Thursday, August 20, 2009

Characters Learn Too

by Carol Burnside

The return of students to their studies in the fall has no impact on my life that I can think of, except I might get a good deal on office supplies. Yep, that’s about the extent of it because my kids are unmarried adults who’ve not yet produced offspring. And even though I’ve left my college days far behind, I’ve tried to maintain a student mindset for everything I’ve endeavored to do in life.

We are students every day, learning from others. Our characters are no exception. As we throw obstacles in their path, they try new things and seek knowledge from others. In the process, they learn more about each other and their attraction grows. It’s this important step, this learning step that helps make their journey to love believable.

In the following excerpt from Her Unexpected Family, Claire is desperately clinging to Travis’ questionable reputation as a reason to avoid getting involved. He’s around a lot, renovating the salon where she works. When he and her client, a now married and pregnant former flame of his, conduct a reunion under her nose, she learns something unexpected.
- - - - -
“I can’t believe it. I haven’t seen Travis in years. He still looks good enough to...” Lisa giggled. “Well, he always was fine looking.”

Apparently she had no qualms about watching Travis walk away. Claire had the sudden urge to give the woman’s long shag a swift yank to turn her head around. She gripped the back of the chair, shocked by the intensity of ill will toward another person, but especially a woman in the late stages of pregnancy.

What had come over her?

“My parents nearly had a heart attack when they heard who I’d been caught necking with at school,” Lisa confided, as if Claire had expressed interest. “Travis was every dad’s nightmare and every good girl’s guilty dream. Boy, can he kiss.”

Yes. Yes, he could. Claire wanted to say the words aloud to silence the woman, but withheld comment.

“What are we doing today? A trim, or did you want a radical change this time?” The words were a little too hard, her smile a little too bright. Oops.

Lisa’s gaze locked with hers in the mirror. She clapped a hand across her mouth and grimaced. “I’m sorry. Me and my big mouth. I didn’t know y’all were—”

“We’re not. Truly. It was one date. A casual thing. Ages ago. His sister Rosie is a friend.”

“Oh.” Lisa looked at Claire as if she’d confessed to being a space alien, then a sly smile appeared. “Fell under his spell, didn’t you?”

“No, I—”

“Happens to the best of us, Sugar. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” She glanced around, lowering her voice to a hair above a whisper when the dryer in the far corner shut off with a solid click. “Folks think he’s some kind of Lothario, but he’s not at all.

“I know it doesn’t jibe with his reputation, but Travis has a protective streak a mile wide. Plenty of girls went to him for the wrong reasons: shock value, they fought with their parents, wanted to make their boyfriends jealous, or found enough false courage in a bottle to take a risk. But he refused to bite.”

Claire threaded her fingers through Lisa’s hair, inspecting the ends with exaggerated concentration. “No product build-up this time. You still using a clarifying shampoo once a week?”

Lisa huffed, an annoyed expression crossing her delicate features. “Fine. Ignore me, but I can’t be the only person who’s noticed his decency.”

Claire hesitated, not wanting to keep the subject alive, but her conscience prickled. “I believe you. He was very much the gentleman on our date. Now, what about your hair? I’m running short on time.”

“Thanks, Claire. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

She nodded her acceptance and waited.

Lisa sighed. “Yes. I’m using the shampoo as recommended. Just trim the ends this time. Nothing drastic until after my hormones settle.”

“Okay. Let’s head back to the sinks.” Somewhat mollified by the woman’s agreeable nature, Claire led the way.

As if Lisa had expended her energy reserves, she sank quietly into a comfortable position, closing her eyes when the warm spray flowed over her scalp.

Without the usual gossipy chatter to fill the void, Claire’s thoughts clung to Lisa’s comments about Travis. She’d known he wasn’t a ruthless womanizer after their date, but Lisa made him sound like a Boy Scout.

Claire’s conscience pinched. Maybe she should ease up on him a little. Her motives for dating him hadn’t exactly been pure, and it was kind of silly to resent him for being better than his reputation.

Truth was, her ego took a hit when he refused what she’d so blatantly offered. A million insecurities had crowded to the surface en masse, reducing her to the age of sixteen. She’d heard her own voice pleading with Bud to let her move in with him. The same degradation she’d felt as a result of his laughter and derisive comments had washed over her, and she couldn’t get Travis out the door fast enough.

Coupled with what she now realized was an overreaction the evening before, it amounted to her painting him with someone else’s brush. He probably thought she needed a straightjacket.
- - - - -
Don’t you just love that point in the love story when there’s a subtle shift and you just know that character is a goner, no matter what may be in store before the HEA? It’s the little ‘ahh’ moment that really starts them falling. Each time it’s unique to the characters involved.

Have you read such a moment that stuck with you? Maybe you’ve seen it in a movie, or written it in your own book. I’d love it if you’d share it with me in the comments.


Debbie Kaufman said...

Love the excerpt. Yes, I do love the subtle shift, emphasis on subtle. To me it's more powerful that way. Can't think of an example right now, though, but I probably will by tomorrow or the next day :)

Marilyn Baron said...

It's too early in the morning for me to think of an example and I just got back from the gym, Ugggh!

But I enjoyed your post and a look at your work in progress.

Marilyn Baron

Sandy Elzie said...


Enjoyed the post. Don't you just hate when we're upset about something or with someone and then have to calm down and admit that we've overreacted? Grrrr

Great post.


Anna Steffl said...

Fantastic excerpt. I got totally sucked in.

I have to say my favorite aha moment is in P&P when Elizabeth finds out that Mr. Darcy was responsible getting Mr. Wickham to marry her sister Kitty.

Tammy Schubert said...

Love your excerpt. What's the status on this story?

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Great excerpt, Carol--I like the delicate subtext. I love those shifts, subtle or not, although I don't think I'm doing so well with those in my own stories.

I loved the shifts between the grandfather and the grandson in The Princess Bride (sorry to all those who hate the movie--I'd still say it's worth one more watch just for those shifts). I also enjoy reading Tanya Michna/Michaels for those shifts, especially in Baggage Claim--although one of those wasn't that subtle--and in Mother to Be.

Cyrano said...

I love when my blog sisters put in an excerpt of their work in progress!
Is the book finished?
I really enjoyed your post. You're very right about our characters needing to learn and grow. Without growth or as you said, "aha moments," our characters read flat, unrealistic and boring. Growth moves the story forward and lets us relate to the hero and heroine in the books we write. It's extremely important.
I will definately keep your post in mind when I write today.
Thanks so much for your excerpt and the words of wisdom.
Have a gorgeous, productive day,

CiCi Barnes said...

Great read, Carol.

The first aah moment to pop into my head is when Scarlet realizes she really does love Rhett and not Ashley. Too bad she was so blind to realize it too late for the fated couple.

I'm assuming Claire has 'learned' early enough for that HEA.


Linsey Lanier said...

Great excerpt, Carol. Thanks for reminding us of the ahah moment. It's easy to forget to put those in our manuscripts.

I'm listening to J.D Robb's "Ceremony in Death" (I know, I'm way behind). Eve is surveilling a couple who claim to be very much in love. Each says the other is innocent of the crime. She wonders if her love for Roarke would make her cover for him if he committed murder. She's learning how much she's grown to love him.


Carol Burnside said...

Thanks Debbie and Marilyn. This one is finished, though I guess until it goes to print it's always a work in progress. ;)

Yes, Sandy! I hate that. There's such frustration in being wrong. (hee)

Aw, Anna, I'm glad you liked it. I remember another subtle moment from the latest P&P movie when Mr. Darcy helps Emma into a carriage and the camera pans down to his hand. He says nothing, just flexes the fingers that touched hers. Now that's another of those moments when you know the character is in deep. :)

Thanks, Tammy! This manuscript is actually finished, has won three contests and has been rejected with an invitation to resubmit if I revise, but I'm at a loss as to what the editor wants. So, I'm...contemplating.

Hi, Sally! I'm not that familiar with the Princess Bride. Saw it once, I think, but I'm definitely a fan of Tanya's.

You're a sweetie, Tamara! You have a wonderful day as well. :)

Cici, this happens fairly early in the story. Claire has several reasons for not getting involved with Travis so this is just one barrier coming down.

Ah, Linsey, the In Death series is one of my favorites. Don't you just love how Eve gets angry when her emotions soften her toward Roarke? I read the first half of the series fairly rapidly, then got behind. With JD/Nora so prolific, I fear I may never get caught up.

TerriOsburn said...

I love these little moments in books. And great excerpt.

My H/H start off on the wrong foot and tend to argue a lot. I'm working at moving them into a truce, then into friendship, then into more. The moment the heroine realizes she's going to miss the hero once their working relationship is over will hopefully be the moment she realizes she's toast. :)

That's the plan anyway.

J Perry Stone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J Perry Stone said...

Lovely, Carol. I first loved the tension between Claire and Lisa and then I loved that that was what started Claire thinking.

Although you do it much more subtly, my latest experience with this shift was in Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie.

Lord Ian is autistic and in the opera house, the heroine can figure out why he won't look her in the eye.

He saves her though, in a very bold, improper way and i think it's his originality that captures her interest... coupled with those fleeting glances.

Carol Burnside said...

Hey, Terri. Thanks for your comments. I popped over to your blog. Bumblebee is ADORABLE!

Your story sounds intriguing. Keep writing!

Carol Burnside said...

Ah, J Perry, he intrigued her. I love when that happens!

Maxine Davis said...

Enjoyed the post so much and just loved the exerpt. Hope it is 'taken' soon; I want to read it all!

You remind me to do what I just can't hardly bring myself to do. - give them conflict and more conflict. I'm fine with them loving each other, it's the getting there that I have to practice!

Tami Brothers said...

Great story, Carol! I LOVE it and I really enjoyed the scene. Made me wonder at how Lisa's hair is going to turn out....

I like both the subtle and the hit you over the head aha moments. I think I like the big ones best because it's an in your face, duh moment!!!

Example of movies with this would be like in Sweet Home Alabama, While You Were Sleeping (one of my very favorites!!!) and HeartBreakers (with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sigourney Weaver). They have the biggest in your face, here I am, fall in love scenes that I can think of at the moment.

Then one of my favorite sublte ones is Under the Tuscan Sun and Return to Me (with David Duchovny and Minnie Driver). Both are very sweet and relationships I was really rooting for.


Susan May said...

I always love your writing and characters. I always want more.

Nicki Salcedo said...

I love that you are learning and your characters are learning. Here is my favorite line, " . . . and it was kind of silly to resent him for being better than his reputation"

Thanks for sharing!

Carol Burnside said...

Ah, Maxine, you're not alone. I struggle with giving my characters enough conflict as well. Usually, when I can't seem to go forward with a story, I examine it and realize it's flat. There's not enough at stake. Then I up the conflict and I'm writing again.

Carol Burnside said...

Tami, thanks for your lovely compliments. It's always a nail-biter to share work in such a public forum.

I love ALL those movies, though Return to Me most. Well, maybe Sweet Home Alabama comes in a close second.

Carol Burnside said...

Aw, Susan, thanks! Hugs, girlfriend. I miss you.

Nicki, I liked that line too. It's such a "duh". :D