Evolution of a Bad Guy

Maggie Toussaint

When I began plotting my second paranormal mystery, Bubba Done It, I knew one thing for sure. All the suspects had the nickname of Bubba. Other than that, I didn’t have a clue.

Bubba Done It

Before I could cast men in the suspect roles, I considered my setting and the types of characters I needed. I’m familiar with the setting as I use a fictional locale that’s similar to where I live in coastal Georgia. We have townies and imports. We have people with plenty and people with nothing. We have blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, even Native Americans. We have a stalled economy and our share of foreclosures.

All of the top suspects needed a motive to kill the banker. Some motives I considered were previous criminal record, financial trouble, and love.

The sheriff immediately adds four Bubbas to his suspect list. Since seafood is the main industry around here, it would be good to have a fisherman Bubba. I also wanted someone who’d moved to the county as a retiree, someone who didn’t quite get locals or their customs. That worked. Two Bubbas down, two to go.

Drugs are a universal problem in today’s world. I decided upon a Bubba with a bad track record as a crackhead, but who had allegedly reformed into an evangelist.

Lastly, I wanted to ensure my sleuth Baxley Powell had a definite call to action. She’d taken the heat in Book 1 as the top suspect, so for Book 2, I found a patsy in her brother-in-law. Why would he want to kill the banker? Baxley knew her Bubba was a dreamer who often needed money for get-rich-quick ventures. Baxley and her husband had bailed Bubba Powell out of financial scrapes for years.

With her husband dead, the task of saving Bubba fell to Baxley. She’s certain he couldn’t have done it.

Or at least she feels that way at first. With each layer of story revealed, she discovers more reasons for the Bubbas to have killed the banker. Her challenge is to sort through the evidence, in this world and the next, to finger the killer.

To summarize:
Populate your suspect list with characters fitting to your setting and situation.
Give the suspects motives to kill your victim.
Layer the suspects’ relationship with the victim to create complex characters.
Make sure the sleuth has a clear call to action.

Buy links for Bubba Done It:
Kindle
Amazon hardcover
B&N hardcover

Connect with Maggie on the web:
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MaggieToussaint_LargeSouthern author Maggie Toussaint is published in mystery, romantic suspense, and science fiction (writing as Rigel Carson). The third book in her Cleopatra Jones mystery series recently won the Silver Falchion Award, while her romances have won the National Readers’ Choice Award and the EPIC eBook Award for Romantic Suspense. Her latest mystery is a book two of her paranormal cozy series about a psychic sleuth, Bubba Done It.

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The 30-Minute Character Generator

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 8.15.22 AMI know some artistes rebel at the idea of systematization. But if the system is designed to unleash your imagination and send it running in productive directions, I say go for it. All the time.

You don’t want to be sitting around waiting for a Muse to start dancing.

Before I can begin to write anything, I have to know who my story is about. I’ll have a concept. I need a character. A Lead.

But I don’t want to take a lot of time doing so. I don’t want to spend weeks creating a whole history of this character’s life. I’ve never found that effective.

So I’ve come up with a 30-minute character generator. It’s a system. It gets me excited enough to start on that story journey. The system is made up of three things: a visual, a voice, and a vision.

  1. Visual – 10 minutes

Start with a look. For me, a character does not begin to take shape until I can see him.

I want to look at my character’s face and see some mystery and a suggestion of stuff happening below the surface.

There are two things I do.

First, I spend several minutes on the internet looking at images. I find a few that set something off in me, drag them to my desktop, and look at them later.

I use Google Images. I find it has more variety than, say, iStockphoto. Since I’m not going to be using these except for my own reference, there’s no copyright issue.

When I put in a search term, I use an emotional tag rather than something generic. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say my Lead is a successful businesswoman. If I just search for “businesswoman” I get all sorts of publicity style photos––smiling, confident and posed. Nuts to that.

My novel is a thriller, so I want my Lead to be troubled.

Thus, I might type “unhappy woman” or “stressed woman.” (You’ll notice that when you do this, Google Images suggests other types of searches in their top bar. Nice of them to help!)

Find faces that stir something inside you. The best is when you think “Aha! That’s her!”

The second thing I do is use my love of classic movies to think of my Lead being played by any actor from the past I choose.

For my businesswoman, suppose I think of her as Bette Davis? Or Kate Winslet?

If I like that, I can always find a head shot of that actor and use it for my model. The reader will never know.

I usually find my headshot in under ten minutes. Then I put it into my character file on Scrivener. The nice thing about Scrivener is that you can look at all your characters on a corkboard when you’re ready to roll.

  1. Voice – 10 minutes

Next, I spend at least ten minutes creating a Voice Journal. This is a free-form document in the character’s voice, talking to me. Sometimes I prompt the character with questions. Other times I let the character ramble.

I just keep typing until the character sounds like someone other than me.

Which is the key. This is where the character begins to “take on life.”

Here is a bit of the Voice Journal for Sister Justicia Marie, the Lead in my Force of Habit series:

I don’t go around looking for bad things to happen. They just seem to. Yes, I live in L.A., I know all about it, oh yes, you know my story. I was supposed to be living the dream. I was making five million a picture when I was ten. Somebody told me I was the new Shirley Temple and I Force_1looked at him and said, “That curly-headed little snot can eat my shorts.”

I actually said that. Dear Lord, forgive me for that. Forgive me for the whole of my teenage years!

But now am I in the grip of another sin? Am I wrong, my Lord, for wanting to stop bad thing from happening? Even if I have to kick in somebody’s face?

Are you calling me, Lord? Am I Joan of Arc or Joan the crazy lady who shouts in the park?

Ten minutes of voice journaling always brings happy surprises. I may continue to add to this journal from time to time during my writing or planning, fleshing out more of my character if I see the need.

  1. Vision – 10 minutes

Finally, I want to get to the heart of my character. I want to know what the character thinks most deeply about as the story begins. What is her trajectory? Her yearning? Her vision for her life?

No character in your novel should start as a blank slate.

We know that Luke Skywalker, like most farm boys, yearns for a life of adventure. He looks out at the sky, dreaming of becoming a Jedi. But the practicalities of life with his Aunt and Uncle prevent it.

Scarlett O’Hara’s vision is to become a fine, Southern lady married to a noble Southern gentleman named Ashley Wilkes. Boy, is she in for a shock.

The vision is not always a pleasant one. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games sees no hope in the future. Her vision is for survival in the daily, dismal world of Panem. Her daily life is taken up with the care of her mother and sister. She tells her friend Gale she never wants to have kids. Will anything in the story change her outlook?

Spend ten minutes exploring your Lead’s vision just before your story begins. Ask yourself how the story will frustrate, challenge, or redeem the vision.

You can do this same 30-minute exercise for your other main characters, too.

The result will be a full-blooded cast. You can start writing now, letting the characters grow organically. Or you can do more planning and backstory if that’s your preference.

Either way, the 30-Minute Character Generator will give you a solid foundation for bringing original, unforgettable characters to your novel.

Which is kind of a nice thing.

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Religion in Mysteries

While at Malice, I was on a panel about Religion in Mysteries. It’s a topic I really hadn’t thought about before. So how do mystery writers handle this subject? Fellow panelists were authors whose protagonists included a hospital chaplain (Mindy Quigley), a minister (Stephanie Jaye Evans), a rabbi (Ilene Schneider), and a Scotland Yard Detective (Anne Cleeland).

clergy  priest  rabbi

What made my series different was that my sleuth Marla is a hairdresser. As I told the crowd, women see their stylists a lot more often than their clergymen. They willingly confide in their hairdressers and overhear juicy conversations in the salon, whereas people confess to priests or to chaplains on their deathbeds. So while people approach the ministry to be absolved for their sins, Marla has to worm their secrets out of them. Thank goodness she’s a skilled conversationalist.

The moderator posed some interesting questions. If those other protags were not clergy, would it matter to the series? And if my heroine was more religious, how would that change things? Ask yourself this question about your main character. In Marla’s case, it would make a big difference. She’s not particularly religious but she has a basic belief in Judaism and follows the traditional holidays. As the series progresses, so does her romantic relationship with Detective Dalton Vail who isn’t Jewish. This probably wouldn’t happen if she were more devout. They enter into an interfaith marriage where they respect each other’s traditions and beliefs.

Here’s another question to pose to your characters: How does their view of religion color their view of the world? Marla’s outlook is more expansive. She encompasses other viewpoints with tolerance and understanding. A priest or rabbi’s attitude will be focused on their own kind, while a hospital chaplain has to minister to patients of all faiths.

What role does religion play in your books? Is it a central or peripheral part of your plot? Does religion influence your protagonists’ search for justice?

How important are your protagonists’ careers to the stories? Would the slant be different if they were police professionals or hairdressers or members of the clergy?

Do holidays play a role in your stories? I’ve had Passover, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and New Year’s in my series, if you count the book I just turned in. Holidays in my books are where friends and families gather and where their ties are strengthened. But you could easily have a contentious family gathering where tensions escalate instead.

seder table    seder wine

Perhaps this thematic content is something you haven’t considered before. But as a writer, your views of religion and sense of right from wrong color your perceptions. Do they influence your protagonist’s view as well?

Read my report on Malice 2015 here: Malice 2015

Contest Alert!
Enter May 7– 21 to win a signed copy of bestselling author Joanna Campbell Slan’s historical mystery, Death of a Dowager, and a $15 FANDANGO gift card to enjoy a movie this summer. Two runners-up will each win an ebook copy of Hair Raiser (Bad Hair Day Mystery #2). http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

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Character Development from the Heart

Welcome to guest author Joanna Campbell Slan. Joanna is the creator of three mystery series and winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Literary Excellence. She has been a television talk show host, an adjunct professor of public relations, a sought-after motivational speaker, and a corporate speechwriter.

Tell Me Who You Love: Character Development from the Heart
Joanna Campbell Slan

Here’s the Test

There’s an old adage: “Tell me who you love and I’ll tell you who you are.” It’s a great test to apply to our characters. Ask yourself, “Who or what does my character love?”

What Characters Are Driven to Do

Love is not only powerful; it also makes fools out of most of us. As authors we can use this primal drive to explain situations that would otherwise seem absurd.

Think back to Gone with the Wind. In the book, it’s Scarlett’s love for Tara that compels her to marry one unsuitable man after another. It’s her love of family that sends this fragile flower out into the fields to work like a common laborer. And her love of Ashley Wilkes forces her to remain beside his wife, Melanie, even as the Yankees approach.

Love Causes Conflicts of All Sizes

We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but love for life’s small pleasures can also cause our characters problems. Kiki Lowenstein loves food. Especially desserts. In many of my Kiki books, this amateur sleuth’s attention gets side-tracked when someone waves a particularly luscious treat under her nose. In one book, a nasty crafter ruins Kiki’s artwork while Kiki is too busy eating a gingerbread cupcake to keep an eye on her materials.

Telling Versus Showing

Of course, it’s not enough to tell our readers that our character loves someone or something. We have to show this emotion in practice. One way is by forcing our characters to make tough choices. When Cara Mia Delgatto adopts a Chihuahua with a broken leg, she doesn’t need one more complication in her life. However, she’s willing to adjust her world to accommodate the ailing pup because he’s a rescue dog, and Cara is all about second chances.

How our characters spend their time is another way we show what they value. If a character doesn’t spend time with his children, readers might assume they aren’t an important part of that character’s life. However, if a tattered family photo falls out of the character’s wallet as he pulls out a dollar bill, we have to believe his children matter, but something keeps him away from them.

Characters can demonstrate their love by their reactions. Perhaps your character’s voice changes when he’s talking to his wife. Or maybe your protagonist gets teary-eyed when coming across a man’s jacket in her closet. These responses show the reader a powerful emotion at work.

The next time you create a character, ask yourself who or what this particular player loves. Make a list. Using what you learn will help you build a more realistic, well-rounded character that readers will relate to.

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JoannaSlanJoanna Campbell Slan is the national bestselling and award-winning award of twenty-books, both fiction and non-fiction. She has taught writing at Illinois State University, to executives at large corporations, and through Internet courses. She currently writes two mystery series.

Contact her at http://www.JoannaSlan.com or http://www.fb.com/JoannaCampbellSlan

 

 

TearDownandDieThe first book in her newest series is Tear Down and Die (Book #1 in the Cara Mia Delgatto Mystery Series/4.8 out of 5 stars). http://www.amazon.com/Tear-Down-Delgatto-Mystery-Series-ebook/dp/B00H5R8LK2/ref=pd_sim_b_5?ie=UTF8&refRID=1PBTAGS96KEWBVZ3TNB7 or http://tinyurl.com/TearDD

 

 

Contest Alert! Enter May 7– 21 to win a signed copy of bestselling author Joanna Campbell Slan’s historical mystery, Death of a Dowager, and a $15 FANDANGO gift card to enjoy a movie this summer. http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

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Internal Conflict

Nancy J. Cohen

When developing your characters, you’ll want to give them internal conflicts as well as external ones. What do we mean by this? The internal conflict is an emotional struggle that inhibits your protagonist from moving on. He could have trouble taking the next step to get a job promotion, making a commitment to his girlfriend, or deepening his relationship with his estranged father. Often something in his past has caused this crisis of confidence, and he can’t see his way past it. Adding these internal conflicts gives your characters added depth. It’s not only about fighting the bad guys. It’s also about fighting one’s inner demons. For examples, look at popular movies and TV shows that have captured your attention. Take notes on what bothers each of the characters. Here are some examples:

Outlander

Outlander3

Claire is forced to hide her knowledge in a land ruled by superstition.
Jamie is torn between his gentler instincts for Claire and his cultural expectations of a husband’s role in marriage.
Claire is torn between her love for two men.
Claire wants to go home but that means leaving Jamie.

Outlander1  Outlander2

Dig

Dig

The main character wrestles with guilt and grief over his daughter’s death while trying to prevent Armageddon. The bad guys exploit this weakness by luring him with a woman who resembles the dead girl.

Lord of the Rings

Lord Rings

Son seeks approval and recognition from father who favors his brother.
Man struggles against the pull of corruption.
Woman wants to fight in a world that belongs to man.
Woman loves man who loves another woman.
Woman must give up her station in life (or special power) to be with the man she loves.
Man fears he will succumb to the same weakness as his father. (This also applies to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He fears turning to the dark side like his father.)

Battlestar Galactica

Galactica

Man blames father for the death of his brother. He’s unable to forgive.
Female hero has had to work hard to prove herself. This means hiding her vulnerability.
A man who traded sex for secrets discovers he’s responsible for the world’s destruction.
A woman who is dying from cancer is forced to take charge.

It helps in determining a character’s internal conflict if you examine their past history. What happened to motivate their present behavior? What is inhibiting them from emotional growth? How will your character overcome this hang-up? Layer in your motivation, and you’ll have a richer story.

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