#WritingChallenge: Dig deeper into your characters

About eight weeks into Write Your Romance in 150 Days, you’re probably getting to know your characters very well. That’s good because romance readers (and editors) love a strong romantic conflict, and strong conflict comes from well-developed characters. (For more on characterization, read this great post by Superromance author Vicki Essex in our archive.)

Let’s say you’ve decided that the hero’s or heroine’s ex will be an obstacle to the romance. We see a lot of “evil exes” in manuscripts, and they can be very stereotyped – I often picture this:

You might have been advised by an editor to, “dig deeper” into your characters. Thinking more deeply about your characters, even the antagonists, will help you make them more believable and complex, and strengthen the romantic conflict.

Your challenge this week? Tell us about your “evil ex” (male or female) and what makes them tick. Then, dig deeper – see if you can add some layers to their motivation. You’re going to do this in 3 steps:

Who she/he is:

What she/he wants:

Dig deeper:

Here’s an example:

Who she/he is: Brittany used to be engaged to Matt, but she broke it off when he dropped out of law school to start a ranch. She thought he wasn’t ambitious enough.

What she/he wants: Brittany’s been showing up a lot “accidentally” since he started seeing Sam. He’s become way more successful than she thought he would, and now she wants him back.

Dig deeper: Brittany isn’t fixated on the trappings of success, but she’s ambitious (she’s a lawyer) and thought she and Matt wanted the same things out of life, so was disappointed when he changed careers. Brittany  knows it’s wrong to keep hanging around Matt now that he’s in a new relationship, but she’s feeling sad and lonely and just can’t stay away.

Got it? Dig deeper in the comments by Sunday, August 27, 2017, and we’ll check back with you on Monday!



34 replies on “#WritingChallenge: Dig deeper into your characters”

From my WIP: Island Magic

Who she/he is: Josh Wright is the heroine’s “late” husband who faked his own death at sea after he accidentally murders his father-in-law in a fit of rage.

What she/he wants: After five long years, Josh returns to find his wife has moved on and is in a budding relationship with another man. He investigates and discovers the man is a billionaire, pretending to be an everyday Joe, who hopes to purchase the island from Josh’s wife. If Josh can prove he’s alive to the authorities and reinstate himself as the rightful partner of the heroine, he’ll not only get his family back but he’ll be a rich man and no one will find out the truth about what really happened in the past or what he did to the heroine’s father.

Dig deeper: Sorry for his actions, but not man enough to stand up to what happened to his father-in-law and the consequences he deserves, Josh takes his sailboat out, abandons it and swims to shore. He changes his looks and identity, and moves to another state to begin his new life. Only trouble is, he loved his wife and his young son. Josh returns to the island with a whale of a tale—he claims he’s had amnesia and just remembered who he was and where he lived before his boating accident. But now there is an obstacle in his way of happiness—his wife’s new boyfriend. Josh has already killed once. What’s one more accidental death? He plans to take out his competition by way of another boating accident, but things go awry when he discovers his nine-year-old son has snuck on-board the boat too.

Wow! This sounds like something I definitely want to read. I hope to see this in book or ebook form real soon.

Thank you, Savannah! This challenge actually helped me plan this story out a bit more since I am more of a panster. I can’t wait to complete the story now. I love romantic suspense. I just hope I’m good enough at writing it. 🙂

Josh is a very interesting character. I’ve always been of the opinion that committing murder – even accidentally – changes a person forever. For Josh to think, “what’s one more” is both shocking and intriguing, but it does make me wonder how much of a good man he was to begin with. Something you could think about is Josh Before and Josh After, and explore how much he’s changed!

Thank you, Kayla. I hope to make him as evil as can be and the hero will shine even more in the heroine’s eyes.

This was difficult for me, since the ex’s are the main characters, and are supposed to get back together! So, I picked a character who is functioning kind of in that role. Whereas the female protagonist is divorced from the starting goalie of the hockey team, she’s the wife of the backup goalie.
Who she/he is: Kailee is the wife of the backup goalie to the main male character, who is a professional hockey goaltender. Being a hockey wife is a job for her, and she asks questions and looks for gossip to find out anything to help her keep it. She makes the female protagonist uncomfortable with her questions and judgement.

What she/he wants: Kailee wants financial security and prestige. She probes into the marriage and divorce of the protagonists to learn how to maintain her marriage if it runs into problems. She looks down on the female protagonist because she “lost” her position, and thinks she’s superior since she’s still in a marriage with a professional hockey player. She’s determined to keep her marriage.

Dig Deeper: Kailee has grown up with reality shows like Real Wives and Hockey Wives. She defines success as being on a show like that: looks, money and fame. To her, the Kardashians are models of success, and being married to Dylan is her opportunity to achieve that. When the male protagonist has to step aside and let her husband Dylan be the starter, some day, she believes she will be a step closer. Whereas the protagonists broke up over infidelity, Kailee is only concerned if it damages her image. She looks at the externals, and believes they will provide more happiness than internal values. Kailee isn’t happy, but believes that next step up will make her so, but there’s always another step, always someone ahead of her.

Yes! I always want more hockey romances. 🙂 You really did dig deeper here–you made me feel for Kailee, who at first glance is someone easy to hate. She’ll never be happy this way, poor girl! You could take it a step further by exploring why she sees money and status as stability and the ultimate happiness, and if there was a time the lack of these things “put the fear in her” so to speak and made her the way she is.

Note: this is from a future project, and not my current WIP. Alas, neither has a league of evil exes.
Who he is: Steve is Katrina’s ex-husband. He just can’t seem to get past that they’re no longer together.
What he wants: Katrina’s moved on with her life. The fact that she’s seeing Richard goads Steve into action. He wants to get back together, to have a second chance to prove how much he loves her.
Dig Deeper: Steve grew up in an abusive household. He equates love with control. To him, Katrina is the one that got away. Her success and, more particularly, her independence tip the balance. He must get her back and prove he loves her more than anyone else possibly could. If he can’t have her, no one can.

Steve sounds like a character who could actually lose control in his quest for it and possibly hurt someone. Definitely a heartbreaking character, he could suffer from the cycle abuse. You could develop his character with signifiers of his need for control beyond his determination to get back together with Katrina.

Thanks for your input Kayla.
You’re right, Steve was unable to break the cyclical nature of abuse, and ends hurting Katrina and himself with his need to control. Theirs was a heartbreaking story, and forms part of a past Katrina must come to terms with if she is to move forward with her life.

Who she/he is: Tony used to be married to Janelle, a plain but good hearted woman. He left her after the birth of their first child (an accident and the reason they were married) because, well, he really never loved her. He thought he might feel something after the baby was born but all he felt he was ignored. Especially since Janelle’s second love was the business.

What she/he wants: Tony is feeling even worse, however, now that the business Janelle helped him start is floundering. He’s been asking for more visitation rights. He should be part of his son’s lift after all. If not, the boy may come to view Janelle’s new flame–a man far more successful and far kinder than Tony ever will be–as his father. Janelle may also be inclined to help Tony with the business, too, since their son will inherit. Something that may not happen at all if Tony loses everything.

Truth is, Tony understands now that he needs Janelle and if cultivating a relationship with their child is the way to get her back to work, he’ll do it.

Dig deeper: Tony understands now that he needs Janelle’s special brand of attention. The death of his mother who used to fawn on him has left him without any buffer or hope as his father has set in reminding Tony of all his failings. Chief being the loss of Janelle and his own child. The business falling apart would be just too much. Especially as Janelle’s new flame has suddenly rendered Janelle far more beautiful and desirable than Tony ever imagined. He finds he can’t let her go. The thought morphs quickly into an obsession that sees the would-be-friendly-father turn stalker.

This is very intriguing! It’s as though Tony has started to see Janelle as his symbol of success, even though he doesn’t love her. Definitely ups the creep factor, which is perfect considering his stalker status. It almost sounds like he doesn’t see Janelle or his son as human beings…he could be a pretty terrifying villain in a romantic suspense! Even though he’s furious with Janelle’s new flame, it sounds like a lot of his negativity actually stems from his father. I wonder what would happen if they were to confront each other!


Thank you for the time spent in reading/commenting. With villains, as with all characters, it’s often what is not seen or understood that motivates the most.

Poor Tony doesn’t know what love is and so, is incapable of giving it. We can only share/give what we have.

Janelle, conversely, is a woman who used to believe that love was bought, had at the price of performing and delivering on time, above expectation, and with a fixed smile. This, as we all know, isn’t the case. What she sought previously was approval.

And yet it is Janelle’s brokenness that fuels Tony. Through the cleansing process of finding true love and learning what that is, she can heal herself and do better for her child. And Tony, if he steps back and doesn’t cross that line, could hope for a better future, too. But will he?

Sadly, we can’t force anyone to do what they should. Even if it would be for their benefit.

Again, thanks for the time spent. Most appreciated!!

Who she is: Lillian used to be Jordan’s steady girlfriend when he was an up and coming baseball star, but she broke it off when he injured himself – jeopardizing his multi-million-dollar contract, she didn’t want to be tied to a man who wouldn’t be able to bring in the big bucks.
What she wants: Lillian sees an article about Jordan buying into a baseball team. She knows this isn’t a small potatoes investment and is set on winning him back, even though he claims he’s engaged to another woman.
Dig deeper: Lillian knows it’s a dangerous game she’s playing trying to win Jordan back, but she can’t help herself. In her own way she loves Jordan, but it’s more love of money and the security wealth provides because she grew up dirt poor and never wants to find herself in that situation again.

I think the details about Lilian’s upbringing add dimension to her motivation. You could push it further by thinking about what bonds her to Jordan in particular. She could just set her sights on a new prospect if all she’s motivated by is the desire for financial security. But maybe there’s an emotional attachment to Jordan that complicates the relationship – both came from the same impoverish roots, perhaps? Thanks for participating in the challenge!

Who she is: Gwen Tallmadge is one of the female residents involved in caring for billionaire Aidan Forrest during his perceived terminal illness.
What she wants: She wants to win, whatever the situation. If a handsome billionaire is going to marry some lucky female before he dies, it should be her. The dumpy fellow resident with the misaligned eye should’ve been no competition when Gwen pulls out all her…assets.
Dig Deeper: Gwen’s mother was a pageant junkie and lived through her daughter. All was good when Gwen won, and she won a lot, but not so good when she didn’t. Winning meant approval, love, affection. The consequences for any place but first were detrimental. When she was a little older, Gwen learned that if she didn’t win, she could numb the pain with the attention she received from men. Temporarily, and with later regrets. She went to medical school to prove to herself she could win at something other than her looks and body.
The challenge would be to make her redeemable if she is to be the heroine of a related story where she has a wine-fueled one-night stand with the billionaire’s best friend and ends up pregnant. She panics, because she’s afraid she’ll be a parent like her mother. The best friend isn’t thrilled either, because he perceives her as someone he might temporarily date, but definitely not as the mother of his children.

I love the idea of a recovering pageant queen character! There’s lots of opportunity for unresolved feelings and complex motivation. I agree that making her character sympathetic will be challenging, even with her backstory. The key will be in her actions now, and perhaps providing her with enough self-awareness and sympathy for others that her behavior isn’t stereotypically “evil.”

Who he is:Frank, the cousin of an old childhood friend of Addie. He convinces Addie he needs her to pose as his fiance while he is trying to get employment as a coach for the National Junior Ski Team.

He wants:Frank is attempting to get paid by competition for Serrano Suites by sabotaging their bid in a million dollar contract for the Ski Team.

Digging deeper:Addie discovers how dishonest Frank is and tells him he’s on his own, so much for trying to help. Addie has just bought an old vacant cottage and starts to make it a home. Shortly afterwards she learns attractive Nik Serrano, the head of Serrano Suites that Frank had tried to swindle, has purchased the old manor home adjoining her new residence. Nik finds Addie living next door and remembers her from the attempt to discredit his company. As Nik’s investigative team begins to uncover the attempts made by Frank and the competition he realizes Addie, who had caught his eye is innocent and he feels he can safely pursue her and add her to his list of conquests.

I appreciate that you’ve provided more details for the plot, Dina. Now I’d challenge you to “dig deeper” into Frank’s motivation. Competition is a regular part of business. What would motivate Frank to take extreme measures involving deception to sabotage a competitor? Thanks for sharing your story!

Who she is: Amber Lacey had a crush on Mark Holt for years. Then he married her older sister.
What she wants: Ambers sisters left Mark and died tragically in the USA. Amber has adopted her sisters baby and is raising her as her own daughter. Unfortunately, she’s also now working for Mark, and, she realises, still has a crush on him. Mark doesnt realise that Ambers baby is also his.
Dig deeper: Amber blames Mark for her sisters death. She’s torn between wanting to hate him and falling in love with him. She knows she should tell him about her baby girl and wants her daughter to have a relationship with her father, but she needs to be sure she can trust him.

This is an intriguing story, but I was somewhat confused about the details. Is Amber your heroine? if so, you do have a challenge creating reader sympathy for a woman who would prevent a man from knowing about his child. One way to start thinking about character motivation is to imagine you’ve met your characters in real life. If a friend were to tell you she was raising her sister’s baby without the father’s knowledge, how would you feel and what questions would you have for her? Next step: answering those questions in a way that’s believable and sympathetic! Good luck with your writing!

From my WIP: Protective Secrets

Who he is: Vincent is a lawyer. He was engaged to Hannah Sawyer, but broke it off after she was a victim of a major accident while working with SAR, leaving her infertile.

What he wants: Vincent wants his son who happens to belong to Hannah now and also the information she possesses that he’s determined to keep secret.

Digging deeper: Vincent can’t afford to let Hannah share the information his deceased ex left her with. He do everything he can to take his son from her and silence her for good. He never really loved Hannah anyway, he only cared about her giving him children to aid his business. Her accident foiled his motives once, there’s no way he’d let her ruin his plans again. Before this was over, he’d be sure she paid for all the trouble she’s caused, even if he’d have to kill her newly adopted son to make her suffer, and then–he’d kill her and his secrets would be buried with her.

Dear Ruby, Well, Vincent is definitely an evil ex, isn’t he? He certainly shouldn’t be allowed near Hannah or her son. What I’d like to know is how he became this person. Was it something in his past or was he just born to be this manipulative? Well done, Ruby!

Thanks for the feedback, Patience!
Vincent was pretty much a trouble maker from the start, even through his childhood. But I guess that could partly be how he was raised. His mom passed away in childbirth, and his died was pretty much nonexistent. His dad was a wealthy business man that didn’t care how he earned his living and when he was around his son, it rubbed off on him. Vincent always got into trouble as a youth, stealing, gambling, etc… It only grew worse as he grew into adulthood, hence why his only concern was the children. In case you missed it, Vincent operates a child/baby trafficking ring.
Thanks again!

Pretty awfully evil ex here! Not sure where to put the compliment in, he is so dreadful. But your baby ring was so evil it was, what, good?

Thanks, Kathryn! I think lol. I admit it is evil what Vincent does for a living; in fact, it’s sickening. But this challenge did ask for an evil ex and Vincent fits that profile to the letter. I try to write stories completely unique or as unique as I can. God helps me out the most, I don’t know what I’m gonna write until He gives it to me. I write Christian/ Romantic/Suspense and I try to know all my characters on a deep personal level, including my villains.
Thanks again and God Bless!

Lynda isn’t really an “evil ex” but she is the closest I have in any of my manuscripts or WIPs. She does become an obstacle in the romance between the hero and heroine in Her Alibi. This was a great exercise because it made me think about how I could have one of the heroine’s flaws be mirrored in a secondary character and have the heroine recognize their similarities to help her achieve her character arc (Thanks, editors!).

Who she/he is: Lynda had been one of the victims of an abuser that Russell, the hero, arrested while he was a detective in violent crimes. He saved her so she believes he has feelings for her. She is an obstacle because she demands his attention and causes professional problems for him at a time when he is trying to connect with the heroine, Katie.

What she/he wants: She wants Russell to notice her as a woman and rescue her from her own bad choices so she doesn’t have to suffer the debilitating consequences. In order for this to happen, he’ll have to spend less time with Katie.

Dig deeper: Lynda grew up one of four children and because she wasn’t demanding, she received little attention from either parent, especially her father. She learned at an early age that she had to create crises in order for him to spend time with her. She carries this victim/rescue relationship over into her adult relationships, including the one she wants with Russell. During the course of the story, Lynda creates a crisis to get Russell’s attention and meets Katie. Katie realizes Lynda has the same emotional hole in her relationship with her father as Katie does with her own father and sympathizes with her. She encourages Lynda to pursue healthier choices in how she relates to others, becoming a stronger person and in the process, learns this same lesson for herself.

Dear Maurine, I really like how you portray Lynda as someone who never got enough attention but didn’t demand it either. I think readers will be able to relate to that. And it gives space for her to be redeemed. Nicely done.

Thank you, Patience, for your feedback. I’ve learned a lot writing these challenges and reading what others have written, too. Thanks to all of the editors for your time and comments.

Who he is…
Hector Adams used to be an item with Jenny Smith, and he would have made it all the way down the aisle with her, except for the fact that he sold her brand new Lexus to take a trip to Vegas and wasn’t even sorry about it.
What he was…
Heck used to be a nice enough kid, polite and all, playing with his dog, Fletch. The kindness lasted until he had his first growth spurt that added muscle and height. Sue Ellen sitting in the sun in her bikini patted the blanket and called him, “Heck” instead of Hector, started it. That’s when he realized that things didn’t have to be the way that they always had been.
Digging deeper…
The punch that he landed on her boyfriend’s nose when he got up to stop Heck talking to her changed him. Heck liked taking things and didn’t feel much like waiting for his ship to come in Money came easy and things were going well, except he met a girl. Jenny had a slow smile that started in her eyes before it reached her lips. There were other things he liked about her, but what he didn’t much like was her reaction when he took her money. She didn’t even ask for it back, just stood there looking at him, her green eyes smoldering and told him that one day, he would regret it. He had laughed then, but the moment came back to him every time some woman threw a tantrum over a bauble or two that he had turned into something worthwhile.
Honesty was for losers and he was doing all right on his own, or so he thought. So why dream of Jenny on his arm, radiant as a bride should be leaving the church with him?

Dear Kathryn, This is kind of fascinating. Hector definitely seems like an anti-hero and would have to work hard to win back the reader’s loyalty. I’m wondering why he stole Jenny’s Lexus. There must be a reason for that. But I love that his conscience seems to be plaguing him and that he can’t get Jenny out of his mind. A good beginning here.

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