Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mary Jane Maffini on Choosing a Character

The Dating Game: on choosing a character (again!)

“I love you!”
Oh those magic words. Many of us are inclined to fall head over heels when a certain someone comes along. That’s how all those spouses, partners and significant others turn up in our lives. What else would explain the socks on the floor? We soldier on together making memories, children, and lives based on this romantic spark.

But authors beware! You may think that you have control over your characters. Think again. Choosing a character is a ‘dating’ situation that can turn you into a great team when it goes well or a life sentence with no parole when it doesn’t. You have to choose with care. You too could be stuck with an aging alcoholic hack that can’t follow orders or keep a relationship going or even fill out an essential piece of paperwork. What? Oh. Right. That has been done successfully, many times. Fine. Never mind.

Here’s the thing: a main character has to be flawed enough not to be annoying, but not too flawed to remain interesting over time. You wouldn’t like readers to feel like slapping her every time she opens her mouth to hiccup. That character has to be interesting and distinct, without being weird and unlikable. You not only have to count on her (or him – although I mostly deal in ‘her’) in the darkest hour to save whatever needs saving, but then she also has to keep everyone awake for the first two hundred and twenty pages of your book. That’s one serious job description.

When you pick a character for a series, you will stuck for the life of that series. It’s a really big help if you find that personality fascinating. If you don’t, your readers sure won’t. I should know about these commitments. I have three main characters in three series. They all have their flaws, warts and weak points. If I were starting over, I might make a few changes. Let them have a love life for one thing. They might be more cheerful.

Now I am asking myself the key questions: What baggage does this new person bring with them? Are there relatives who will be demanding time and scenes in every book? Will these hangers-on be nattering and complaining about dishes in the sink?

What about bad habits? Running red lights? Secret smoking? Voting record? Readers are getting sooo politically correct lately.

Then there’s that tendency to hang about in graveyards at midnight, no longer acceptable in even the most amateur of sleuths. Any sign of that? What’s the balance of common sense and audacity?

Food preferences can also be a problem: I think I’ve run through ice cream in all its variants. What’s left? Borscht? As for pets, will they show up with a parrot/ferret/python/armadillo? Who will look after that critter when the sleuth is handcuffed to the plumbing in the public library? So much to worry about.

Call me a serial monogamist when it comes to my characters. I love them, of course, and I am faithful when I’m writing each one, but every now and then, I feel like a fling. Is that so wrong?

Now that Closet Confidential my latest Charlotte Adams book is on the shelves in Canada and the USA and the final polishing is being done to The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder (April 2011), I’m starting to look around.

I’m pondering the pitfalls of a new character relationship, because I’m about to embark on a new series with Berkley Prime Crime writing collaboratively with my daughter, Victoria. We’ll be writing as Victoria Abbott and we’ll have two protagonists. I understand that I’ll get the crotchety older homebound obsessive book collector and she’ll get the younger, hip, graduate student who chases down the elusive collectables. She presumably trips over the bodies and has all the fun of being on the road. No doubt people will flirt with her and more. I just hope she doesn’t pick up a python.

Wish us luck in this new venture! For all my worry about dating the right characters, I think we are off to a great new adventure together.

It’s been fun pondering characters here on Type M. Thanks to Vicki Delany for inviting me to be a guest and thanks to the rest of you who dropped by.

But enough about me, what do you love in a character? And what turns you off?

Mary Jane Maffini is a lapsed librarian, a former mystery bookstore owner and a lifelong lover of mysteries. She is a former President of Crime Writers of Canada and served two terms on the board of directors of the Canadian Booksellers Association. In addition to the four Charlotte Adams books, she is the author of the Camilla MacPhee series, the Fiona Silk adventures and nearly two dozen short stories. She has won two Arthur Ellis awards for best mystery short story as well as the Crime Writers of Canada Derrick Murdoch award and was nominated for a Barry Award in 2006.

Her latest Charlotte Adams book is Closet Confidential (Berkley Prime Crime, July 2010). She says she’s grateful for all the tips she gets from Charlotte. Mary Jane is a frequent speaker on crime fiction, Canadian mysteries and the writing process. She lives and plots in Ottawa, Ontario, along with her long-suffering husband and two princessy dachshunds. Visit her at


Kaye Barley said...

Great Post!
and oh boy, oh boy.
Mary Jane - the new collaboration sounds divine; and I can hardly wait.

Heather Webber said...

I'm really looking forward to reading some Victoria Abbott novels! Congrats again to you and your daughter.

Your post today is very timely for me. I'm working on new proposal and trying to find those non-annoying quirks for not one but three characters (sisters). Is it wrong that I'm thinking about killing one of them off before I even start the book?

Erika Chase said...

Enjoyed reading your comments on characters, esp. their bad habits. Congratulations to Victoria Abbott -- I know it will be a fabulous series. I hear that writing under a pseudonym can lead to a split personality...what happens when the pseud. is also split? Happy writing you two (or four?).

Dru said...

Great post. I'm excited about the new book you and your daughter are working on.

I like my characters to be real with flaws, hang-ups and what life brings to her door.

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks, Kaye. You know you'll be in the loop. And Heather, I'll be interested to find out if you actually kill off one of the characters before the story starts.

As for you, mysterious,Erika, what can I say?

Dru, I like that 'whatever life brings to her door'! We do want that in a sleuth.

Thanks for dropping by!

Peggy Baker said...

Witty and educational on how you get those wonderful deep characters we espect from you. Even down to Sweet Marie and Truffles (How DID you name them?:))
Will stand in line to get the Victoria Abbot start!
Peggy Baker
Glencoe Wordsmithing

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks, Peggy! That's very kind. Nice to see you here and glad you'll welcome Victoria Abbott too.


Anonymous said...

Since I am still developing my characters, this is timely for me too. Thanks, and I'll look forward to your and the new novels. -- Brenda

Anonymous said...

Excuse the typos! Brenda

M said...

Thanks, Brenda. Good luck with your novel. Let me know how it goes!


Charlotte Adams mysteries

Mare F said...

I think you've done a lovely job the characters that I've read. I'm still missing one series, but it gives me something to look forward to reading. LOL. It was very interesting to read about your concerns. I thought that your characters just walked in, sat down, and became, well, your inspiration. Once again, I guessed wrong. LOL. Really looking forward to your new series.

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks, Mare. I always love your perspective on things. See you back at 'the armchair'!

Rick Blechta said...

I waited until there were a dozen responses so that I could be the 13th. Thanks for the contribution, MJ!

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