Creating Dynamic Heroes: The 28/40 Method

I was at dinner last week with a couple of writer friends, and one of them jogged my memory about something I’d said a long while back. Such a long while back, in fact, I can’t recall if it was a blog post—and if so, where—or a comment on someone else’s post, or what. In any case, it was something I’d written on the importance of hero imperfection. I believe I’d mentioned three metrics: handsome, successful, well-adjusted. I’d posited that in order for a hero to be both appealing and also have enough flaws to allow room for a satisfying character arc, he could be two of those three things, but not all of them. Or he could be a bit of each—decent-looking, reasonably sane, and not destitute. I wanted to revisit this idea again with a bit more focus, and the method I’ve come up with I’m calling the 28/40 Method.

ATRBWhen I was in junior high, I repeatedly attempted to play Dungeons & Dragons. I didn’t have the patience for the rules, but I loved creating new characters. I remember you got to roll a six-sided die three times each for different traits—strength, agility, charisma, intelligence and…um… Some other things. The way my brother taught me to play, you rolled a bunch of times, then you could distribute the totals as you wished. You might wind up with a really smart, fast character who isn’t very strong, or a dumb-but-charismatic hulk. This was very exciting to me, and I want to steal its essence for this post.

For the 28/40 Method, your hero is possessed of four different traits. At the start of the book, for each trait, he lands somewhere on a scale of 1 to 10…

Attractive. Whether he’s got a devastating face and fantastic dress sense, or a shaved head, mean mug and a killer body, we’re talking raw good looks, whatever flavor they might come in. Scoring a 10 on this scale would equal the most gorgeous man the heroine’s ever seen; a 0 would be straight-up fugly.

Talented. This could mean an actual artistic talent, incredible business sense, athletic prowess, or exceptional intelligence; whatever gifts might make a hero stand out as something special. A 10 could be an Olympic gold medalist, artistic genius, or a rocket scientist; a 0 would be a very dull man with no hobbies or interests.

Rich. Inherited from a wealthy family or the spoils of an empire built up from nothing, we’re talking money money money, or some other tangible measure of material success. A 10 might be a billionaire or a prince; a 0 would be a homeless guy.

Balanced. Mentally, that is. This refers to the hero’s reasonableness, emotional intelligence, empathy, mental health, chemical dependence, temperament, and so forth. A 10 would be kind, thoughtful, ethical, rational and patient; a 0 might be a sociopathic addict with anger management issues.

The last thing you want is a guy who scores a perfect 10 on all of these traits. That’s the Superman Syndrome—a guy so perfect he actually loses all his dynamism. Yawn. And yeah, I know about Kryptonite and everything, but come on. Superman’s got WAY too much going for him. We like underdogs. We like struggle, and success that comes only to those willing to fight for it. And you want your hero to have room to improve over the course of the book, so starting from perfection equals a static non-arc. That’s not just boring for readers, but unsatisfying.

Using the 28/40 Method, you get 28 points to create your hero at the start of his book, and you can spend up to 10 points on each trait. That means your hero could conceivably be perfect at two traits, but lousy at the other two. 28 is a maximum cap, to keep him from being too perfect, but 28 is also a minimum cap, because in fiction it’s important for a character to be a touch exceptional—he should be worth having a book written about him! Here are some options.

A = Attractive | T = Talented | R = Rich | B = Balancedall-rounderThe All-Rounder is above-average at everything, but doesn’t truly shine in any way. Okay-looking, competent, stable, nice. He’d make a good single-father character or maybe a small-business owner, a man whose priority is stability and who strives simply to do right by those who rely on him. Nothing wrong with that—but not all that exciting either, in my opinion.
charismatic-eccentricThe Charismatic Eccentric—I wrote his guy! Didier Pedra, the gorgeous French prostitute from the Curio books who’s insanely good at sex and cooking and clock repair, but not especially wealthy and also a complete mental wreck (despite being emotionally fluent.) This might be the kind of man you look at and think, “If he’s that ridiculously beautiful, he’s bound to be an idiot, a psycho, or a basketcase.”
billionaireThe stunning Billionaire Sociopath. I don’t think I need to explain this one.
struggling-starThe Struggling Star. Crazy-talented and determined, aching to get to the top. Think nascent rock star, broke-but-hungry prize fighter, genius toiling in his basement lab.
beautiful-spiritThe Beautiful Spirit. AKA that guy Charlotte ends up with on Sex and the City. A not-so-stunning hero is a rare creature in Romancelandia, but they must exist! A talented writer can turn a guy with below-average looks into a stunner, if they know how to let his intelligence and kindness and other assets shine through the plain brown-paper packaging.

So those are just a few examples. By the end of his book, the hero’s still not going to add up to 40, but he will have made some strides. Arguably, the most important trait to improve on in the run-up to the happily-ever-after is Balanced. After all, a self-respecting heroine can fall for a homely man, a man without much unique talent, a low-earning man. But she really shouldn’t ride off into the sunset with a guy who’s still a 2 on the well-adjusted scale—we’d worry about that woman, hitching her wagon to an addict or a manipulator or an icicle or a hot head. Luckily this is also the trait that tends to improve naturally in romance, as the hero adjusts his attitude and behaviors and priorities, to become worthy of the heroine.

Hope this proves a useful lens for any writer folks out there, busy formulating the next crop of romance heroes! I’d love to chat in the comments if anyone has questions, insights, issues, or sees this formula reflected in any favorite heroes that they’ve written or read.

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What’s Your Core Story? A Guest Post by Megan Mulry

Recently, Megan Mulry was Tweeting about core story, and I was intrigued. And frightened! But mostly intrigued. I’d circled around this concept of every author writing versions of the same book again and again — in a good way, as a sort of subconscious life project — but I’d never heard “core story” articulated as a concept that one could dig into. I’m happy to welcome Megan here to Wonkomance to talk about the core story concept and share some of the responses she got when she inquired among other writers.


The first time I heard the phrase “core story” was from Jayne Ann Krentz at the 2010 RWA Annual Conference in Orlando. I’ve pretty much been star struck by Krentz ever since I first started reading romance novels about six years ago. I came to romance relatively late in life, and Amanda Quick (aka JAK) and Judith McNaught were my meat and drink.

Now, looking back with a bit of perspective, I can see why these two in particular were so appealing: heroine driven narrative arcs, lots of hero/heroine dialogue, lots of conflict. After I’d read everything by McNaught and everything I could get my hands on by Quick/Krentz, I wanted to learn more about these writers and their writing philosophies.

That summer of 2010 was my professional beginning. I had a manuscript. I was going to start querying agents. (In other words, I was a mess.) Anyway, Jayne Ann Krentz was (and is!) everything I want to be professionally: prolific, dedicated, lighthearted, with the added bonus of snazzy red hair. I still look at my notes from that 2010 conference workshop for inspiration.

JAK said, “Know your core story. Archetype. Theme. Conflict. Those are the core elements for you.” Boom. Okay. Right. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Who in the world is that self-aware? I certainly wasn’t. And it took about ten books and four novellas for me to firmly grasp what she was talking about and how it related to me.

A few months ago, I finally figured out my own core story. Whether I’m writing erotica, small town contemporary, historical, or women’s fiction, deep down I am always writing the same core story. I keep trying to think of an eloquent way to put it, but it really boils down to this:

Lover1: I love you and want to give you everything you ever wanted

Lover2: I want freedom

(Aka Twats and the people who love them)


Here’s another quote from JAK, this one from her Popular Romance Project interview:

“…the hero and the heroine overcome their problems not with social engineering and not with psychology, but with core heroic virtues. And they’re always the same: courage, determination, a sense of honor, integrity, and the ability to love. And that’s at the core of all of our heroic archetypes. Why does it continue to exist? Jayne’s theory of popular fiction evolution: it wouldn’t survive unless it served a real purpose for the survivability of our culture. And I believe that it’s in popular fiction that we preserve our society, our culture’s core values.”

Doesn’t that just make you feel warm all over? Courage. Determination. Honor. Integrity. Ability to love. (That last one is usually a major sticking point for at least one of my main characters.) I turned to some fellow authors and asked:


Do you know your core story yet? Do you tend to revisit one of the above core heroic virtues again and again? A recurring theme? A recurring conflict?


And here are the awesome answers:


“Lover #1: I’ll give you anything you want. Lover #2: I want freedom.” This is the conflict I always seem to end up with, no matter how wild the peripheral or external factors. Broken down into slightly smaller pieces, I think what “freedom” means here is some form of emotional independence. The character fears losing his or her quintessential self by subsuming it in another person. This can only be overcome by the character re-inventing their self-perception. They must grow from being somebody who sees themselves as only strong enough to stand alone, to somebody who sees themselves as strong enough to be a whole person even within the context of a shared life. I don’t know if it’s a heroic virtue to face the demon that is yourself being your own worst enemy, but that’s my conflict and I’m sticking to it.

—Delphine Dryden


I couldn’t possibly boil down my core story to archetype, theme, and conflict, but I think — with eleven books under my belt — that I’m starting to see that my core story is about characters learning how to get out of their own way. I’m interested in all the ways that people allow fear to steer their lives, and how love can be effective in providing motivation for people to move beyond fear to something like self-actualization. Which I guess means, in the terms you (Jayne) laid out, that they’re stories of quiet personal courage and determination motivated by love.

—Ruthie Knox


When I look at most of my books, over and over and over again, the same theme occurs in various ways. Hero or heroine: I am too damaged to love. I am unworthy of love. Then my other character needs to show them they are wrong on both counts. That’s the same journey I take and I never tire of it. After all, isn’t it the hardest thing in the world to be vulnerable and brave enough to love and be loved? Do we ever truly feel worthy?

—Jennifer Probst


My heroes: In nobly helping others, they hide their true selves.

My heroines: Don’t fit in, even when they look like they do.

My core story: The journey to truth is the journey to love.

—Katharine Ashe


I write in three different fictional landscapes: historical, contemporary and futuristic but my core story is always romantic-suspense.  The relationship starts out as a classic marriage of convenience.  The hero and heroine are forced into a partnership in order to survive the danger they face. The bond they form evolves into love.

—Jayne Ann Krentz


I write about the friendships that screw up perfectly good no-strings sex, and turn it into a foundation for forever.

—Mira Lyn Kelly


My core virtue: the courage to love in the face of failure. My core story: the grab for a second chance to make things right. In The Slightest Provocation I call it paying “the debt of honor we owe to our flawed, frightened, and deluded younger selves, to become the people we should have been.” In romance we still can become those people because in romance “there’s still time.”

—Pam Rosenthal


Archetype: broken people (who are frequently high functioning – often the most broken among us cover it the best). Theme: reconciliation (internal, within families, sometimes within communities). Conflict: the self. I write about how the choices we make can slowly poison us or just as slowly nurture us, and how self-awareness may come with a price, but in the end, it’s worth paying. That’s part of the core story…you have to know what price you’re paying for your heart’s desire, and when it becomes too much. Fuck. I don’t know. You can quote me on that.

—Anne Calhoun


When I was a kid, my mother would always drag me to what I called “women finding themselves” movies. They were usually foreign films or period pieces where a lady living a “meh” sort of life embarked on some travel and when outside of her comfort zone, started to blossom. Then love happened. I think all of my novels follow this theme of “women finding themselves” and the love follows. One has to be right with herself before she can recognize Mr. Right. I also think my characters often want “Love and…” Both the heroes and heroines crave the love, but they also want to balance it with their passion for work or a stubborn insistence on some personal freedom, too. In other words…being true to the person their partner fell in love with in the first place.

—Maya Rodale


My core story is typically about redemption, something like:

Lover1: I want to be good enough for you.

Lover2: You already are.

Lover1: *improves self anyway*

There’s generally lots of sex while all this is happening. Not sure if that’s part of the core story. But probably :)

—Amber Lin


I’m just now starting to see the outline of my core story. It goes something like this. “Someone who believes s/he is broken or lesser in the eyes of society learns to see him/herself as whole again.” When I think about my stories that work best, they fit this model most explicitly. The ones I’ve had more trouble with have veered further away.

Courage and determination tend to be my characters’ core virtues, but the ability to love is usually what they’re striving for, at some level.

My themes vary more – belonging, purpose, having faith in one’s self.

My characters’ inner conflicts often center around coming to terms with who they are so they can accept love from someone else. Their external conflicts are all over the map.

—Serena Bell


I think I’m a little early in my journey to identify a core story, but I can almost see it out of the corner of my eye if I squint. No matter what I’m writing, I’m always exploring identity. Mistaken, assumed, hidden, rejected. Masks, accidentally slipped or torn away. I muck around with characters who make terrible decisions because they either don’t know or don’t like who they are. I tend to write exposures of self as both acts of aggression and acts of love.

—Shari Slade


Thank you to all of the authors who took the time to contribute to this piece; I love to see how everyone processes these larger concepts in relation to their own work. I hope more writers will continue the conversation and comment below about their core stories. Thanks so much for having me here at Wonkomance!


Megan Mulry writes sexy, stylish, romantic fiction. Her first book, A Royal Pain, was an NPR Best Book of 2012 and USA Today bestseller. Before discovering her passion for romance novels, she worked in magazine publishing and finance. After many years in New York, Boston, London, and Chicago, she now lives with her husband and children in Florida. Her third novel in the Unruly Royals series, In Love Again, releases November 29.

Posted in Guest Post, Thinky, Writing Wonkomance | 18 Comments

You Don’t Have To Like It

I can go a long time without doing it.

There are a lot of weeks — months, even — when I don’t care at all what strangers are saying about my books on the Internet. But when I do care, and I feel vulnerable, and I need more than anything else to stop making myself vulnerable — that’s when I go looking. Compulsively.

Not for the good reviews. Those, I skim right over. I’m glad they exist, but I don’t read them. I graze my eyes down the page until I find the one- and two-star reviews, and then I linger there, stomach bottoming out, limbs doing that weird tingling floating thing that feels bad, like a tongue on a D-cell battery contact, buzzy and sick.


People talk about authors behaving badly, flipping out when they read negative reviews, calling on posses of readers to back them up because no one, no one, has the right to hate their books.

I wonder who these people are.

I read my own negative reviews and feel sick and think yeah. Yeah.


If I’m not careful — if I don’t stop myself, reframe my mental conversation, redirect my energy — I can make it so I can never think of one of my books without wincing. A book I worked hard on, that has hundreds of four- and five-star reviews. A book half a dozen people have written to me to say, This meant so much to me. Thank you for writing this.

I can make it so that book is shit, in my mind. It’s a failure.

I can make it so when I think about the next book I’m going to write, part of what I’m always thinking is, Whatever you do, don’t make THAT mistake again. Because that sucked. You sucked, there.

The funny thing is, I’m one of the most well-adjusted people I know. But I’m a writer, and yeah.



So sometimes I think about U2. It must have been after I had a few books out that I first started doing it, after I  experienced the mitigated joy of having my books compared. This one’s not as good as that one. These are better than those. I wish she’d go back to doing that. And so forth.

I was thinking about how, when you’re U2, you put out a few albums, and one of them is Boy. Then one of them is Joshua Tree. And people love Joshua Tree. Four bazillion people love it, and they’re not just university students or depressed teenagers, they’re moms in minivans and kids in elementary school, grocery store clerks, mechanics, everyone. I mean, some people fucking hate it, and they have to tell you so really loud, because the love threatens them. But for the most part, yeah. Joshua Tree. That album fucking ruled.

So you’re U2. You’re a band. You put out another album, and it’s not Joshua Tree.

It’s never going to be Joshua Tree again, right? That’s the thing. It’s just not. It’s going to be something else. And wow, do a lot of people not like the next album that isn’t Joshua Tree. And the one after that, which also isn’t Joshua Tree.

I mean, some people do. Some people like the new album more. Some people like all the albums equally. Some people like Joshua Tree for when they’re sad and the new album to make them feel happy, and they like this live album to remind them of the time they were nineteen in Dublin, and the album from the early 2000s didn’t really do it for them, but whatever, it’s cool.

Some people wish you’d keep making Joshua Tree over and over again until you die, and other people wish you’d never recorded in the first place, because obviously Boy was your pinnacle and it’s all downhill from there.

But you’re U2. You have to not care about any of that. You have to make whatever album it is that you’re making right now, and not care. You have to assume that your job — your only job — is to make music, and you have to appreciate that in fact whether or not or how much people like your albums isn’t any kind of objective measure of anything. It doesn’t prove definitively that an album is good or bad, even, or demonstrate that you shouldn’t have made it. It’s just … noise. Noise you have to learn to ignore, if you’re U2, and if you want to continue being U2 for the next few decades.

Now, let me just say, I’m not U2, obviously. Nor is this supposed to be a thinly disguised screed about how I am a genius but people are being mean to me or not liking my books or something. If you’re squinting and trying to read my post sideways, like, What did I miss?!?! please relax. Everything’s cool. I’ve been very lucky, and mostly people do seem to like my books, and everything’s cool.

I just wanted to talk about how I’ve learned to think about U2 when I need it, because it helps me remember that not everyone is going to like everything, ever. That everyone liking everything is not even a real thing, or any sort of reasonable goal, and that trying to write while also trying to think about whether people (WHO? WHICH PEOPLE?) will like what I’m writing is the best possible way to guarantee I’ll end up miserable.

Also, it doesn’t work to write that way, because not everyone will like it.

They don’t, in fact, have to like it.

Mary Ann Rivers was telling me the other day that I need to read Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and that there’s a great part of that book where Fey is talking about how her friend Amy Poehler helped her understand this part of being a person, being a woman, and being an artist: not everyone is going to like what you do all the time. No one has to like you, and no one has to like your work, and actually that being liked is not the fucking point. The point, if you’re Fey and Pohler, is to make comedy that speaks to something you care about.

The point, if you’re U2, is to make music.

The point, if you’re an artist, is to make art. And everything else is just noise.

What I try to remind myself to do, when I’m thinking about U2, is write love stories that matter to me, that say things I want to say, that dig into characters I find interesting, and to do that as best I can, always. And to tell myself, on the bad days, that no one has to like it.

This statement is complicated by the fact that I want to sell books, and that my agent has to like it, and so does my editor. But it’s not as complicated as you might think. If you make the music that means something, write the books that matter to you, look inward for your material and your truths instead of outward, people will like what you produce.

Some people.

Maybe not a lot of people. Occasionally, just your mother, or your spouse, or two of your friends.

Or maybe as many people as liked Joshua Tree, or Fifty Shades.

You can’t know. It isn’t your job to try to know. Trying to know is crazy making.


My husband and I recently watched Cameron Crowe’s documentary about Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam 20, which was interesting for a lot of reasons (one of them being the near-complete absence of women from the entire movie, HOMG). What I like about documentaries like this — or Last Waltz, about The Band’s final concert — is what they have to say about making art over a long period of time.

Because what these sorts of movies do is dig up all the ways in which people support each other in making art. How they learn how to do it and keep doing it. How they start out as four or five awkward teenagers who just want to hang out in their rooms and play the same four chords six hundred times, but twenty years pass and they’ve managed to become adults and friends who play and collaborate together nearly every day.

I like the reminder that this is somewhere you can end up if you begin in the right place, and if you learn the right stuff as you muddle through the middle. If you have enough support, and work you want to do in the world, and some tenacity, and if you decide at all the right points, Yeah, let’s keep going like this. I want to.

All of these documentaries, the stories about bands like U2 and Pearl Jam, the tales I hear from writers who have been in the trenches a long time — they have a part in the middle about the time they almost quit. The six albums in a row they put out that all but their most die-hard fans hated. The contracts they lost, the agents who dropped them, the dive bars they ended up playing in.

And when they talk about coming out of those periods of their careers, of their lives, they often talk about this music they had to make, this book they had to write, and they just couldn’t care. They knew no one would like it, and they couldn’t care, because they had no fucks left to give about whether anyone liked it. No one had to like it. They just had to make it.

Who did you write that for? they’ll be asked, and they’ll say, For myself.

For the band.

Because I had to. Because I wanted to.

Because this is what I do.

You don’t have to like it.

Posted in Life & Wonk, Movies, Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | 31 Comments