characters (and the reader) to know more about them. As their relationship deepens, it’ll be harder and harder for him to hide behind his layers until he finally discards them, one by one.


Layer three is the longest layer to discard, so take your time, letting out information bit by bit. Have him share his greatest dreams with the heroine in one scene, and show your reader his Noble Cause through his actions. You may even want to have a conversation with a friend about the obstacles in his way to happiness.


Eventually, your character will have to reveal Layer Four: His In-security: His internal struggles, greatest dreams and fears, how he feels about love, his spiritual vacancies.


And this is revealed in two stages:


Stage one: His In-security is revealed through his out-of-character behavior.


In this phase of layering, you want to continue to put him into situations that confront his fears, force him to reveal his dreams to the heroine or to the reader, almost like turning the crank on a vice to make him open up.


One of my favorite scenes in Escape to Morning is when Will sees that Dani is headed for trouble—and again he has to choose between his mission and her safety. But he so desperately wants something between them, he can see that dream dangling right there before him . . . so he intercepts her, and blows his cover.


“Dani, it’s okay,” Will said, trying to keep his voice low, scanning his gaze past her, toward the cabin, past it into the dark fold of forest.

            “What part of you scaring my skin off is okay?” Her voice shrilled, matching the white panic that hued her face. “And why do you have to always dress like a mercenary when you’re in the woods? Good grief, Will, who do you think you’re going to get in a fight with, a great horned owl?”

            He couldn’t hide the smile, nor it seemed, his emotions. He’d seen her sneak up, and totally turned off the common sense screaming in his brain.

            No, he’d been propelled by sheer panic.

            But the fact that Little Miss SAR was back, and obviously fully charged, meant trouble.

            And even more dangerous were the little feelings of happiness that were exploding all over his heart.

            “Dani, please, for the last time, you need to leave.”

            “Give me one good reason.” She held up one elegant finger. “One.”

            He made a face, opened his mouth. Okay, she had a point . . . without knowing it. He couldn’t rightly explain without blowing his cover. But without blowing his cover, he couldn’t get her to leave.

            Besides, what if she were caught hiking out?

            “Promise to listen to me? And, to obey me if I tell you to do something?”

            She looked at him like he’d turned purple and spoken Russian.

            “I know the words, ‘You’re not the boss of me,’ sound slightly kindergartenish . . . but, you’re not the boss of me.”

            This time he really did stop her. Put all one-hundred-ninety pounds between her and her exit, and wore a face he hadn’t used for quite some time. “You’re not going anywhere without me, Dani,” he said, slow and dangerously. “And I am the boss of you, starting right now.”

            Her eyes opened, and she backed away, tilted her head. “Now you’re really freaking me out.”

            “Good. Please, take me very seriously. I know things you don’t, and just suffice to say that they are part of my job. So, when I say things like, go home, which I realize you won’t, trust that they are for your own good. Because I am your friend.”

            She swallowed, and suddenly he realized that no, he didn’t want to be her friend. Not at all. In fact, he’d spent the entire morning lying when he told himself that it felt great to be trusted, that the feelings of honor she dredged up were enough.

            He wanted more. Now that he’d gotten a taste of what it meant to be around her smile, her laughter, even her confused anger, he wanted more.





Stage Two: His In-security is revealed through the Sacrificial Act.


Remember when we asked, what would your character never do? This layer is revealed when he does it.


This layer is Mr. Darcy’s desperation, it’s Hugh Grant in Notting Hill posing a question at the press conference. It’s Jason Bourne saying goodbye to the woman he loves so he can be with her, later, whole.


Layers Three and Four usually encompass all of Act Two of the emotional journey. Take your time with them, don’t bunch them into big revealing scenes, but drop them like tidbits to entice your reader on the journey.


For Will, he has to sacrifice his secrecy:


Which brings us to the final layer, the layer in which we see our hero completely vulnerable . . . “naked” as it were.



Layer Five: His Spiritual Lie and the discovery of the truth.


This layer happens when the Black Moment hits, when he realizes all his worst fears have come true. It’s the beginning of Act Three in the Emotional Journey. You want to make him face the lie, and then be changed by the truth.


Here is Will’s final layer: Dani is injured in the woods, but the clock is ticking on a terrorist attack, and he has the information to stop it, so he must leave her there, praying someone will come and rescue her, while he takes the information (and a girl named Amina) to safety:



Just go.

            Those two words fueled every step, but pinged louder in Will’s heart as he trudged away with Amina, feeling nearly nauseous. Fear pressed down on his chest and he struggled for breath.

            Just go.

            How could he leave her? He forced his breath through the web of pain and stared at the stars. The moon hung as a fingernail in the sky, pointing north. Please, oh God, be our portion tonight. Never did he long for those words to be true. Never did he need God more than this moment, when he’d left the best of all he wanted to be laying cocooned in his jacket under a black pine tree.



All of Will’s layers are gone. He’s figuratively naked, vulnerable. He’s desperate, he’s in love, he needs God . . . and we’re rooting for him because he’s completely captured our heart and we feel his pain.



As you build scenes, ask yourself: What is the next layer I need to reveal for my character—to my other characters? To my reader?.


But . . . what about prologues that reveal the dark moment of a character? Isn’t that revealing a layer too soon?




I am a believer that prologues shouldn’t be used unless they contribute to the mystery of the story. If the reader understands the character’s darkest moment before they’re ready, then it’s cheating their emotional journey. The exceptions I would make are if a great deal of time passes, and if the emotional impact of the journey is beyond that moment.


A great example is a Deb Raney book (In the Still of the Night) that shows the brutal rape of a character at the beginning of the book. However, while this is a dark moment, the real reveal is when they discover the identity of the rapist. This information is kept until the right reveal of that layer.


By the end of the book, you should have wooed your reader into falling in love with your characters…the way a great romance does!


If you have any questions, stop by Club MBT Voices!  And don’t forget Monday night’s chat — we’ll be talking about crafting the BLACK MOMENT! 

Have a great weekend!

Susie May



Building the right backstory

We’re trying to help our readers fall in love with our characters this week at MBT….and one way you do this is through “Character Layering” – or slowly revealing the heart of your character—to your other characters in the story and, ultimately, to your reader.


But doesn’t my reader need to know about my character in order to love them? I hear this a lot from people who might pour in all the great reasons why our hero and heroine are the way they are – their hurts and their triumphs – onto the first page. 


Think back—if you knew everything about your spouse or significant other when you met them, would you still go forward?  Perhaps it’s best if we fall in love layer by layer.


More than that, your reader wants to dive into the story, and too much too soon just bogs it down. If you dump your hero’s entire bio onto the page, not only will it seem forced, but it also will lack impact. The fun of getting to know a character is discovering who they are and what makes them tic. The best part of a book is discovering the Dark Secret, or desperate motivation, behind their actions. If you reveal it all at once it lacks punch, and you’ve stolen the emotional impact of the story from the reader.


Character Layering solves the problem of what to tell, when. It helps your reader fall in love. 


Which means that although you don’t want to put all the backstory onto the page  — you must know it.  You must have built your character correctly.


It is essential to know the Backstory of your character before you start the book because, as I mentioned, you want to start your story quickly, without too much bio. But you need to understand your character because it’s their Backstory that causes them to react in present.


 The reader just needs to see the outcome of the Backstory, and how it affected your character.


So, how much Backstory should you develop?


Answer: Enough to know your characters motivations for why he/she does the things they do in your story.


If your character loved to draw as a child and always dreamed of being an artist, that’s only important if it has something to do with the plot. If he’s a detective solving a murder, it might not have anything to do with the story. However, if he is asked to draw the suspect and rediscovers the rusty talent he had, then perhaps it is slightly important. If, even better, he loved to draw, and had talent, but his father told him he was a terrible artist (in order to discourage such a “frivolous” career), and the story is about a policeman who discovers that he has the ability to see the crimes in the pictures he draws, (and thus was always meant to use this God-given gift) well, suddenly this Backstory takes on relevance.


As the author, you always want to figure out what elements of their past molded them into the people they are today. Mostly because you’re going to use the fears and dreams, the secrets and mistakes from their past to construct their story, and to help your reader fall in love with your character.



How do you develop the right backstory? 


If you’ve taken any of my classes, read the My Book Therapy blog, or If you’ve read From the Inside . . . Out: discover, create and publish the novel in you,

you know that I am a proponent of sitting your character down and chatting with him about why he is who he is. This is how you discover the Backstory, and is essential for a well-rounded, three-dimensional, living, breathing character, and the key to creating a hero/heroine that your reader will root for.


More than that, I like to use the Five Elements of Self-Esteem as a foundation for plotting and character development.


I also like to use them for building the elements of layering.


For a more in-depth explanation of the Five Elements of Self-Esteem and how to build them into a plot, check out From the Inside . . . Out. (This is available through the My Book Therapy store or at


The Five Elements of Self-Esteem help us determine who our character is, why they do the things they do, what their greatest fears and dreams are, how to make them suffer, how to craft the Black Moment, their perfect Epiphany, and finally the happily ever after ending.


They will also help us layer our character, step by step.


What are the components of our character’s layers?


Identity: Everyone has an identity they use to introduce themselves to others. The first layer reflects how they see themselves, or how the world sees them.


So, I spend a lot of time on airplanes these days, and I’m always curious about the people I sit down next to.  I look them over, and usually base an initial judgment on whether or not they’re reading a book.  If they are, I put them into an “I like them” category.  Even better if they are reading fiction.  And better yet – Inspirational Fiction! 


I might then look over their bag, their clothes, the way they are sitting.  All this tells me whether I should make an attempt to say hello during the beverage service, or make sure our elbows never touch.  Their external trappings have told me a smidge of who they are, and if I’d like to get to know them. 


Your reader will approach your character in the same way.  They will, during the first few pages, be trying to decide if they want to get to know them. 



When you meet someone for the first time, you are basing your impressions on who they are by how they dress, what they are doing at the time, perhaps the speech they use, and the way they introduce themselves. This gives us the first glimpse as to who they are. This is the glimpse you should give your reader, too. 


So, Ask:  Who is your character? What identity does he give himself? What sort of attire, behaviors, mannerisms and trappings go along with that identity?



Noble cause/Purpose: Behind every hero, there’s a reason why he does the things he does. In Braveheart, the death of his bride compels William Wallace to fight for a free Scotland. In The Bourne Identity, it’s Jason Bourne’s quest to discover who he is.


In determining your character, you need to know what happened in his past that made him the person he is today. What was his darkest moment? Usually, it is this moment that contributes to his Noble Cause (and creates a superb foundation for letting the heroine see through his cracks to the vulnerable heart of the man inside).


Usually a person will do anything to make sure this dark moment is not repeated. Often the Noble Cause is directly related to either atoning for that dark moment, or protecting himself or others from it.


You’ll use this information in developing a Layer of Revelation.


Ask:  What happened in your past that molded your goals and purposes today?





Competence: We like heroes who can take care of themselves, who know what they’re doing. It builds our confidence in them and causes them to be heroic. What is that one thing that your hero does well?


The Bourne Identity is a wonderful movie that showcases Bourne’s skills. We know that his girlfriend is safe with him, even though many assassins are on their tail.


Even computer geeks can be heroic when we see them using their skills.


Ask: What is your character good at, and how is that shown on the page? In a romance, you can go further and ask: What skills does your hero possess that he uses to save the heroine?


Security: When I’m plotting, I use the element of Security to pinpoint that point of no return, when a character must fish or cut bait. But when I’m working on layers, I use a character’s IN-security to discover what his worst nightmare is. What are his deepest fears? What is he going to avoid at all cost?



Often you can discover these fears by going back to that darkest moment in the past. At some point in your story, your hero will be pushed to his limits. In that moment, he or she will either turn back to safety, or face their fears and move forward. Discovering what he is most afraid of, what makes him feel most insecure, will add another layer to your character that will be revealed shortly before or after the dark moment.


In Donald Maas’s workshops, he talks about finding that one behavior that your hero would never do. For example, building on The Bourne Identity, I doubt that Jason Bourne lets himself fall in love . . . and yet, there he is, falling in love with the heroine half-way through the movie.


What prompts a hero to do something he would never do?


Answer: His greatest fears pushing against him, his biggest dreams dangling before his eyes . . . and the realization that he wants something different, something more. Bringing your character to this place, and revealing this for your reader, or heroine, is a pivotal emotional point on the journey.


Book Therapist Questions: What is the one thing your character would never do, and what would make him do it?



Belonging: What lie keeps him away from God and why?

Because of your character’s darkest moment, they will have learned from it something that holds them back from happiness. We all operate with lies in our lives, and your character is on this journey to be set free. So, he must learn a truth, sometimes referred to as the Epiphany, in order to be set free to complete his mission, or to be able to love. Understand this lie will help you create the last layer, the one closest to his heart.


Ask: What lie has he believed that has broken him?


Now, you should have interviewed your character enough to understand his Backstory, how he sees himself and why, what his motivations and goals are, what he has to live or fight for, what he’s good at, what brought him to this place, what lies he believes, and what truth will set him free. These are the components you need to dress your character.


 Tomorrow, well talk about how to layer your character….and then reveal those layers to woo your reader!


Don’t forget to stop by MBT Club Voices and add yours to the discussions on how to write a romance!


Susie May

It’s just a little Kiss

So…you turned in your Frasier entry…feeling tense? 

Of course – because you’re hoping for a great outcome, but your fears of your manuscript – the frailties you recognize in your writing are shouting at you that you might not succeed.  And, the more you continue to write, the more you fall in love with story-crafting, the more you invest into the process, and the more you see the hope of publication. 

What you have here is….sexual tension!  Okay – no, it’s more like Award Tension.  Or Publication Tension, but it has the same elements of Sexual Tension.

You didn’t know that did you?  I bet right now you feel a little weird. 

It’s okay.  You can read this in the privacy of your own home.  Maybe ask the kids to leave the room. But we are going to boldly talk about it because Sexual Tension is a key element to writing romance.

Let me be clear – in the CBA we don’t put the trigonometry on the page.  We close the door.  But, we do often let the reader see and experience…The Kiss. And this falls under the category of “sexual tension.” 

 Which means we need to talk about it. (You can kind of read the computer at an angle if you have to.) 

How do we create sexual tension in a book, and when do we use it? 

I’m going to break sexual tension apart into components, and then we’ll talk about how and when to weave it into the story.

The components of sexual tension.

Wishing:  Pull toward

The Wanting –

            Enjoyment –the why (Physical and emotional)

The Work –

            Investment –  more and more they’re willing to let them into their life.

The What-if

            Hope – taste of what they want

The Waiting: The Push away

The Walls

                        The external obstacles         

                        The internal obstacles (smaller)

The Wink – the first Kiss – The taste

The Warning

                        The large internal obstacles…

The Wonderful – the full out kiss!

Let’s take it apart:

The components of great sexual tension start with the Wishing – or the Desire.  The more our characters wish for romance, affection and a happily ever after, the stronger the tension will become.  Think of the wish as the buildup of steam.  J  Or perhaps water against a dam.  I usually put it in terms of the PULL toward the object that their affection.  The pull takes on three different forms:

            The Wanting – The characters must enjoy spending time together.  Sure, they might have sparks, but even those sparks should be enjoyable.  As the romance progresses they should have an increasing awareness that they like each other – they enjoyed each others’ personalities, or wisdom, or spiritual insights, or sense of humor, or strength – whatever it might be as the story unrolls.  They will also become more physically aware of each other – from their initial beauty to imagining what it might be like to be in their arms, to wanting  to be there! Increase the Wanting – emotionally and physically. 

I tried to pick a movie that had the right romantic tension, and yet one most everyone has seen…so I picked one of my favorites, Dirty Dancing.   In Dirty Dancing,  when Baby sees Johnny dance on the dance floor with his partner, that is the first step of the Wanting.  Then, she even gets a taste of what it might be like to be with him when he asks her to dance that first night when she “carries in a watermelon.”

            The Work – The characters should fall prey to the law of increasing rewards – meaning, they will continue to discover the “layers” of each other, and find the “treasures” inside each layer.  As they discover the increasing value of each other, the idea of not being with each other – even if they still have considerable obstacles, will seem more and more horrible.  The key to the Work is a slow “unlayering” of the characters – and an appreciation of each layer.

In Dirty Dancing there is a lot of work involved as they learn the dance.  Then, when she finds out about Penny, Baby gets even more involved.  She is pulled deeper and deeper into Johnny’s life – and begins to know him beyond his playboy image.

            The What-if – Your hero and heroine should also begin to picture what a future might look like with the other person.  What it might be like to have them in their life (in a positive way – we’ll get to the negatives in a moment!)  They need to talk to their friends about this, and even visualize it to the point where they thirst for it.

The What-if in Dirty Dancing is really played out when she actually dances as his partner.  As they sit in the car together, she says “we were great.  We pulled it off.”  She has started to see them as a team.

The Pull is just one half of Sexual Tension.  We also need the Push if we want to create adequate pressure.  Think if the Push as the dam wall.  Or the lid on the pressure cooker.  I also call it The Waiting. 

The Waiting is that time period where you are building the Wish….but are keeping the hero and heroine apart.  This first element of keeping them can be termed The Walls. 

The first set of Walls between your hero and heroine  are those External Obstacles – or Why Nots that we’ve set up between the hero and heroine.  What physical elements in the plot keep these people apart?  Some of the obstacles I’ve used are:  She’s the fire chief, he’s a volunteer firefighter. (The Perfect Match) She’s a reporter (undercover) intent on proving he’s guilty of a crime.  (Reclaiming Nick).  He’s the cop who arrests her (Nothing but Trouble).  She’s a bookstore owner, he’s her new handyman who she thinks is sabotaging her. (Happily Ever After). 

In Dirty Dancing, the Walls, are, of course, the fact that she is a guest, and he’s a staffer – and rather low on the totem pole, too.  Plus, he’s not one of the frat boys – he’s from the wrong side of the tracks. 

These obstacles are key to keeping them from throwing themselves into each other’s arms.  However, as the story progresses, these external obstacles will feel less important than their love…and this is where Internal obstacles come in.  Underlying the external obstacles will be the hint of a bigger issue, usually something from the character’s past that make them afraid of love.  Maybe they lost their first love, or maybe they caused the death of someone they loved, or maybe they come from a broken home…whatever the internal obstacle it is, it conspires to keep them apart on an emotion, and even spiritual level. 

However…eventually (usually around ½ way through the book), they can’t hold back any longer, and….well, they have what I call….The Wink.  This is that tentative, or quick, or accidental, or even purposeful-but-mistaken the first Kiss.  It acts as a taste of hope, a taste of what could be.  Now, here’s a secret – the timing of this kiss is essential because once you allow them the kiss, tension deflates.  I often wait for that moment when the tension feels unbearable…that moment that it feels natural for them to kiss…and then I hold them back!  I wait until the next chapter.  And then I give them just a taste…so I don’t deflate the tension.

In Dirty Dancing, you might think they skip The Wink and go right to the big event – but the tension has been building for so long, we feel like they might have already kissed.  But the wink can be something that acts like the kiss – a moment of recognized attraction. So, for Baby and Johnny, you could say the dance was really the wink. 

Now, we’ve had the taste of the happy ending, The Wish becomes overwhelming.  The hero and heroine want to be with each other, they have worked to get to know each other, and they’ve gotten a taste of The What-if. 

About three chapters later, I then have The Wow.  This is the amazing, we waited for it kiss!  The one with all the pent up passion, and in general market stories, often more happens than a kiss.  But this Wow is there to cement in their minds that Wonderful ending they’re hoping for. 

In Dirty Dancing, we have the WOW in the old house – where they are dancing, until….yes, it’s a strong scene that we all remember.  

But just because we had the Wow doesn’t’ mean we’re going to give them their happy ending yet.  They still need to Wish for it. 

In Dirty Dancing we see scenes where Baby and Johnny are in bed, the rain falling around them, and she’s wishing they could be together, have a happy ending.  But, of course it’s not to be – they still have those internal obstacles keeping them apart. 

So, you need to hold them back with a final Warning.  The Warning is that internal obstacle that suddenly becomes so overwhelming that it feels insurmountable.  Often the Warning happens right before the black moment.  The hero and heroine have to believe that they can’t overcome the internal obstacle to love. 

In Dirty Dancing this comes when Johnny is accused of stealing, and he’s fired – even after he’s exonerated.  He’ll always be “trash” – from the wrong side of the tracks.  (and he believes this, even though he’s proved otherwise) So, he leaves, (and we all cry).

            To find that internal obstacle, ask your character:  What holds you back from love?  What inner element keeps you apart?

Of course, true love will win the day – they’ll know that the Why of their relationship is stronger than the Why Not, and armed with some truth that overcomes the black moment, and they are set free to have The Wonderful, foot-raising happy ending kiss.

Or, burst through the doors, say, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” and then dance the final dance, their way, to their kind of music!  

I’ve had the time of my life….

See with the right kiss, all that tension was worth it. 

It’s all over.  The kids can come back in the room now.  J 

See you next week when we talk about character layers!