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 see 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.
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?
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,
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