Benjamin Percy: How to Write Star-crossed Lovers

Photo by Jennifer May

Star-crossed lovers are classic archetypes. Two people fall in love at first sight, but their relationship is jeopardized by outside forces. There are hundreds of examples, from Romeo and Juliet to Eleanor and Park.

But how do you give a fresh spin on this classic tale? Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon, has stopped by Figment to talk about creating star-crossed characters — and how this archetype is an essential story building block. It all comes down to want, and making sure your characters make their desires clear to the reader from the first page.

Nabokov said characters should always want something, even if only a glass of water. This desire — human urgency — makes stories matter. It doesn’t matter how sexy the vampires are, how awesomely the helicopters explode, how frightening the killer sharks might be, your characters must have an internal struggle, a longing, a wish to give the narrative a beating heart.

Unfortunately, if you’re a writer, that means you have to be the bad guy. Never make things easy on your characters. Hold whatever they desire just out of reach.

Katniss wants her sister to live a happy, healthy life — but to guarantee her safety she has to put herself in harm’s way. She wants to train hard, to win the Hunger Games — but Haymitch is at first a worthless drunk who offers her nothing but burp-riddled rants. She wants Gale (though she might not know this at first) — but she must pretend to love Peeta in order to gain sponsors. She wants to battle back against President Snow, to curse his regime — but she has to keep those feelings bottled inside her or face death.

Obstacles in the way of desire. That’s the way you build a story.

And that’s the reason we love star-crossed lovers.

For Romeo and Juliet, it’s love at first sight. But their families, the Montagues and Capulets, are caught up in a bloody feud.

For Bella and Edward, it’s love at first smell. But he’s a centuries-old bloodsucker who can barely control himself around her. Once they finally settle into a relationship, this other guy shows up — Jacob, the one with the ripped abs and big claws — and complicates things.

Love is never easy. But it’s monstrously difficult in fiction.

Red Moon by Benjamin PercyMy new novel Red Moon features two star-crossed lovers, Patrick Gamble and Claire Forrester. In the world of the novel, the infected live among us. I call them lycans — rather than werewolves — in an attempt to reinvent the mythology. They aren’t full-moon howlers, but a believable horror, diseased with an animal-borne pathogen (think Mad Cow Disease) that targets the mind and results in a wild transformation when they get excited or angry. Lycans are marginalized, unable to hold certain jobs, forced to take emotionally deadening drugs, included in a public registry.

Patrick and Claire are drawn toward each other as if magnetized—but there’s just one tiny problem. She changes. And he’s been taught his whole life to fear and hate her kind.

There are so many other obstacles they must face. Everything from distance to war to meddling relatives—but they never stop longing for each other.

That’s what gives the story heart—and not just fangs and fur.

3 thoughts on “Benjamin Percy: How to Write Star-crossed Lovers

  1. This article was very helpful. I’ve been hammered by my English teachers in the past on this in my short stories (which stink compared to my longer stories), and this essentially sums up my struggles to give meaning to the characters I write and drive the story while maintaining a balance. It’s like gambling, though, isn’t it? While one must play the bad guy to write a better story, occasionally the characters catch a lucky break…

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