Opening your heart to someone, particularly after you've been hurt, can be akin to rolling the dice. Author Laura Boon discusses the value of this emotional risk-taking in a romance.
Life is about risk, whether you embrace it, approach it as a feral kitten, or do your best to avoid it. Nobody ever gained immense wealth, celebrity status or their heart’s desire by playing it safe.
This applies as much to characters on the pages as it does in real life. When love is the prize, the risk is vulnerability. Do characters dare reveal their emotional warts in the hope that a potential mate will love them as they are, and risk humiliation in the process?
The heroines and heroes of romance novels carry an extra burden real people don’t have to worry about. To gain sympathy, they must reveal their vulnerabilities to readers, as well as to each other.
How does a writer demonstrate vulnerability? The first trick is to create a rich inner life for characters. Have them think and assess, identify allies and enemies, and weigh up who is a threat and who is not. In the process, readers learn about their strengths and fears. Fear is at the heart of vulnerability and drives shame, an emotion which encourages secrecy. The greater the shame, the bigger the secret and the higher the risk in revealing all.
Compelling heroes and heroines possess the emotional intelligence not to give away too much too soon. You wouldn’t blurt out your life history, dreams and fears to a stranger and neither should they. As a writer, you want your readers to hold their breath along with your heroine, hoping for the best but unable to suppress a shiver of doubt. (Or else be banging their heads against their Kindle, saying “stupid, stupid, stupid”, knowing that however well meaning, our hero has just stepped into a big pile of muck that is going to be difficult to clean up).
In Marry in Secret by Anne Gracie, readers know Lady Rose is trying desperately and unsuccessfully not to think about her secret husband Thomas and the pain and consequences of their secret marriage, even as she walks up the aisle for a loveless marriage to the Duke of Everingham. When a wild-haired, dishevelled Thomas appears out of nowhere to stop the wedding, Rose freezes and cannot initially acknowledge him. Thomas assumes the worst, but readers know she is in shock, having read about his death in a newspaper four years ago.
An alternative approach is to have them talk to a friend or family member and allow readers to eavesdrop on the conversation to learn things their love interest doesn’t yet know. In my story Lion Dancing for Love, readers know that the heroine Caitlin was betrayed in love before the hero Duncan does because she discusses the consequences of that betrayal with her friend.
Meddling and concerned family and friends are also a useful tool for revealing your characters’ vulnerabilities. However, be careful of spoilers. If readers learn their secrets too far ahead of their love interest, the story will lack emotional intensity. It’s a balancing act.
In a twist on this approach, author Lucy Parker has the hero of The Austen Playbook, Griff, discuss the heroine Freddy with his best friend in a bar, unaware, that she is in the booth next to him and can clearly here every word he utters. His brutal assessment of her weaknesses tells readers much about both of them and sets up the novel’s conflict.
Another possibility is to have the heroine’s love interest be perceptive and observant and pick up clues from her physical appearance or mannerisms. In When a Duchess Says I Do by Grace Burrowes, the hero Duncan notices on first meeting that Maddie is thin to the point of gauntness despite having the bearing of a lady. He assumes she is in trouble of some sort.
Or you can do the opposite. Some of Loretta Chase’s most beloved heroes have to be beaten over the head with a metaphorical broom before they understand why their lady withdraws – or so it appears. I’m thinking particularly of Rupert in Mr Impossible.
Bravery means nothing if not counterbalanced by fear. In a romance, love is the highest stake. Rejection holds more terror than bullets. If the leading couple have nail-biting moments together and apart, readers and characters will appreciate their HEA so much more.
Do you prefer to read/write the kind of characters who reveal their vulnerability early on or do you prefer to find out what it is later in the story? Is the HEA more satisfying if the characters risk everything for love? Tell us in the Comments or on social media using #RiskyBusiness #TheWriteThing or #AmWriting