Saturday, February 19, 2011

Random thoughts on how Megan Hart and Jill Sorenson create their awesomely realistic characters

In addition to being a great read with
 fabulously realistic characters,
this book contains my favorite-
ever angry sex scene!

Lately I have been thinking a lot about realistic characters in fiction, and about how much I enjoy that feeling when a writer’s depiction of character is so precise that it surprises and delights. And this got me thinking about a couple of my favorite writers, Jill Sorenson and Megan Hart.

I know they are working in different areas; Jill Sorenson writes Romantic Suspense and Megan Hart is all across the board, though most famous for her erotic novels. However, with both, in addition to penning compelling, thrilling books that I love (and both are excellent at writing sex scenes) I always have the sense that they are writing about genuine and very regular people as opposed to made up people, or people based on people in books, which is a trap even the most excellent authors can easily fall into. 

With both Sorenson and Hart, you feel like their characters could be out there living real lives, grumbling about their cable bills. I’ll see a woman or man on the street now and then and feel like there could be a Hart or Sorenson novel about this person.

The characters in this book felt really
unique, yet I could easily imagine
them in the real world. Both Hart and
Sorenson are masters of this. 
What makes a Hart or Sorenson character so achingly and wonderfully real? I have actually sat around thinking about this. 

One of the things I think is that I can look out at American society (both of these authors tend to set books in the US, which is, of course, where I live) and know where they fit in.  I know what cultural, educational, socio-economic, family, and class backgrounds these characters are coming from. I know roughly who they would have been in high school, and I know if I would have been friends with them or who they would have hung out with. I know whether they would shop at Target or Wal-mart or Anthropologie or what. Not that these authors supply every little bit of this information in a book, which would be a bore, but they supply enough that I can fill in the rest, the way I might with a real person.

I doubt Sorenson or Hart set out thinking about all this - I think they're both talented and good at observation, but of course I have to analyze it, and it does seem like the familiarity part comes from cultural, educational, socio-economic, family, and class touchstones. 

Delivers on sultry sexiness,
& the most awesome teen characters.
In addition to being situated in larger society with touchstones, their characters aren’t types. This may seem like a contradiction, but it’s not. Scratch the surface of anybody who appears to be “a type” and you always find a wholly unique individual, and both Hart and Sorenson really seem to get this in a cool writerly way. 

In other words, these writers create characters who are unique, yet familiar. It's really quite a neat feat. 

Another thing: both authors, who are white, have written non-white characters and (to me) seem to have taken the time and care to have thoughtfully integrated what that means into those characters’ worlds.  Megan Hart’s NAKED features Olivia, who has a white mother and a black father, and Jill Sorenson’s hero of SET THE DARK ON FIRE is half Native American. I think it can be tempting to put in diversity for diversity’s sake without taking the time to make those elements echo through a character’s core. Sorenson and Hart take that time.

One of the characterization tricks I abuse is to have a trusted secondary character deliver insights into a main character; it’s one of my favorite ways to guide a reader’s thoughts. However, I’ve seen both Hart and Sorenson do this great thing that goes a subtle step further where they have their main character uncomfortably aware of conclusions (true or false) other characters are drawing about them.

Sometimes this is my fave Hart book,
but sometimes it's Dirty or Broken.
I’m thinking of the opening of SET THE DARK ON FIRE by Sorenson where our heroine, Shay, has this rare partying night out for her birthday, and is unexpectedly called onto a special work assignment the next day, hung over and a bit disheveled. She’s painfully aware of the conclusions the new cop in town is drawing about her—in this case, he’s drawing wrong conclusions, but it was so great for her characterization.
Luke wasn’t an easy man to read, but the look on his face just now had been clear enough. It was the same expression she wore when she saw leftover chocolate cake in the refrigerator.
Disgusted with herself for wanting it.
Or, there is this great scene in SWITCH by Hart where the heroine Paige has moved into a fancy apartment complex (the most inexpensive unit in it, though) and it’s a big step up from where she grew up. There is this scene where she is highly aware of another woman in the lobby assessing the cost and brand of her clothes. That keen awareness was so powerful for me getting something essential about that character.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that both of these authors give their characters—especially their heroines—really robust and detailed family lives. Current family, past family. And the important thing is, those families feel real, and have flaws, quirks, and strengths, and could really exist in the world. Often, both the brokenness and the gifts of their families of origin contribute mightily to forming these realistic characters...just like real life people! 

Looking feverishly forward to
this one (late March)
On the subject of family, I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have kids, or because I haven’t been reading writers who do kids well, but I rarely find characters' kids and younger siblings fascinating in books, but wow, Sorenson’s teen secondary characters are so awesome! Not only with strong, good plotlines on their own, but they add to the world, to the central drama. She weaves them in so well.

I’m looking at what I’ve written here, and I think part of the reason I’m focusing on it so much is that, okay, I know that, while my characters are unique in their way, they tend to dwell inside the vacuum of the book, and not have the touchstones that make them both unique and familiar. I’m not being self critical, really, I mean, urban fantasy characters (and to some extent, paranormal romance characters) dwell in the hierarchy of a supernatural society as well as a human society, so, placing them in a precise way within a larger human society is not traditionally a priority, though there are exceptions. Vicki Pettersson’s Joanna Archer and even Sookie Stackhouse come to mind.

But I love how it feels to read about a real-seeming character, and so I guess I’m thinking about that this morning, and trying to learn something from it for future books.

More info: visit Jill Sorenson's site or Megan Hart's site


SusiSunshine said...

I really think I love you more now cuz you said why I love Megan's books. I think all this reality in her novels is also the reason why some readers don't like them . It's too real- it hits you where it hurts most if the topic is something near to your heart. Probably not what some readers look for in fiction. But it's exactly what I look for so as long as she writes I will buy anything I can get. Awesome post hon!

And yes now I will go online shopping for a Jill Sorenson one.

Carolyn Crane said...

Susi: Well, that is an interesting perspective, that the reality would actually turn readers off, because I'm like you for realism, and to me, you get your cake and eat it too, considering the fun sexiness of these authors. However, you may be right! And, it is true that Hart's endings aren't always your traditional HEA. Hey, thanks for stopping by.

Joanna Chambers said...

I can look out at American society (both of these authors tend to set books in the US, which is, of course, where I live) and know where they fit in

This is interesting to me because I don't live in the US and a LOT of contemp/paranormal/UF romance is set in the US. So my reaction to US-set romance is like this anthropological curiosity. My reaction to Jill's writing was appreciation in seeing a different type of American protagonist than I am used to.

Also, on a similar note, when a book is unexpectedly set in contemp Britain it gives me a little thrill. I got that recently reading Charlotte Stein's Past Pleasures (which *looked* like it was going to be American) and Alex Beecroft's Shining in the Sun. Such a pleasure to get all these lovely subtle British references that just make me feel all comfy and at home. I love other settings too though, I hasten to add.

Tez Miller said...

Megan's PRECIOUS AND FRAGILE THINGS was one of the first books I read in 2011, and I love it to bits :-) EXIT LIGHT was pretty damn good, too.

Chris said...

You are such a deep thinker!! :) This now has me thinking about what other authors might be doing things like this, with a comparable level of skill...

Carolyn Crane said...

Tumperkin: You make me want to read Stein and Beecroft all the more!

Tez: I'm so behind on Hart. I so have to get those.

Chris: Deep thoughts! LOL. BEWARE!!

Janine Ballard said...

I don't usually post here but this time I can't resist because it's such a thoughtful and perceptive post.

I recently read my first Sorenson (an ARC of The Edge of Night) and had the same thoughts about the realism of her characterization -- and I've tried to get the same thing across in my reviews of Hart's Dirty and Broken. It's something I love about both their writing -- and I would add Kathleen Gilles Seidel, esp. in her single title romances, as another author who creates unusually real characters.

I'm not sure I agree with SusiSunshine though -- not all of Hart's books have worked for me, but it was never the realism in her characterization that was the cause.

Dr J said...

Such a good post and one that most of us find germaine to what we are reading now. I think both authors are right "up there" in bringing realism into their fiction in ways that are most definitely "in your face" but yet they are never out of sync with the story itself. Of the two I like Hart the best, but Sorenson can really get me going as well. I think Jaci Burton is another of the authors that manages to do the same with her characters.

Carolyn Crane said...

Janine: Thanks for stopping by, and for the tip on Seidel. I sometimes get on a realism glom the way I do a historicals glom, so it's good to know.

Dr. J: Hey, thanks! Yes, interesting how it's not just a choice but the level of realism dovetails with the stories, with the worlds. Also, Jaci Burton? I've never read her. You're the second person recently to rec her.

orannia said...

Great post!

Luke wasn’t an easy man to read, but the look on his face just now had been clear enough. It was the same expression she wore when she saw leftover chocolate cake in the refrigerator. Disgusted with herself for wanting it.

Ohhhh! I like!

Lori said...

I totally agree with you on all counts.

And made the same observation with the first (and 2nd) Sorenson I read - she writes teenagers perfectly. That bravado mixed with know-it-all mixed with angst mixed with confusion. Perfect.

Jill Sorenson said...

I love this post so much! OMG!

Megan Hart's Dirty has one of the most painfully realistic, heart-wrenching, memorable heroines I've ever read. I wouldn't say that my characters challenge readers in the same way. I'm thinking about a scene from Dirty in which Elle is on the phone with her mother, watching her expressions in the mirror. She sees emotions that she doesn't feel (or can't access) reflected there. I was struck by that bit of characterization as being so sharp and precise and moving. I can't think of anything I do that compares. Elle made me uncomfortable, and frustrated, and sad. I really thought she was just fantastically portrayed.

Thank you so much for the thoughtful post and flattering comparison! I do try to make my characters real and I suppose I include those ordinary "slice of life" moments to build them. It's so cool to have that pointed out because it's not something I'm really conscious of as I'm writing.

And squee!! that Janine read my ARC. *biting nails*

Carolyn Crane said...

orannia: Isn't that bit fantastic? So glad you like.

Lori: Honestly, so true. Her teens are so very compelling.

Jill: I think I stupidly lent out my copy of Dirty, and I really feel like rereading it. That character is so strong.