Posted On February 13, 2013 by Print This Post

She’s a Real Character with Maggie Toussaint

Maggie Toussaint has a varied background – scientist, freelance reporter, romance author- and in her life you KNOW she’s met some characters. Now, she gives us the secrets on creating characters who are unique and jump off the page.

She’s a Real Character

By Maggie Toussaint

Great characterization is like a work of art – everybody knows it when they seemaggietoussaint (2) it. You can see the world the character moves around in. You live and breathe with the character as you experience everything through their eyes.

Note that I did not say through the author’s eyes.

To have a character “leap off the page,” the writing must move from observational to experiential. In short, writers must get into the character’s head.

Sounds easy. Simple even. But for most writers, letting go and trusting the character to react is a lot like standing at a precipice and being buffeted by strong winds. The temptation is to latch onto something secure, something that won’t send you, or your character, into the abyss.

Conventional wisdom for characterization is to use character systems, such as mythological gods and goddesses, traditional archetypes, enneagrams, or customized worksheets to define characters.

Nothing wrong with that, as a starting point.

Within every system, there are stock characters. For enneagrams, types include perfectionist, helper, achiever, romantic, observer, questioner, adventurer, asserter, and peacemaker. Flaws and strengths are provided, among other details. (Are you my type, am I yours? by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele, 1995, Harper Collins)
In the archetype book on my shelf, character types are sorted by gender. Heroes can be a chief, bad boy, best friend, charmer, lost soul, professor, swashbuckler, or warrior. Heroines can be a boss, seductress, spunky kid, free spirit, waif, librarian, crusader, or nurturer. Qualities, flaws, backgrounds, and styles are provided for each character type. (The complete writer’s guide to heroes and heroines, sixteen master archetypes, by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders, 2000, Lone Eagle Publishing)
Most systems note that not all characters fit in neat boxes. Some are a mix and match of various types, generating additional possibilities.

Let’s put characterization to the test. Suppose you have a female cop who wants to be well-regarded, productive, and successful. Suppose her career and her life are threatened by another person’s actions. She’s got a code she lives by, but the incident has pushed her into another place, an uncomfortable place where she wants justice and retribution.

How do we get inside her head?
One way is to draw inspiration from real people. We all know someone who has been wronged. How did they react? What kind of things did they say? Did they confide in you? Or, if you felt strongly about an injustice, you can draw from that experience.
The challenge is to let the thoughts, actions, and speech of your character reflect what the character might say, do, or think. In other words, your character needs to stay “in character,” instead of parroting off something you the author might say.

You might also research biographies of people who work in your character’s vocation. Research can be carried further by in-person or online interviews of subject matter experts. You could even volunteer at said occupation for a short period to familiarize yourself with that world. The important thing is to understand the challenges and mindset of people are the most similar to your character.

If your female cop is the heroine, motivate her behavior so that her actions flow from who she is. You don’t want to alienate readers, and today’s readers are very savvy about a great many occupations.

In my upcoming release, Hot Water, Laurie Ann’s law enforcement career is on the line as she helps track a serial arsonist who’s killing people. She wrestles with her conscience, her goals, her very being to solve the case.

In order to pull off her actions during the final confrontation in split-second timing, her motivation and moral compass had to be firmly established earlier. Snips of relevant events woven in here and there help readers to know who she is, to see what she sees.
Does Laurie Ann leap off the page? Absolutely. The life and death stakes she faces push her beyond the bounds of where I the author was comfortable. But I trusted Laurie Ann to react and behave in a manner that remained true to who she is. And she nailed it.

Circling around to establishing character, these are the tips I use:
• Establish a character’s framework;
• Know your character’s governing motivations;
• Paint their world in 3-D brushstrokes, through their eyes;
• Walk in that world wearing their shoes;
• Trust that the character will make appropriate choices;
• Show characterization through setting, action, thought, dialogue, and internal narrative. Layer characterization throughout the book;
• Use secondary characters to further establish the hero or heroine’s character; and
• Trust readers to connect the dots.

***

What do you do to make a character leap off the page?

Uh oh = tomorrow Carlene Love Flores discusses what happens when Grandma gets a Kindle.

***

HotWater_w7663_750HOT WATER

Something evil lurks in this town of secrets.

Solving Mossy Bog’s first fire fatality could net police officer Laurie Ann Dinterman the promotion she desperately wants. When the state arson investigator arrives to take over the case, Laurie Ann is assigned to give the man everything he needs while keeping him alive. The fact he’s the sexiest man ever to hit town shouldn’t make a difference.

Hot on the trail of a serial arsonist, Wyatt North demands justice for his partner, the arsonist’s first victim. He’ll find the murderer or die trying—no matter how distracting the tall, lithe figure of his local partner is.

As the investigation zeroes in on a suspect uncomfortably close to Laurie Ann’s life, her cop instincts conflict with her feelings for Wyatt. Worse, the arsonist will do anything to protect his identity. Can Laurie Ann accept the truth in time…or will she and Wyatt go up in flames?

Bio:

Formerly a contract scientist for the U.S. Army and currently a freelance reporter, romance and mystery author Maggie Toussaint has eight published books. In 2013, two more titles will release: Hot Water, a romantic suspense set in the deep South; and Dime If I Know, book 3 of her Cleopatra Jones mystery series.

Maggie lives in coastal Georgia, where secrets, heritage, and ancient oaks cast long shadows. Yoga, beachcombing, and music are a few of her favorite things. Visit her at www.maggietoussaint.com, http://http://mudpiesandmagnolias.blogspot.com,
http://http://www.facebook.com/MaggieToussaintAuthor, and
http://http://www.twitter.com/MaggieToussaint.

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34 Responses to “She’s a Real Character with Maggie Toussaint”

  1. Great post, Maggie! I don’t think there can be two Maggie Toussaints, but I just want to check – were you at Malice Domestic last year? If so, we sat at the same table one night. I’m so excited to see you here!

    Becke

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 13, 2013, 1:48 am
    • Hi Becke,

      Yes, I was at Malice last year, and I’m delighted to meet up with you again. My upcomoing mystery release won’t come out in time for Malice this year, so I’m headed to Left Coast Crime with Death, Island Style instead. I plan to return to Malice in 2014 with this year’s Sept release of Dime If I Know.

      Gosh, I’m so thrilled you remember me. You made me smile first thing, even before I finished my first cup of tea this morning!

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 13, 2013, 5:01 am
      • Maggie – I went to Left Coast Crime (briefly) when it was in Santa Fe a couple years ago. I wish I could have stayed for the whole conference, but I was on vacation, visiting family in Albuquerque, and I couldn’t desert them.

        Do you have my email address? Shoot me a note (or contact me on Facebook) about your new mystery release. I also moderate the Mystery Forum at Barnes & Noble…

        Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 13, 2013, 9:12 am
  2. Hi, Maggie,

    What a helpful post! Writing well-rounded characters that will appeal to readers is no easy task. However, all of us who write know the importance of this. If a reader doesn’t connect with the central character, then the novel doesn’t work. The character must seem real to us.

    Posted by Jacqueline Seewald | February 13, 2013, 6:27 am
  3. Hi Maggie,

    I don’t always remember titles of books, I remember the characters. Your heroine made me think of J D Robb’s Eve Dallas. She moves through all the books seemlessly because she is so well written.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 13, 2013, 6:44 am
    • Hey Mary Jo,

      Gosh, I am beyond flattered you compared my work to that of JD Robb. I love the Eve Dallas book, and I love how she stays true to herself, no matter what. Eve Dallas certainly leaps off the page. I feel like I know her. I hope that folks will feel the same way about my characters.

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 13, 2013, 8:14 am
  4. It’s ALL about the characters for me. And a perk of writing/reading series is you have so much more time to watch them grow. I agree with Mary Jo that JD Robb’s “In Death” series is anchored by its characters.

    Posted by Terry Odell | February 13, 2013, 8:04 am
    • Good to see you here, Terry.

      One of the first thing I did as I learned to write fiction was to create a checklist. I looked for these things: character, setting, plot, and satisfying ending. You may notice a lot is missing from that list, but only the character part is relevant here. I would check my manuscript to see that I had characters acting out the plot and that they were moving around in the setting, then I’d check off the character box. (Yes, I have characters) I didn’t know the first thing about motivation, about inner narrative, and effective dialogue, about anything really. I learned through the school of hard knocks that characters were so much more than that. Live and learn!

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 13, 2013, 8:21 am
  5. I usually based a character [vaguely / visually] on someone I know, but I can see I need to nail down their characters more purposefully.

    Love the cover.
    Thank you.

    Posted by Maddy | February 13, 2013, 8:22 am
    • Hi Maddy,

      I like using a visual aid to help me see a character. Sometimes I’ll snip out magazine pictures or surf online until I find something that’s so typical of my character. Since I need to see something, that gives me a jump start into Wonderland. But oftenitmes, knowing how someone looks isn’t the same as knowing how they will act. And I find it more interesting if characters act a bit out of the ordinary. So I keep layering on attributes, strengths, and flaws as I go, though its best to have all that done up front. I write in a modified outline/discovery process, so I don’t often know who the bad guy is until the end of the book. Makes coming to the keyboard every day an adventure! So happy to have you visit me here.

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 13, 2013, 10:10 am
  6. Morning Maggie!

    Great post! I admit to struggling a bit with author intrusion on my characters….at least until about chapter 3 or 4 of the rough draft…THEN they finally start to take over! Until then, they’re a bit murky.

    I do use the 16 Master Archetypes as a starting point for my characters though…it gives me a great base to start from.

    Do you use character sheets to keep track of your characters? Or do they just come to life in your mind….=)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 13, 2013, 8:26 am
    • Hi Carrie,

      Using character archetypes are a great way to jumpstart the characterization process. I usually find my characters show their true colors under adverse circumstances, so I like to push them as soon as possible. And given that shove into trouble, the characters shove back and start acting like anyone you’ve crowded into a corner.

      I don’t have a set worksheet I use, but I do have a Word file about each main character. That helps me to keep details straight, and when I get stuck, that file has a ton of info regarding strengths and weaknesses that direct actions during conflict.

      But don’t worry if you don’t have a clear picture at first. The important thing is to get that first draft out. Then you can keep buffing up the characterization as you edit.

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 13, 2013, 10:16 am
  7. Great post! I love how you break the steps down for us. So helpful!

    Posted by Niecey | February 13, 2013, 8:40 am
  8. Hi Maggie, I really enjoyed your post. How to get down a believable and interesting character on paper is something I’ve been mulling over a lot recently. When I was writing my last book, I had no problems at all with my heroine, but quite honestly, my hero was deathly dull. It’s funny, Carrie has noticed the same thing as I’ve found – it’s not until chapter 3 or 4 that evertyhing finally comes together. It’s a great moment! Writing my present book, I struggled again. The characters were flat and dull on the page. Then all of a sudden, last night as I lay in bed, I suddenly heard them talking. Aha! It seems from experience that I have to keep writing pages and pages of dialogue until finally my characters seem to come alive of their own accord. This is how I do it, and I was very interested to see how someone else works!

    Posted by Helena Fairfax | February 13, 2013, 8:45 am
    • Hi Helena,

      Great comment. And I want to add, because I didn’t quality my remarks earlier, that there is no one right way to do anything writing-wise. If your characters step off the page about chapter 3 or 4, then that’s what it is.

      If you’re like me, by the time I finish a book, my characters are flesh and blood real to me. Then we sort of divorce each other as I take up with a new set of made-up people. And each time I make that step into a new story world, I wonder how will these characters react. For me it’s like stepping into a room of strangers. We don’t know how we will get on at all. But we work together for months and finally get it all own.

      And here’s a random tip for a dull character. Go back to where you liked him or her, then identify where you think he dulled out. At that point, change what he says or does to the opposite. If he’s planning to go to work that day, have him play hookey and get caught. Allow them to make some bad choices, as long as it is relevant to the plot. Thanks for your comment. Nice to meet you!

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 13, 2013, 10:24 am
  9. Excellent post, Maggie. When I get in a fix, as Suzanne Brockmann suggested in a workshop, I insert the word “I” for the character, which ensures I use deep pov. So proud of you and wish you ever success! *Hugs*

    Posted by Diana Cosby | February 13, 2013, 10:51 am
    • Hey Diana,

      That’s a really great tip, Diana. Going into deep POV really grounds a reader into the moment, helps them to feel the emotion in a way that, hopefully, grips them and won’t let go. Thanks for taking the time to swing by today. I thoroughly enjoyed your post yesterday.

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 13, 2013, 1:24 pm
  10. Love the cover for Hot Water! It’s always fascinating to hear how characters come alive for the writer, because they have to come alive for us in order to do the same for the reader. I usually get to know my characters in my head for a while before I start writing – feel them out, have some conversations, put them with the other main character and let them chat. Once they’ve come alive for me, I write them down, whether in a scene or a list. Thanks for the great detail

    Posted by Anonymous | February 13, 2013, 12:35 pm
    • Sorry, I typed my comment before filling out my name info! :)

      Posted by Melissa Fox | February 13, 2013, 12:36 pm
    • Hi Melissa,

      Did you have flying fingers? I get going on things and forget to check to see if I’ve done everything. You’d think I’d stop and look it over, but no, I’m rushing on to the next thing. Worse, I need to have spellcheck in my fingertips because they aren’t waiting for the brain to catch up.

      That is a great cover. I am tickled pink, er, fire engine red, about it.

      I like your suggestion about getting your characters together and having them interact off-stage, so to speak, before you start your story. That’s a tip worth remembering.

      I’m glad to see you. Thanks for both comments!

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 13, 2013, 1:27 pm
  11. Thank you to everyone for all the comments and thanks to Romance University for hosting me here today. I enjoyed the interaction and hope to have the opportunity to return.

    Happy Valentine’s Day, all!

    Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 13, 2013, 6:52 pm
  12. Great post, Maggie, and so very true. The books that I love best are those with great characters, even if the plot is a bit over used.

    Posted by Keena Kincaid | February 13, 2013, 8:36 pm
  13. Hi Maggie
    Loved the post and agree about how it all works, but I could no sooner sit down and invent a character than fly to the moon. You made me think about how I do it and I honestly haven’t the faintest idea. They seem to just happen.
    Oh well, if it works, don’t fix it!

    Posted by Jenny Twist | February 14, 2013, 4:52 am
  14. Maggie, late as usual, but I loved this post. It’s so essential for characters to be who THEY are, not who the author is, and that can be hard. Excellent point.

    I like to carry my characters with me and think about what I’m doing through their eyes. Even washing dishes is different with different characters. Do they pile up? Do they always get done immediately with an always spit-shined sink? Somewhere between? Glass or plastic? Matched or mis-matched? Is washing a chore or relaxing? We should know these things about at least our main characters.

    Posted by LK Hunsaker | February 14, 2013, 11:22 am
    • Hi Loraine,

      You write deep characters that stay with me long after I finish your books, so you could probably teach me a thing or two about characterization. I’ve noticed, over the years, such a difference in how my husband and I do the dishes. He’s very thorough about emptying the sink and filling the dishwasher. Jis level of follow-through in other areas of tidying up the kitchen stop right there. but I’ve learned not to look a gift horse in the mouth. We are all characters, aren’t we?

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 14, 2013, 1:05 pm
  15. Maggie, great post. There’s lots of good information there. I agree – you’ve got to have good, solid characters for a great story. I much prefer character driven stories and watching their journey than a plot driven story.

    Smiles
    Steph

    Posted by Stephanie Burkhart | February 14, 2013, 1:11 pm
  16. Hi Steph,

    Thanks for swinging by and sharing your views. Character-driven stories are very gripping, I agree.

    Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 14, 2013, 1:41 pm
  17. Thanks, once again, Romance University for having me here. It’s been a blast!

    Posted by Maggie Toussaint | February 14, 2013, 1:42 pm
  18. Excellent post, Maggie. Characters are what we remember most from our favorite books and movies.

    Posted by Cheryl Norman | February 18, 2013, 7:38 am

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