Friday, May 30, 2008

Seekerville Welcomes Author Debby Mayne

Who ARE Those People?


Why do people read?
Most people read to find out what happens to the characters. The events by themselves have very little meaning until you insert the people who inhabit the story. As a reader, you want to get into the head and skin of the characters in the book. As an author, you want to give your reader the tools to do this. As in everything in the arts, there are many “right” ways to write a book. The best way to find your own style and fine-tune your craft is to read, listen, watch, and experiment with different techniques and formats to see how you can best perfect your own skills. However, there is one constant in storytelling, and that is the act of making your characters come to life so your reader loses herself in the book.

Real people vs. story people:

What is the difference? In real life, people are confusing, inconsistent, and sometimes do things without reason. They do things “out of character” and react in implausible ways. However, if your story people do this, you run the risk of angering your reader. You can still have a character doing something confusing or inconsistent, but you must have a reason for them to act this way. “Just because” is fine for real life but not in fiction.

How do you reveal who your character is?

You can show description, actions, likes and dislikes, interests, manner of speaking, and innermost thoughts. The best way to reveal a character is showing what he sees from his worldview. Study and understand point of view so your reader will know your characters.

What is your story about?
Are you telling a story about a bomb exploding, or is it about what happens to the victims of the explosion? What do you think is more important to your reader—the plot or the people? If someone drops a bomb on an empty warehouse with no one in it, who really cares? That’s just collateral or material damage to a building and its contents. However, if there are people in there, you have a story—or probably dozens or even hundreds of stories with built-in plots. Does everyone get killed? If so, who do they leave behind? If you’re not telling a ghost story, the plot is probably built around the survivors and their reactions. Does anyone survive the bombing? If so, their stories might be the most interesting. What are the obstacles and issues they now have to deal with?

Which do you plan first—character or plot?

There’s no right or wrong way to do this, so you need to come up with what drives your story and has the most impact. I generally know my characters, what motivates them, and work my plot around that. It helps me keep the story alive and prevents me from getting off-track. It makes my story more plausible and sympathetic.

How do I get to know my characters?

I do a combination of things. I do some geometry—either a triangle for a short story or a diamond for a longer story or book. The protagonists have major character traits listed on the points—mostly positive but with one negative. The antagonists have mostly negative but with one positive. There are sub-traits on the lines between the points, and depending on the importance of each character, I fill in what I need. Then I interview them and find out what drives them, what motivates them, and their worldview.

Character motivation
What motivates the character to speak, act, or react the way she does? Was it something in her childhood, or in the case of romance, was a former heartbreak the cause of her not being ready to find love again? Character motivation is the catalyst that can help form the plot or subplot of your story.

Character conflict
During the character interview, I find out what comforts as well as what bothers my character the most. I use characterization to create the conflict rather than the other way around. Can you create the conflict first then insert the characters? Absolutely. Just make sure you define your character well enough to justify why this person is in this particular story.

Power to the people

I like to give my characters the power to take my stories where they naturally need to go with only a little bit of guidance from me. When I do my homework on the front end, the rest of my job is much easier and more rewarding. The story almost writes itself.

You want 3-Dimensional characters

Give your character some depth. Your character’s beliefs, innermost thoughts (whether they’re right or wrong), and everything that drives him make up your 3-D character. Allowing your reader to get into the head and skin of the character will keep her turning pages with anticipation.

Is it ever okay to have Cardboard characters?

Yes, but never the hero, heroine, important secondary characters, or villain. The man on the street who smiles at your protagonist can be one-dimensional in the story. He serves his purpose if your heroine is having a particularly bad day, and all she needs is positive affirmation. The traffic cop who keeps the hero from being where he needs to be doesn’t need to be fully fleshed out unless he has another part in the story.

Power of the senses
How do you show who your characters are without simply listing traits? Use the senses. Does your hero pause before jumping out of the airplane when the frigid air smacks him in the face? When your villain enters the victim’s house, does the aroma of fresh-baked cookies accost his senses and momentarily bring him back to a happy time before his mother left home and never came back? Does the heroine who’s coming home after a long absence stop on the edge of town and take in the view of the skyline, which allows a flood of memories to remind her of all the things she left behind?


Have you ever heard that you’re judged by the company you keep? There’s some truth to that. Look at who your characters hang out with and who they avoid. Do your characters have friends who appear to be polar opposites for balance, or do they show up on the page when you need someone to bounce ideas off of. You might even use an association as a device to relay information to your reader through dialogue. Just make sure it makes sense for your character to have these associations.

Character definition
Characters are defined by their innermost thoughts, feelings, and motivations. They are defined by their associations. The characters in your story are defined by your reader’s opinions and reactions, so be wise in how you draw and paint your characters.

Here’s a review of the way I begin working on characterization before writing the first word of my books:

1. Decide on the genre. This affects characterization because of reader expectations and knowing what traits to bring out to the reader.

2. Character triangle or diamond for primary characters and villains.

3. Interview questions.

Basic Character interview questions to start with
You can ask as many questions as you want before starting your story. There’s a balance between asking enough to get what you need and asking too many that give you an excuse to procrastinate. Here are a few to start with:
  1. How does your physical appearance affect you? The blue eyes and red hair are physical traits, but how do they affect the character? If the character is unattractive, maybe she feels the need to fade into the woodwork. How does your physical appearance affect others? Perhaps the character’s physical beauty gives people the impression that’s all she has going on. Or maybe people are jealous.
  2. How do you relate to your family? Were you a mama’s boy or a daddy’s girl? Do you currently have a good relationship, or are you estranged?
  3. Educational level? Do you have your doctorate, or did you drop out of high school? How do you think this relates to how you perceive yourself or how others perceive you? Are you proud or ashamed of your educational level? Do people assume that just because you have a PhD, you’re smart? Or if you dropped out of high school, do people think you’re not intelligent?
  4. Do you have a mission? What are you willing to do to accomplish this mission? Erin Brokovich is an example of a character whose mission drives the story.
  5. What do you want more than anything else? What are you willing to do to get it?
  6. What are your strengths? How have you used them?
  7. Your weaknesses? What do you do to overcome them?
  8. What do you want to improve or change? If you don’t want to improve or change, why not?
  9. What do you look for in a friend or romantic interest? What do you avoid?

Those are 9 major questions with sub-questions. Add more that you feel will bring out your characters.

Once you know your characters, the plot often shows itself in a way you wouldn’t have thought of before. Knowing your characters allows you to draw the reader into the story without feeling forced or false. Without characterization, most books would seem flat, clinical, or textbook-ish. Work on characterization in your stories, and you’ll add depth. Your story will come to life, and your readers won’t be able to put down the book.
Debby Mayne is the author of 11 books and 5 novellas published by Barbour and Avalon Books. Her 2007 Barbour novel Double Blessing was voted second favorite in the contemporary category among Heartsong Presents book club readers. She is the mother of 2 grown daughters and wife of an avid golfer who keeps bringing home trophies for her to dust. In addition to writing novels, Debby is an instructor with Long Ridge Writers Group and judge for Writer’s Digest contests.

Debby will be giving away a copy of one of her new releases, If the Dress Fits, to one of our Friday Seekerville posters. Please leave a contact email address. A winner will be selected at 8 p.m. MT.


  1. Welcome to Seekerville, Debby. Wow, I just realized how long Debby and I have known each other.

    Great post and awesome book covers. I especially LOVE the bridal cover. Just lovely.

  2. Thanks Debby for the insight into creating charactors. I love this site as I learn alot about what it takes to be a writer and what goes into the books I then read.I am sure I have read some of your novella's as I enjoy them for something easy to read.

  3. Debby, what an insightful post. I wasn't a bit surprised to see you were an instructor in the end notes because you laid out the framework perfectly.

    Thanks so much for the in-depth look at building characters. I found reminders and tidbits of long-lost wisdom in there.

    Hey, Tina, did you bring the coffee?

    If not, I've got a Dunkin Donuts box of coffee on order. I couldn't figure out how to get the coffee service that far west by morning, you know? My aging Altima doesn't motor that fast and gas is a killer right now.

    So breakfast on DD...

    They're bringing donuts and bagels, coffee and fixings.

    Deb, help yourself, sit back and enjoy the day.


  4. Thank you Debby. I'm curious, do I have to belong to a book club in order to buy a Heartsong?

  5. Hi, everyone!

    Tina, we've known each other for how long? About 15 years? Or was I supposed to divulge that age-telling info?

    I haven't had my coffee yet, so please forgive anything I say that doesn't make sense.

    Jessica, you can buy the Heartsong Presents books by going to Barbour's Heartsong Presents website:

  6. Heartsong presents are books we can get in Australia at word and Koorong but they dont have the whole range. Heartsong presents also makes it easier for an overseas reader to buy the books. you have to set up automatic credit card payments and they send them to you but you only pay each shipment at a time which makes it so much easier.
    Im joined up for the cozy mystery books. but I do often buy the heartsong presents books when in the city (and the novella's)
    (on that note im off to bed to do some reading)

  7. Ah, characterization....just when I needed it most. Thanks for the great insight.

    Like Tina, I love the Bridal cover.
    And Ruthy, I work for Nissan, so if you need an unagaing Altima....

  8. Thanks for the cover compliments! I wish I could take credit. Barbour does an excellent job of creating gorgeous covers from the information we provide on the fact sheet. I'm always excited to see the art when my editor, JoAnne Simmons, e-mails it to me.

    Ever since I started reading comments this morning, I've been thinking about Dunkin Donuts. Mmm.

  9. I brought coffee and croissants.

    Debby tell us a little about the editorial process at Barbour. For us unpubblies.

    Do you have one editor or a team? How do revisions work and what happens on the road to publication

  10. I'm eating an English muffin with low-sugar marmalade, hoping the donut cravings will subside.

    Barbour's editorial process is very thorough. After the editor reads the manuscript, it goes to a copy editor and then on to a proofreader. They involve the author every step of the way. By the time we get the galleys for a final look, the book has been tweaked and highly polished by a team of professionals, so there's very little that needs to be done.

    At some point (can't remember when--sorry), the author gets to fill out information that helps with designing the cover. Even though we don't create the artwork, our thoughts and vision for the book are considered.

    So far, I've been very happy with the whole process. It gives me confidence that the final product will be as good as it can possibly be. And yes, it's a lot of work--but so worth it!

  11. Great article! I especially love the triangle/diamond idea - plan to use it much in the future!

    theloneislands [at]

  12. Thanks for the questions to ask the characters. Very insightful.

    Wish I could stay and munch donuts with you, but I gotta take my child to the dr. Joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, hey! Down in my heart!

    I know, I'm going crazy. Can't help it. Too much stress around here.

  13. DEBBY SAID: "You can still have a character doing something confusing or inconsistent, but you must have a reason for them to act this way. “Just because” is fine for real life but not in fiction."

    Oh AMEN, Debby!!! I couldn't agree more. When I am reading a book, if a character's actions don't register as real with me -- with a REAL and PLAUSIBLE reason for them -- I ALWAYS find myself muttering under my breath, "Give me a break," which is not what an author wants.

    Thanks for your helpful and insightful post -- and welcome to Seekerville!


  14. Aha! Now I see why all your characters are so 'real'. I love the interview. I have had friends from time to time say they did this, but I've never tried it. I'm working on a new book, so I think I'll use your questions and give it a whirl this time.

    Thanks Debby!

  15. I have a tendency to go off on tangents when I try to write without structure, so I keep my character questions and answers nearby to keep me on track. The people in my stories still have some freedom, but they have to answer to me before they get out of line.

  16. Carla, when is your first book coming out?

  17. Ahhh...

    Tina, the croissants are lovely. At the bakery we make a fresh croissant strawberry shortcake by splitting the croissant, applying a generous layer of whipped cream, a dollop of custard, then fresh berries, glace' and more whipped cream.

    Then we pop the top of the croissant back on. Total decadence, but worth every moment on the treadmill.

    Deb, the process sounds fairly straightforward and not nearly as scary as I would have imagined.



  18. Hey, Ruthy! Yes, it's very straightforward. The Barbour editors are excellent with communication and letting the authors know what we need to do next.

  19. Debby, great post. I'm struggling with a character...hero...right now who is redeemed but not exactly changed.
    It's just a fact that, becoming a Christian doesn't change your basic personality...and it shouldn't. God loves us just as we are.
    But some personalities are difficult and his is. So I'm trying to find a balance between the type A, hyper critical human being he was and the repentent sinner he now acknowledges he is.

    I'm not doing so well at it. But reading your post has given me so ideas that I think are going to make all the difference.
    So sincerely, thanks.

  20. Thanks, Debby, and Seekers for bringing Debby over. Lots of great information here. I'm off to flesh out my characters more.

    There hasn't been much talk of tea and biscuits lately, perhaps I'll share some with my characters as I interview them. Hmmm. Wonder who will elagantly sweep up the crumbs into their cupped hand and who will flick them onto the floor?

  21. Thanks for sharing the editorial process, Debby!!

    What's up in the future for you??

  22. Mary, I know exactly what you're saying about difficult personalities. They take time to develop and show their heroic side, but once you do that, I think they turn out to be the best heroes.

    After all this talk about food, I had to go for a walk. Now I'm REALLY hungry!

    Just a cool side note: While walking, I spotted a couple of alligators in a pond near my house.

  23. Tina, I'm always working on something--you know me. But I don't know where my current project will fit. I'll have get back to you on that. :)

  24. I am amazed at how much of this information I never really took the time to think about, but you are right on-point. How insightful! I am going to print this out as I try and finish my never-ending novel :)

  25. Great post, Debby.

    Developing believable/stronger characters has been a running comment from savvy contest judges, agents, editors more than once.

    I'll keep writing, keep practising, and maybe the light bulb will come on one of these days! lol

  26. Hi, Carrie! Great to see you here! With your great product information writing at HSN, you shouldn't have any trouble finishing your novel. Plus, you have some wonderful characters around you for inspiration. And I mean that in a good way.

    Pam, I know what you're saying. Light bulbs are constantly clicking on and off in my head. As soon as I think I have one aspect of writing figured out, something else knocks me to my knees. Writing is a never-ending learning process.

  27. Welcome to Seekerville, Debby! Thanks for the excellent suggestions for fleshing out our characters.

    I love your diamond method. It's a clever way to remember a character's need for strengths and faults. And a neat device for keeping them in the proper ratio for a hero or a villain.


  28. Hi Debby,

    My book isn't out until September '09. It's been going by the title of The Heart Beckons, but unfortunately it doesn't have an official title yet. Sept. '09 seems like forever, but the way time flies it will be before I know it. lol

    I'm excited though. I'm working on a sequel so I get to revisit ancient Rome and my gladiators. YAY! :-)

  29. Debby,
    You're so right about authors always needing to learn and grow.

    I loved the character comments and I look forward to using a lot of them during my next project! Thanks for sharing.

  30. Debby, thanks for an interesting and helpful post. I'll be re-reading it again. So much good stuff in it!

  31. Sandra D. BrickerMay 30, 2008 at 4:42 PM

    Debby: Even after all the years I've known you, I always learn something from you. I loved the characterization comments. Finding the balance in our characters is our greatest challenge as writers, and I can see why you're so adept at it! Great to see you here. Sandie

  32. Hi Cheryl!
    Hi Janet!
    Hi Mary!

    So nice of you to drop by to see me. I've been enjoying this great blog for a while.

    Thanks for the encouraging posts.

  33. Hey Laura~ Thanks for plugging our blog on yours!

    Debby, you have always been such an encourager to new writers. I LOVED this post on characterization. Thanks for putting it to clearly and concise.



  34. Hi, Paige, Sandie, and Cheryl! I'm glad y'all stopped by!

    One thing I love about romance writers is how sharing most of them are. I've learned quite a bit from workshops, other writers' websites, and critiques of my work. When I first started writing, I had no idea how to do characterization, so I kept copious notes and practiced with my own writing. Today's post is basically my workshop when I'm asked to talk about characterization.

    I'm excited about being able to help people!

  35. Debby thanks so much for being our guest today. Wow it has been busy in Seekerville.

    Not too late to post a message for a change at Debby's book.

    Drawing at 8 pm MST.

  36. Belinda Peterson is the winner of Debby's Mayne's release.

    Rah, Rah, Lindi!!!!

  37. I hope you enjoy the book, Belinda!

    It was fun being here today! Thanks for having me!

  38. I'm way late. It's after 11 pm! But I'm glad I was able to stop by. Great information, Debby!! And I love the idea of the triangle/diamond. It's something I've never seen done before that sounds like a great idea.

    I'm also really interested in what you said about how real people out-of-character act but characters can't. I need to learn that! My characters go crazy sometimes. :)

    Thanks for visiting with us!!

    Hi, Laura. I saw you mention the Seekers on your blog today. Thanks so much for doing that!