March 21st to 27th: “How do you separate yourself from the characters you write?”

How do you separate yourself from the characters you write? Or do you? ITW members Yvonne Navarro, Victor Banis, Vincent Zandri, Jim Duncan, Ethan Cross, Margaret Carroll, and James Grippando will lead next week’s Roundtable discussion. You won’t want to miss it!


Vincent Zandri is the author of the bestselling thrillers THE INNOCENT,THE REMAINS, GODCHILD, and MOONLIGHT FALLS. His new novels, THE CONCRETE PEARL and MOONLIGHT RISES are forthcoming from StoneGate Ink. A photojournalist and foreign correspondent, Zandri divides his time between New York and Europe. His official website is

Living and working away in the state of Ohio, Jim Duncan is a writer of dark, urban-fantasy-suspense. His first novel, DEADWORLD, published by Kensington, will be out in April, 2011.

Ethan Cross is the author of The Shepherd–a book that has been described as “Silence of the Lambs meets The Bourne Identity” and “A fast paced, all too real thriller with a villain right out of James Patterson and Criminal Minds”–and the pen name of a thriller author living and writing in Illinois with his wife, two daughters, and two Shih Tzus.

NYC native Margaret Carroll is internationally published, and currently at work on her sixth novel, a thriller. Her debut thriller, A DARK LOVE (Avon/2009) received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named Top 100 Books of 2009, and nominated for RWA’s Rita award. Her fiction builds on a career in travel. She earned her BA from The George Washington University. The Carrolls currently reside in Michigan with Buddy, a Scottish Terrier (all squirrels must die).

James Grippando is the New York Times bestselling author of 18 novels that are enjoyed worldwide in 26 languages.  His latest,
“Afraid of the Dark,” is the ninth in the popular Jack Swyteck series, and takes readers to the dark side of the information age. He is also the author of “Operation Northwoods,” a short story in the acclaimed ITW “Thriller” anthology.  He lives in South Florida, where he practiced law for 12 years.

Victor J. Banis is the critically acclaimed (“the master’s touch in storytelling” Publishers Weekly) author of more than 200 published novels and many shorter works. A longtime California, he lives and writes now in West Virginia’s beautiful Blue Ridge.

Yvonne Navarro has written twenty-two novels, taking a crack at every genre via both original and media tie-in fiction. Her work has won a number of writing awards.  Her latest book is HIGHBORN, the first in the Dark Redemption series; the second, CONCRETE SAVIOR, comes out in June.  She lives in southern Arizona with her husband, author Weston Ochse, along with three rescued Great Danes (Goblin, Ghost and Ghoulie) and two people-loving parakeets.

Kathleen George lives in Pittsburgh where she is a professor of theatre at the University of Pittsburgh. Her latest novel THE ODDS was nominated for an Edgar® award for best novel of the year by the Mystery Writers of America. She is also the author of the acclaimed novels TAKEN, FALLEN, and AFTERIMAGE, the short story collection THE MAN IN THE BUICK, scholarly theatrical books and articles, and many short stories.Coming soon in 2011 are HIDEOUT, another novel in the Richard Christie series, and Pittsburgh Noir, an edited collection of short fiction set in Pittsburgh.

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  1. The simple answer is, I don’t. But the real question is, why would I want to? For me, at least, character is king, whether I’m writing or reading. For my reading, I greatly prefer character driven fiction to plot driven. If a character engages my interest, I will continue to read a story in which very little happens, and if the character does not interest me, no amount of action will keep me engaged. The same is true with my writing. My first and foremost task is to get to know the person or people I am writing about, to bring them to life in my mind. They are ghosts, as it were, waiting to become visible, to assume flesh, through the medium of the author’s imagination. Only when that happens can I sit down and begin to tell their stories. I am in complete agreement with Eudora Welty: a story is not about the things that happen, it’s about the people they happen to.

    Sometimes the character(s) seem almost to possess me, to take over my mind, so that I become simply a witness to their thoughts and feelings. When I wrote my cowboy novel, Longhorns, I felt as if I were in a trance for the entire two weeks I spent on the book. I heard the characters talking, seemed at times to be right inside their heads. I could almost smell the sweat, reach out and touch leathery skin. So complete was my immersion in their world that, when a thunderstorm woke me one night, I sat up in bed thinking, “Oh, no, the cattle will stampede.” Of course I live in the city and have no cattle, but for those few seconds I was on the prairie in 19th century Texas. Okay, it was a little scary. Once or twice I wondered if I would be able to find my way back, or was I to be forever trapped in that alternative universe, like the character of Harold in E.M. Forster’s “Albergo Empedocle”, who begins to remember his previous life in ancient Greece and finds himself stuck there.

    So, no, I do not try to separate myself from those characters but, contrarily, to identify more fully with them. However, my guardian demons like to warn me that one day I too may find myself a prisoner in some other reality. Or, maybe this world about me now is “the other reality” and all of us writers are prisoners in it, except for these brief spells when we escape into the pages of our fiction. Which, for many of us, can seem far more real, can it not?

  2. When ITW asked me to be a part of this discussion on character, I was like, yah sure why not. A way for me to give back, you know? But the question really doesn’t pertain to me as a writer in that, it’s sort of a moot point.

    My characters are always with me, kind of like my kids.

    They might not always be in the same room with me, or for that matter, the same country, but they are always on my mind, and I’m always concerned about their situations. Are they in trouble? Are they in danger? Are they succeeding at something or failing? Are they sad or happy? God forbid, are they dying?

    It’s what’s happening to them at any given time that dictates their actions and their voices. But no matter what drives them, I’m never separated from my characters at all, or for very long anyway. Especially my main serial characters like Keeper Marconi (Moonlight Falls), Jack Marconi (The Innocent, Godchild) and Ava “Spike” Harrison (The Concrete Pearl)

    At the end of a writing day, I don’t make a conscious decision to put them back in a box. I sort let them tend to themselves for a bit.

  3. The truth is I don’t want to separate myself. When I read, I want to forget I’m reading– I want to be able to immerse myself in the character I’m reading about, become the character, forget I’m turning the pages of a book. I write the same way. I become the character and all I’m doing is putting into words what that character is seeing, what’s happening in his or her world, what he or she is doing or enduring. The real world fades out and all I see in my head is the character’s world and what’s happening in it. I hear the conversations– voices in my head!– and feel the emotions. It’s like method acting turned into method writing.

  4. As a writer of thrill fiction, I see my biggest task is separating myself from the characters I write. By this, I mean I strive to create characters who are not me. By giving each character his or her own unique voice and personality, I keep my writing fresh.

    I have no business being in the stories I write, anyway. I discovered early on that I like to write about bad people doing bad things. Nobody needs a suburban mom (that’s me) popping up in a book about a young prep schoolteacher on the run after she gets caught up in a Ponzi scheme, or an alcoholic Hamptons socialite suspected of arranging her husband’s murder.

    I didn’t start out this way. I was all over my first two books. They were chick-lit romantic comedies about young women fresh out of college working in NYC and trying to have it all – – a great job on the staff of a glossy magazine, a handsome boyfriend and a rent-stabilized apartment without too many cockroaches.

    The heroines of these books were, if not entirely younger versions of me, at least girls I would have befriended.

    That changed once I began to write suspense.

    My main characters these days get caught up in something they don’t see coming until the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan, which it does on Page One. From then on, they are locked in a battle of wills and a race against time with my Bad Guy.

    My challenge is to give my Bad Guys a voice, along with the law enforcement types I need to write about along the way.

    I start by finding common ground, just one small character trait that everyone can relate to. It sounds counterintuitive to make someone very distinct from me by starting with a character tag that is relatable for me, but it works. I’ll use a scene I’m working on right now as an example. The scene involves a Medical Examiner and a homicide detective in charge of cold cases in Detroit. The ultimate macho jobs, right? They are about to give some really awful news to the daughter of a cold case victim.

    How to make the M.E. come to life? The answer came as I jotted character notes about who he is off the page. I wound up giving him a brand new cappuccino machine. His wife saw it in Costco and couldn’t resist. They didn’t need a new coffeemaker, so he brought it to work. He really is a ‘people person.’ So he offers steamed espresso drinks to everyone who comes to his office. He is proud of his new machine. It provided a starting point for him to come to life and now he can go about his job, separate and distinct from me.
    My characters get more fleshed out with each draft. So by the third revision, their dialog in chapter one is much more unique to them than it was when I first wrote it. I do exercises outside of the book, also. I find it’s helpful to write bios for my characters. When I’m really stuck, I ask them questions about what they want and I write their answers in longhand. This also kicks the plot up a notch. I have no idea exactly how this works, I just know that it does.

    A network news cameraman from Texas is going to talk, think, and act differently than a prep schoolteacher from Shaker Heights, Ohio, or a psychoanalyst from Washington, D.C.
    They are all characters in my books, and I strive to give them their own identities that are separate from each other, and most of all, from me.

    1. Nice post, Margaret – this is how I read the question too: how do we create people/characters who are NOT us, when it’s so easy to draw heavily on our own perceptions and world view – perhaps not even realizing that’s what we’re doing? I think “separating ourselves” from our characters in this sense is critical.

  5. Interesting posts. I have tried writing bios for characters but somehow it didn’t quite work for me – but I like the idea of asking them questions and writing down their answers, I think I’ll “borrow” that technique (Kenneth Clark says the artist takes what he needs where he finds it – he was speaking of Raphael’s clearly purloined angels, but I think it applies to fiction just as well.) I also like the way a simple prop (the espresso machine, e.g.) can add so much dimension to a character. I like using a side story that way too. In my Deadly Mystery series, Stanley has an ongoing conflict with his father – nothing to do with the mystery plot, but it gave Stanley’s character a depth he didn’t have otherwise.

    It’s interesting isn’t it, how we never really stop learning to write. It’s like growing up. I used to think that at some point in time I would know how to write, but I’ve never reached it. It – the writing – is forever surprising me.

    I don’t think I project myself especially into my characters, it’s more as if they project themselves into me, if that makes any sense.

  6. I think one of the most useful lessons I took away from “gasp” writing school, was drawing up character studies. Now, you don’t need to pay a school 30Gs to realize this is a pretty good idea. But in the process of writing down what your character is all about (when she was born, where, by whom, where she lived as a child, her interests and hobbies, likes and dislikes, first dates, first marriage, first divorce, whatever…), you can learn a whole lot that will obviously never make it into the story, but will for certain, help shape that story. Of course, what they do for a living or what their passions are will help shape the way they see the world and the way they think. My character Rebecca in The Remains is a painter and she is always thinking in terms of art. In Douglas Glover’s mystery, Precious, his main character is a newspaper reporter, so naturally he sees the skyscrapers in a big city looming over him “like a big headline!”

  7. The trick for me, as pointed out by some of the other authors here, is to get into the character enough such that it comes across as a unique individual, without putting my own self into the mix. Sometimes, it’s difficult to dump that “what would I do?” question, so that characters are acting on their own and not just playing out my own fantasies. This is easier to do with male characters, being a male myself.

    I think a good test of this is when characters act in ways that confound what you might have originally wanted to do, leaving you restructuring story elements so that characters are allowed to stay in character. I believe readers are pretty good at telling when you’ve fudged things in order to make certain things happen in the story.

    Another difficulty I find, is when you are telling parts of the story through different character’s eyes. This is when it is important to be able to seperate, because it’s fairly easy in my opinion, to blend characters, and you end up with the problem of everyone feeling too similar. In a lot of ways, I think writers have to be good actors, at least in their heads, stepping into and out of various roles, being adept at both seperation and immersion. It’s a delicate balance, and not as easy as it might seem to the non-writer.

    Anyway, this is a great question, not so straight forward as it seemed to me at first, when I agreed to talk about it. Looking forward to what everyone has to say on this.

  8. At some times it’s difficult to separate myself from my protagonist because my book series – STALKING SUSAN, MISSING MARK, SILENCING SAM, and KILLING KATE – is set in the desperate world of TV news. For decades that was my day job. Because I have lived much of my research, that part of writing comes easily. But people I have worked with often see – or want to see – themselves in my pages. The news director in my books is a rather disagreeable boss, so readers always want to know which of my bosses the character is based on. I have to maintain that my characters are works of fiction. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
    During my job I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, most on the best or worst days of their lives, and that has helped me create characters who are very different from me. I’ve interviewed people who are a day away from being executed and people who have won record lotteries. All that helps me with dialogue and characterization.

  9. Oh wow, it’s great to see so many interesting posts – thanks to everyone who took the time. I, too, loved this question, then last night when I posted I worried that I misunderstood. Then I read Karen D’s comments and calmed down (grin). We all struggle with creating unique characters. I am a member of Romance Writers of America and in fact (shameless self-promotion alert) was nominated for a Rita last year (did not win but what a great experience). I’m on their published author loop and just heard the term ‘Mary Sue.’ Which, if I get it, refers to an author whose characters are thinly disguised versions of herself. I really did a double-take when I realized that something that is so challenging for me is so obvious to readers that it has its own nickname. For me, I had to learn to stop judging the morality of my characters (they are not my kids! my job is to listen, not teach or preach). Letting them have their own say is so much harder than I thought! So I loved reading Julie Kramer’s comments. What a great job, to really get to listen to someone on the last day of his or her life because they made such a bad decision years earlier. Shudder. But to turn myself into a writer I had to listen better and try to hear other people’s POV (at least on the page, hopefully rubs off in real life). Someone posted (can’t find it again now) that doing the character/bio sketch doesn’t unlock the answers……IME it doesn’t work for me either until I’m at least nearing the end of the first draft. If I try too early, they’re not real enough yet to talk to me (sounding nutty here, I know). But I get to know my people initially as they go through their motions in the first draft. At first I felt stupid that this is my process (seems like all the great writers say their books are character driven) and then I listened to Harlan Coben’s chat to ITW last year where he said he starts each book with a situation, and then develops the characters as they go. It was a great presentation, and very affirming for me.

  10. I read this question and for some reason I’m reminded of a singing nun in “The Sound of Music” asking “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” The answer twofold: “You don’t,” and — as Victor put it above — “why would you want to?” I’m a little off track, but the point is you can’t separate yourself from your characters—and that’s not a bad thing. Bad guys are never all bad, and good guys are never all good. They have a past that makes readers understand their contradictions, their flaws, and their motivations. Someone you know, something you did, some abstraction you fear, some desire you hold, some piece of news you heard and interpreted through your own moral prism—in short, the person you are at the time you put pen to paper—goes into those characters.

    That’s not to say that all or any of my characters are my alter ego. People often say, “Hmmm . . . I see that you were a trial lawyer in Miami. Jack Swyteck is a trial lawyer in Miami. Your first job out of law school involved death penalty cases, and Jack started out defending death row inmates. He must be you, right?” I could respond in kind by listing all the differences. Jack’s father is Florida’s governor, and my dad was a stripper (I kid you not: he was a printer, and the technical term for his job was “stripper”). Jack’s love life could fill an entire chapter in Cupid’s Rules of Love and War (Idiot’s Edition), and I’m married 17 years to the love of my life. Jack’s best friend was once on death row, and my friends—well, maybe some of them do belong in jail. But that kind of discussion misses the point. The truth is that Jack is as much me as the serial killer I wrote about three books ago—no more, no less. Cloning myself is not what makes a character work for me or my readers. It’s about complexity. And maybe a little bit of multiple personality disorder.

  11. Ah! Interesting that I didn’t interpret it as everyone else did, but I think that’s because I seldom incorporate myself into my characters. I can’t honestly say “never” (let’s face it, I have a dog or a rescued dog in nearly every solo novel), but I don’t think my basic values are that much different from those of the average American. I’m about as ordinary and blah as they come, or at least that’s how I see me. But when I write, it’s as if I can literally turn myself “off” to write from the point of view of the character. It’s back to method writing.

    I do like making up a profile for my main characters, and I think writing is harder when I don’t have one. My form has evolved from a document called a “Character Chart” that I picked up many, many years ago, back when I was working on my first novel, and it’s quite the piece of work to put together. At first you think, “Oh, for crying out loud. Who cares about all this stuff?” But the principle is that as the creator you should know far more about your character than you will ever need to reveal in the book. The great thing is that it works. The better you know your character, the more you become the character (good) rather than allowing the character to become you (bad).

    Really, if I’m writing from the point of view of a serial killer, the last thing I want is to hear someone in my family say, “Oh, that’s totally you!”

  12. Hello Everyone! Great discussion. I have to say that I interpreted the question in much the same way that you did, Margaret. That is to say that I read it as “How do you keep yourself out of the characters that you write?”

    In answer to that question, I would partially agree with Margaret when she said, “I strive to create characters who are not me. By giving each character his or her own unique voice and personality, I keep my writing fresh.”

    However, I think that James Grippando hit the nail on the head when he stated, “Someone you know, something you did, some abstraction you fear, some desire you hold, some piece of news you heard and interpreted through your own moral prism—in short, the person you are at the time you put pen to paper—goes into those characters.”

    For me, that’s what it means to “write what you know.” That definitely doesn’t mean that I advocate inserting yourself into your story. I’m not all that interesting. And I think we all cringe a little when we read the dust jacket of a book that contains a writer as the heroic protagonist. However, I think that characters become especially real and interesting when the author has given them a quirk, passion, hobby, flaw, emotional baggage, etc that is personal to the writer. This familiarity and first-hand knowledge comes across on the page, and as a reader, I find those moments to be truly captivating. You can deeply feel that person’s pain, their need, their desires.

    For example, I have a daughter with special needs. Raising such a child is a difficult and life-changing experience. It has changed me in profound ways and given me insight into worlds that I never knew existed. That’s not to say that my daughter is going to pop up in a book either, but those experiences have given me a unique perspective that I can add to a character.

    This has come across in one of my works-in-progress in two separate characters. One has Asperger’s Syndrome. Since having my daughter, I’ve met many wonderful people with special needs, including those with this syndrome. But beyond that I understand to some small degree the emotional baggage that comes along with such a disorder and how it affects the person and those around them. The other character that I feel my experiences have fallen upon has a daughter that is dying of cancer. This is obviously a much different situation than mine, and he is a much different person than me. But there are a lot of the same emotions that my wife and I have dealt with that this character is feeling.

    I’m also mildly obsessive compulsive (true OCD, not like someone who wants a clean house that thinks they have OCD but is actually just anal retentive). I’ve written a character that shares a lot of the same ticks.

    I’m more in tune with these feelings and situations than someone who’s never experienced that world. Will that resonate on the page? I suppose that depends upon my skills as a writer, but either way, it’s a unique perspective or flavor that I bring to the table that another writer doesn’t possess or wouldn’t consider.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I would never (or at least try not to) insert myself into a story, but I do think that there is something to be said about channeling a small aspect of yourself into a character when you breathe life into them. The trick is to do so and then let them live their own lives and be their own person.

    Discussing this topic also makes me curious about another related topic. Do any of you ever get attached to a character (good or bad) that you had intended to kill off, only to come to that moment and find that you can’t go through with it? My good friend and ITW member, Jeremy Robinson, is ruthless about this. He loves nothing more than to make you care about someone and then drop a piano on them. For me, though, this is an area in which I struggle. Vincent Zandri said it best above. “My characters are always with me, kind of like my kids.” So, do you struggle when you know that you’re about to murder your creation? And how do you overcome this?

    Thanks for letting me be part of the discussion, and I look forward to your thoughts.

  13. I love talking with other writers, especially about this. And, Ethan, I’m sure I’m the millionth person to say this, but have you read the Stieg Larson trilogy? I love those books. The heroine, Lisbeth Salander, does not exactly have Asperger’s but close enough that everyone else in the book agrees she has some sort of special needs. The author is never condescending about her. Along these lines, I just bought THE KILLER INSIDE ME, by Jim Thompson, first person POV serial killer. Stanley Kubrick wrote the cover blurb. I haven’t read it yet but it’s considered a classic in crime fiction. I love some of my bad people more than others. In fact I find them more fun to write about than some of my heroines (who are victims). Go figure. I just love writing about bad people. My favorite character ever was a seriously bad guy, Dr. Porter Moross. I gave him some thought bubbles that IMO were as awful as his actions (even though he didn’t act on them). Like I had him hate his wife’s dog and fantasize about dropping the leash while walking on a busy avenue. I had him hate the friendly counter help in a fast-food restaurant (midwesterners annoyed him). By the end of the book, hopefully the readers were along for the ride as he met his fate. It does trouble me when I kill off a character. I’ve done it in two books and had nightmares for about a week each time. I lit candles for them in church and prayed for them (I am telling the truth). In fact, it bothered me so much I didn’t kill anyone in the last book (they went to prison). I am going to take another stab at it (pun intended!) in the book I am working on now. I relate to my bad people (this one has a woman who is pure evil) through their goals. They want love and a good home life, same as me. They just go about it the wrong way. Thanks everyone for commenting!

  14. I will say that certain characters are more special for me than others. Let’s face it, it’s hard to put some of you are into your characters. In some ways, this process is better and more theraputic than a Park Ave. shrink. The character most like me is Richard ‘Dick” Moonlight. He’s always making the wrong decisions about things, always sleeping with the wrong women, or just plain making a train wreck out of his and other people’s lives.

    But on the other hand, as a PI, he’s determined to after the truth even if he has to break the law and in some cases, kill (only bad guys!), in order to get at it. He has a little piece of shrapnel from a .22 caliber hollow point in his brain from a botched suicide attempt and it affects his short terms memory at times and can even cause him to pass out if overstressed. He could also lapse into a coma and die at any time. So with that in mind, he lives his life like he could be dead in just an hour.

    Am I just like Moonlight? Am I a totally separate character in my own right? Almost certainly, but in some ways, Moonlight is Zandri on major steroids. When I write about his mess ups, it makes me feel good and makes me laugh and it allows me to kind of sit back and say to myself, No matter how bad things can get in one’s life, it ain’t ever going to be as bad as Moonlight’s. He ‘s a fun character and the one most close to my heart.

    Charlie Huston does the same exact thing with his train wreck of a character, Henry “Hank” Thompson….

  15. Great posts. And while I said I don’t do bios for my characters, I probably do it in my head – I’d like to get in there sometime with a big flashlight and look around. Now, here’s a thought that popped up in there – I am big on having a sense of even the little walk on characters – the waitress who comes by to fill their coffee cups while the two cops are chatting. Obviously you can’t give the reader her whole life story, but you’ve got to have some sense of who she is, where she’s coming from. The way she walks, the way she carries the coffee pot, everything, will reflect the day she’s having, good or bad. I’m a believer in, there are no little characters, just little writers.

    I get the sense that most of us here write character driven stories. I get into discussions with writers all the time about the difference. There is a sense that character driven is somehow better – and it’s true, most classic literature is character driven. On the other hand, if you look at the best seller lists from time to time, you will see that most of those books are plot driven (as are most Hollywood movies these days, so I suppose the books reflect that) – but I’ve yet to read a plot driven novel in which the protag didn’t end up doing something really dumb, because the plot structure required him too (we used to call this idiot plots, because if anybody in the story paused to think for a minute, the whole plot goes away).

    btw, I’m a writer groupie. I’ve had the experience of meeting many big movie and music stars, none of whom impressed me very much, but I get all ga-ga over writers. So, here’s my ga-ga to all of you. I wish we were sitting down together around a big table, only I’d just embarrass myself.

  16. I’m firmly in the “why separate?” camp. Almost every writer hears, at one time or another, the advice to “write what you know.” I think that starts with character development. How can I write about a character that I don’t understand? And how can I understand a character if they aren’t at some level a reflection of my own personality? I actually think this makes for much more believable characters. When there’s a part of you in them, you don’t use them wastefully. This is especially true when it comes to villains. It doesn’t require me to get in touch with my own inner destroyer, but I do feel compelled to give my villains a good–or at least plausible–reason for what they do.

    1. Mr. Ellis,
      I’m an MFA student at Stony Brook Southampton where we are blessed with many talented and successful writers/professors. I had the pleasure of hearing Colum McCann expound on his theories of writing. He was the first I heard preaching write what you don’t know. His theory has to do with research and a look at his list of novels- the range of subjects- shows that he spends an enormous amount of time on research. In his most recent “Let The Great World Spin” he spent many weeks researching the prostitute character for example and how she lived. He claims when you do the research the writing becomes more or less the easy part. As regards your post and Margaret Carroll’s, I have found great difficulty in writing unpleasant or “not nice” characters. In fact, we have been given prompts to push us to do so and again and again I have baulked and very reluctantly proceeded much to the frustration of my teachers. That’s probably why I am still a student of the art of writing.

  17. I think one of the things that keeps me most interested in my stories is that I’m not reacting the way I would. I get the on-the-shoulder view of situations I’d never have to deal with, and watch it all unfold in front of me. If I was too in to what my characters were going through I think I’d be a hot mess and need so much therapy I wouldn’t have time to write 🙂

    Great conversation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  18. Ethan asked “Do any of you ever get attached to a character (good or bad) that you had intended to kill off, only to come to that moment and find that you can’t go through with it?”

    Not exactly, because my characters are, again, separate from me. I find that if they’re strong and sure in their “existence,” they do what they want within the logical realm of the story and their individual personalities. My biggest example of this is Lily, a character I created in my disaster novel, Final Impact, specifically to be what I call “fodder.” You know the characters immediately, both on paper and television: The dimwit who drops a CD onto the passenger floor of the car and twists her entire head and body down to try and pick it up… while driving at 75 mph on a curved two-lane highway when a cement truck is coming toward her in the other lane. The bully who shoves a cigarette in his mouth and cups his hand around it while he flicks the lighter… and simultaneously steps off the curb and into the path of an accelerating bus. They’re “born to die” for one reason or another, usually to keep the story moving.

    The problem was, Lily didn’t want to die. She was drowning in mental illness but stronger underneath than I ever had any idea– and I’d never done one of my infamous character charts on her, either! Her story came out, she survived the scene in which she was supposed to die, and she kept going, blazoning into a major character not only through another 100,000 words but into a follow-up book, Red Shadows.

    Can I kill them off? You betcha. Do I want to? Not always. One reviewer noted after Final Impact that I “seemed reluctant to kill my own characters.” I thought, “I’ll show him!” and whacked out one of the novel’s major people in Red Shadows. I wished I’d asked myself “Should I?” because, darn it, I’ve regretted it ever since!

    Writing what you know is great, but really… how much DO you know in relation to all there actually is in the world? Face it– not much. Writing what you know is comfortable, safe, and easy. Writing about what you don’t is exactly the opposite, but it’s a great opportunity to learn about all manner of the wonderful and wicked things in our world. One of these things you likely don’t know– and this is for you, Pat– is how you would be as a “not nice” person. Just remember that this isn’t you. It’s someone you created, someone who could be anything, or do anything, or go anywhere. A writer whose characters are vanilla and perfect and cherry-pie sweet in every respect are boring and bland and predictable. It’s the unpredictability of people, those moments of weaknesses and fault and emerging inner darkness, that make us, and the characters we create, so interesting.

  19. Yvonne,
    Thank you for your comments and suggestions. You’re quite right, I know. Vanilla and boring is not what I’m aiming for. One teacher “accused” me of being too dignified and being afraid of letting go. Made me think. Maybe I’m thinking too much and not getting on with it.

  20. I agree with Sean about the bad guys and killers having a “plausible reason for what they do”….There’s a great passage in Charlie Huston’s Six Bad Things in which this stone-cold killer pontificates on why some people kill and why others don’t. Basically what it comes down to for this character (as created by Charlie) is that we’re all animals and some are just more naturally inclined to kill than others, and in fact, some are rather talented at it…I guess my point is that while the author ain’t no killer, he certainly creates some very believable characters who are. This talent doesn’t take separation is takes intimacy with ones subject and one’s players.

  21. What a great discussion. Pat brought up such an interesting point. For me, it’s a struggle to write sex/romance scenes. I have trouble writing scenes where a character hurts another, even kills another. But I have major big problems when I try to write a romance scene, especially if it is supposed to include anything physical. It just feels wrong, even if it is warranted by the plot. I do force myself because writing a book is my job. I used to have a different job and there were parts of that job I didn’t like either. So….I push the characters through the scene in the first draft. They feel like stick people at first. By the time I’ve rewritten it four or five times it flows much better. The dialog is the last part that falls into place for me. This is where I really need to remember that I am not like them! The people in my books are not like writers. They are not reserved or shy. They are not sensitive to the point of needing therapy. They don’t sweat the small stuff. Heck, my bunch does not even sweat the big stuff. I’ve read a lot about this from romance authors, who have to put up with snark about where they get their ‘inspiration.’ I think if you have any violence in your stories (or a body count, like some of mine) you really need to find a way to live with the fact that you are writing about people who are not like anyone in your real life. Quoting Harlan Coben again (he is one of my idols and I love his books), where he said he doesn’t do research (!!) and does not advise new writers to do research. He says he just sits and thinks how he would feel if he were in a situation and takes it from there. Made me vow to be bolder in what I try to do. In this regard I get inspiration from reading Sophie Hannah (I am so crazy about her books I get them from Abe Books in UK because I can’t wait for them to come out here). She is absolutely fearless in the plots and characters she dreams up. And in real life she is a working mom….very inspirational! Thanks again to all who are posting. Margaret

  22. Ha! Harlan does some research…He called me once when he was preparing the background material for his “The Innocent.”….At least, I think that might be the book. I had just published my prison-themed novel, “As Catch Can” (which is now called, “The Innocent”…I know, all this is confusing, but the original title of Catch was The Innocent!), and we talked prison particulars….

  23. Hey Guys. Isn’t it funny the twists and turns a discussion can take? Great perspectives from all. We all have different approaches to things, and that’s what makes all of our work unique.

    I just wanted to chime in about a couple of things…

    First of all, Harlan Coben doesn’t do research?!….Shocked and amazed. I wish I was that fearless. I find myself sometimes crippled during a scene because I have a need to know if what I just wrote holds up and makes sense (probably part of the OCD thing).

    Second, I wanted to clarify my thoughts toward what Pat Hanrahan said about Colum McCann preaching “writing what you don’t know.” I completely agree with this. David Morrell expresses something similar in his book on writing: “Instead of being limited by writing only about what I already knew, I decided to write books about subjects that I wanted to learn, using this opportunity for research to make my life fuller.”

    I guess when I said that’s what “write what you know” means to me, I really meant “write the book that only you can write.” We are all a collection of experiences and emotions, and we bring that into every situation (writing included) whether we like it or not. My thought is not to try to push this down, but rather to embrace it. That doesn’t mean that you should write only from what you’ve done or experienced, but you also shouldn’t be afraid to let some of your heart and soul or personal experiences spill over into your work. That’s what makes your work unique.

    Personally, if I had to write only what I know, I’d quit. And the books would be very boring anyway.

    Just my two cents…

  24. I must have been writing my reply about Harlan Coben and research while you were writing yours, Vincent. As you said, I don’t see how any writer could get away with NO research, but it’s still interesting that he appears to be an advocate for minimal research.

  25. Hey Ethan,
    I also know that Robert Parker used to do very little research or read perhaps one or at the most two books on a particular subject, usually for his stand alone books like “Wilderness” for instance. One of my all time favorites. I think part of what Harlan means is that he’s not about to spend a couple of months researching and exhausting a topic. If he does anything at all it will be a phone call or a Google search or whatever. Stuff that takes only a few moments. I see his point in that you don’t want the research taking over your characters actions and reactions to a given situation. How much do we actually understand about any given circumstance? We act on instinct most of the time. I wrote a Digital Short recently for StoneGate called Moonlight Mafia (my Dick Moonlight character). It’s simply about Moonlight opening his car door and innocently dinging and denting the door on the pristine truck parked beside him. Moonlight kind of panics (don’t we all when this happens???), gets out, shuts the door and walks away trying to pretend it didn’t happen. Of course he gets snagged by some hood of a ll people and it all turns into the worst kind of train wreck….A mafia dude accusing Moonlight of being dishonest. Oh the irony!!! Anyway, I guess my point is, no research is needed for a situation like that one.

  26. Harlan’s comments about research stopped me in my tracks, too! LOL here to learn that Harlan actually called Ethan to help with research! He made the anti-research comment in his chat to ITW last year. I was listening to the MP3 file while dusting the blinds and nearly dropped my duster. I had dinner several years back with Carol Higgins Clark (we were introduced through mutual friends) and asked how she did research for her recurring character who is a P.I. She said she didn’t – – it was all common sense. I was really surprised and vowed then and there to take more chances with my work. Because I feel like I need to do a ton of research just so I feel good about what I’m writing. For me it is to the point where I shy away from certain subjects/situations because I feel afraid to take them on because I lack firsthand experience. Especially when it comes to law enforcement, because people break the law in my books. I’m jealous of all those romance writers who seem to be married to cops! I know two friends of friends who are DAs, and both have arranged phone interviews for me with homicide detectives. Which is so helpful. But I wish I could call them every day, saying What if…. or What about……? And you can’t. They’re busy. So my process is I’ll take my couple of minutes with whomever (last week it was a Medical Examiner of a really busy morgue – I was thrilled to get time on the phone with him), ask him my list of questions. And then wing it when I go even though when I sit down to write the scene I have a million questions I didn’t think to ask. So I just try to make it come to life (‘scuse the pun here) by focusing on tiny details. I had my heroine notice little things when she visited the morgue (to identify her mother’s long-dead remains), like the fact that there were heavy curtains lining one wall of the guy’s office (which in fact turned out to be covering windows overlooking one of the labs). Is it really like this in a real morgue? I don’t know. But it worked in my fictional big-city morgue. I have to really work up my courage to get through scenes (where someone is going to pull a gun, for example) that take place in a setting (like a jail) where I’ve never been. But I google or bug friends of friends and then just wing it. In the end I focus on how the characters are feeling (and we all know what it’s like to walloped by fate) and just push my way through it, going on faith it will be fun to read after further rewrites. Thanks to everyone who is posting! Margaret

  27. The research question is an interesting one. Years ago, you could get away with almost anything, but it seems to me that today readers are so well informed – or can get their information at the drop of a cursor. I wrote a historical novel some years back, spent almost a year and a half researching it and 6 months writing it (This Splendid Earth, St. Martin’s) – and here’s a funny thing, I used a factual detail in the book – the character is bringing French vine cuttings to the new world on a ship and when they run low on water, he persuades the captain to let him put his cuttings in the potatoes rotting in the hold that they were going to toss. This really happened, but it is the one point readers scoffed at, saying it couldn’t happen. From which I learned that the illusion of reality (verisimilitude, but isn’t that the most pretentious word you can think of) is far more important than verity. I wrote a cowboy novel a few years ago, set in 19th century Texas, where average height was less than today. A man 5′ 9″ would have been taller than average, in fact, and the character I made 6′ 3″ a giant. But if I gave them the historically correct heights, today’s readers would have seen them differently from what I intended, so I fudged, to give the illusion of the correct proportions. Someone said don’t let the facts distort your fiction.

    And on the question of villains – didn’t I read in psych that there is nothing in another human being that doesn’t exist within each of us, at least in germ form – else, that individual would not be human, but some other species? Which is to say, we’re all of us potentially murderers, pederasts, thieves–we just have to dig around down there in the muck to find the connection with those villains. And I do like to make my villains dimensional by giving them some redeeming qualities. Think of Jimmy Cagney in, was it Public Enemy – a monster, but he truly loved his mother.

    Enjoying a great discussion, guys.

  28. So many fascinating posts. How about this? Writer/painter Joanna Fielding wrote about the difficulty of the me/not me question. She says a lot of brilliant things but the main point of it is that the question is at the center on most arts and the answer is: BOTH. Paintings, stories, characters, even the desk you write about (or paint) is you and not you–subject and object? Ooops. Too theoretical. Baggage of my day job. In my case, I dig right in. I find in virtually every case that I start to act the role in my head. Like an actor, I know I’m not the character but I am trying him or her on and getting as close as I can, whether the people are bad or good, minor or major. You have all said this in so many wonderful ways. Funny story: When one of our grad students came up to me and confessed that he had a serious crush on my protagonist Commander Christie, I felt the blush–felt he had a crush on me.

  29. Wonderful insights here! I’ll admit I was staggered by the depth of Victor’s immersion into his character’s lives and thoughts. I write much more like Margaret, keeping them separate as much as possible. I don’t want their emotions intruding on my life, and I don’t think it’s just because I write romance, which is necessarily loaded with emotional angst. I believe you all know your characters’ emotions as thoroughly as I know mine.

    But I do wonder if I get more of a pass on research. When I told my editor that I had researched and correctly recorded the visitation process at a certain county jail, but it had since changed considerably, she reminded me, “It’s fiction, Starr.”

  30. I believe everybody should get a bit of a pass on research. I confess to moving streets around and opening defunct businesses. Oh yes, and I’ve changed the Steelers’ schedule.

    About characters–and do I separate from them? And my yes and no? Also I have to fall in love with someone, some character. It’s what keeps me going.

  31. Thanks all for an enlightening discussion. And thank you, Victor, for verisimilitude! So true. That’s great research about the vine cuttings and rotting potatoes. I had a similar experience with my debut thriller, A Dark Love. The heroine (college coed) falls in love and marries an abusive man. When I was shopping for agents and then a publisher, every single person said I needed backstory to explain why she would have fallen for him. It caught me off-guard because in real life she wouldn’t have needed a reason other than they met and she thought he was hot at first. But in Book World everything has to make sense within the context of your story. So I gave her backstory about an abusive childhood with alcoholic parents. Problem solved (apologies to all the fine happily married people including several recent US presidents who overcame childhoods with alcoholic parents). Anyhoo, I am working right now on a story for the first time that has some scenes inside the head of someone who has killed before and is preparing to kill again. I get to write in italics (love that). And – go figure – I am zipping through these at the speed of light. Just concentrating on someone with a gigantic ego who is only concerned with a threat to self (as in, uh-oh, someone is getting close and must be silenced, how best to proceed?). Very fun to write and hopefully fun to read. Happy writing, Margaret

  32. Also, one thing I forgot to mention is that I always base my main characters on real people. I even use their real names up until the final draft. It helps me to visualize them better and to hone their mannerisms. Some people are aware of their presence in a novel and some are not…But it always makes me smile when I run into someone and I think in the back of my head…Dude’s in my new novel!

  33. Great post on the illusion of reality, Victor. I have had similar experiences and have heard stories from several other authors that are along the same lines. Sometimes life is much stranger than fiction and just because it happened in real life doesn’t mean that it works in fiction. As Margaret said, everything has to have a reason. Everything has to be neat and tidy. It’s a bit of irony that as writers we have to transport readers to an imaginary world while keeping them somehow grounded in reality to make them believe it.

    There’s a situation in my book, The Shepherd, that seems quite unlikely but is based on facts. A character is shot in the head and lives. No one has called me out on it so far. I think because I provided a quick ballistic/medical description within the context of the book of how it’s possible. But it’s been a situation that I worried readers would find unbelievable. Even though I got the idea from an ATF agent who experienced a case where the exact same thing happened a week before we spoke.

    And along the lines of fictionalizing real places and events: In the acknowledgments for the book, I also apologize to the residents of a small town in Texas for completely fictionalizing their town…and then burning it down 🙂

  34. I definitely do research. Like Victor noted, today’s readers can find out anything using a few key strokes. I’ve been dinged only a few times, but those are enough to make me thorough, at least about things that can be checked. My Dad is a very heavy reader, and he told me years ago that he had been reading a cop thriller when he reached the point where the author wrote that the main character “got in his Porsche sedan and drove away.” The problem was that Porsche had never made a sedan, and my Dad, being a long-time Porsche fan, knew this. The result? He never bought another book by this author. (And really, it could have simply been a case of using the wrong word—“sedan” for “sports car.”) Years ago authors may have THOUGHT they were getting away with the no-research thing but simply never known about the readers they alienated, like my Dad. Personally, when I read or see something on television that’s blatantly incorrect, it really jolts me out of the story. And like Dad, depending on how jolted I am, I may never go back. By the same token, I’ve researched and then intentionally changed something, such as the how-tos of making a bomb. If someone wants that info, they’ll have to get it on their own.

    I do, however, want to point out that the person reading your words doesn’t always know what they’re reading about, even if they think they do. (Substitute “talking” for “reading” and the previous sentence will make sense.) I once submitted a story to an anthology where the character ripped everything out of her kitchen cabinets at 5:15 in the morning because she thought she’d seen a cockroach in the cabinet. The editor rejected the story, and pointed specifically to that scene, saying “She would never do that.”


    Even discounting it was my character, not his, this woman definitely WOULD do exactly that. Because that woman was me, one fall morning in a Chicago apartment in the late 1980s.

    And for all you Porsche aficionados, my Dad’s encounter with the written version of the Porsche sedan was decades before the 1999 debut of Porsche’s little 4-door SUV.

  35. I got chills reading Ethan’s post. Sadly, nobody will ever question again whether someone gets shot in the head and lives. I needed a character to seem to die of a heart attack and a heart doc told me how to do it. I was worried how it would go over and got around it by having the character himself explain it later by saying it was like in Edgar Allen Poe’s Telltale Heart. Since we’re getting near the end of our week, I wanted to share something about where I’m at now with separating from my characters. I am into a first draft and – this always happens! – kept thinking during the night that my characters early on just make small talk. The dialog is not right. They are not talking about what really matters to them. But this is my process. Now I get to go back and rewrite that dialog, especially every scene with my heroine. Based on my past experience, this is how she will really come to life. By the end they will make sense and have their own voices. Hopefully! It’s been so nice to meet you all. If I make it to Thrillfest, I hope to say hello in person. All best, Margaret

  36. Well, being from Arizona, I can say we’ve all seen the someone can get shot in the head and live. I’m sure most people know what happened to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

  37. Yup….anyone who’s read my Moonlight Falls or plans on reading Moonlight Rises will know that it certainly is possible to survive a head shot. My guy botched a suicide attempt, the bullet shattered against his skull, and a small sliver entered his brain, lodged itself up beside his cerebral cortex making an operation an impossibility. He suffers from short term memory loss when agitated and could die from stroke at any moment….Now this is a character you can have fun with. In fact, in the sequel to be released by StoneGate Ink in the Fall, Moonlight dies in the opening sentence…

  38. Ethan–
    My police contact told me about a woman who was shot in the head multiple times–I think eleven times– and she lived. It all depends on the size and type of bullet/cartridge and what it does. In this case the woman healed well and was able to go back to work. I know. It sounds impossible.
    Kathleen George

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