March 11 – 17: “How do you separate yourself from the characters you write? Or do you?”

This week we revisit Psychology 101, writer-style: “How do you separate yourself from the characters you write? Or do you?” Join ITW Members Mick Sims, Nancy Bilyeau, Mark de Castrique, Shelia Goss, Wendy Soliman, Owen Fitzstephen and Erin Hart for another can’t-miss discussion!


Erin Hart’s archaeological crime novels are set in the mysterious Irish bogs. HAUNTED GROUND (2003), was shortlisted for Anthony and Agatha awards; LAKE OF SORROWS (2004) was a Minnesota Book Award finalist; FALSE MERMAID (2010) made ALA/Booklist’s Top Ten Crime Novels of 2010. THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN will be published in March 2013.

Len Maynard & Mick Sims, Maynard Sims, are authors of six novels, four novellas eight collections. DARK OF THE SUN is their first non-supernatural thriller, but not their last. It has its own website. It features a hero who is quite happy with his lot in life in the Bahamas. Then people start getting killed, and his life is turned upside down and he is dragged into an underworld of intrigue and danger.

Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor who has worked for ROLLING STONE and INSTYLE and is currently the executive editor of DUJOUR. Her 2012 debut novel, THE CROWN, reached the shortlist for the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award of the Crime Writers Association in the UK. Historian Alison Weir said of THE CROWN, “A stunning debut. One of the best historical novels I have ever read.”

Mark de Castrique is the author of two critically-acclaimed series, the Barry Clayton and the Sam Blackman mysteries. His 2012 D.C. thriller, THE 13TH TARGET, was called “one of the best political thrillers of the year” by the San Francisco Book Review. He has also written two mysteries for Young Adults – A CONSPIRACY OF GENES and DEATH ON A SOUTHERN BREEZE. Mark and his wife Linda live in Charlotte but are often found in the western North Carolina Mountains or our nation’s capital.

Shelia M. Goss is a national best-selling author and screenwriter and has over fifteen books in print. She writes in multiple genres: Christian fiction, romance, suspense, and young adult. USA Today says, “Goss has an easy, flowing style with her prose…” She’s the recipient of several awards and honored as a Literary Diva: The Top 100 Most Admired African American Women in Literature.

W. Soliman is a British author who grew up in Cowes, Isle of Wight. It was either join the yachting fraternity or make up stories about them. The latter seemed safer! To learn more about W. Soliman, please visit her website, or join her on Twitter (@wendyswriter) and Facebook (Wendy Soliman – Author).

Owen Fitzstephen is the author of numerous novels as well as a middle-grade trilogy, THE MISADVENTURES OF EDGAR AND ALLAN POE. Additionally, he is co-author of the non-fiction book, THE WAY OF BASEBALL, FINDING STILLNESS AT 95 MPH. He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A. and Chapman University. He lives with his wife Julie in southern California.


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  1. Very often I try to base the character of the hero on me, but then I find he tends towards making a cup of tea at times of crisis, rather than kicking butt like he should be. So the hero sometimes becomes the man I would like to be if I was six inches taller, fitter, younger, well you get the idea?
    Generally, though, the characters develop as they want to, instead of how I envisaged them to be. I may be allowed to give them some physical characteristics, some facial expressions, but how they behave, talk, and develop, is something they decide as the writing progresses. I wonder if they have a meeting at some point and agree amongst themselves to dismiss what the writer is doing, and take it upon themselves to tell their own story.
    How else can it when an aggressive male, would be assassin, suddenly finds a softer side that I didn’t know existed, by befriending a stray dog? Or the predatory female spy comes over all hot and cold at the sight of her foe, when she is supposed to be killing him?
    In our new thriller DARK OF THE SUN, Harry Beck has many of our characteristics; lazy, friendly, easy going, happy with his place in life. Then things start to go wrong, and, unlike us, he doesn’t head for the teapot, he begins to fight back. He investigates the bad guys, he saves the people being threatened. He finds reserves of strength and determination he, or we, didn’t know were there when we began writing about him.
    When writing a book I find myself entirely immersed into it. By default I am in the world of my characters, and I often find myself behaving as they might in any given situation. Once the book is finished I revert back to being me. but for the length of the writing of the book I am someone else; almost as if the author becomes a character in their own book.

  2. I was initially drawn to the historical Dashiell Hammett as the protagonist of my new novel, Hammett Unwritten, because of the powerful, narrative potential of his personal history – first, he was a private detective turned seminal hard-boiled mystery writer; next, he devolved from productive artist to three decades’ long blocked writer; finally, he remained, throughout his “unproductive” final decades, a politically and culturally engaged celebrity who wore his imperfections on his sleeve (drinking and womanizing) while keeping his darkest demons fiercely private. In all this, I recognized a worthy protagonist, not myself. However, at some point after I’d completed the second or third or fourth of the novel’s many drafts, I began to see qualities of my own life embedded metaphorically in my depiction of Hammett’s more celebrated and eventful one. Even as my fictional Hammett seeks to regain “the black bird” that will allow him to create one final work, I found myself struggling mightily to discern the most truthful way to tell that story; and, as I struggled, my identity became as dependent on finding the right words as was my character’s identity dependent on finding his way back beyond the blank page. This was a startling and powerful symmetry. Dash and I are feeling much relieved since the publication of Hammett Unwritten.

    For me, this is the most worthwhile quality of writing fiction – to begin with characters who initially appeal for reasons of plot or color but who develop through the writing process, which is no less magical for being laborious, into shadowy aspects of ourselves that we can materialize, acknowledge and, perhaps, understand, in no other way.

  3. To be honest, I don’t separate my characters from myself. I’m talking about the “good guys” with whom I can empathize and sympathize. They let me play a fantasy detective and hero role, and I can make them smarter, younger, and better looking.
    Identifying with and caring for my characters helps me stay focused on the story. If I stop writing when they’re in jeopardy, then I’m anxious to get back to them. I’m writing for resolution, not a deadline.
    One pitfall in getting close to a character is when I realize he or she has to die. I’m not a detailed outliner and the story will surprise me as I discover it. Characters I care about become vulnerable because I know the reader will also care about them. Their death matters.
    At times my editor has pushed me to kill people I allowed to live. Other times she has argued for me to spare them. I made them too endearing.
    Mystery and thriller writing is life and death, and by uniting myself with my characters, I find those life and death situations carry emotional consequences that I hope affect the reader as much as they do me.

  4. How do I separate myself from my characters? With my Hunter Files series, it’s easy to draw the line, mainly because they’re written in the first person from a male point of view and I’m all woman! Not surprisingly, that creates a few problems because…well, I don’t want to get into the ‘men from Mars, women from Venus’ mind set thing, but I do believe our brains are programmed differently.

    That said, I had a good idea of the sort of man I wanted my hero, Charlie Hunter, to be. Tough, resourceful, cynical and emotionally damaged by the trauma of his youth. (He saw his mother gunned down in front of him, which would be enough to screw with anyone’s head.)

  5. For me, it’s not that difficult to keep myself separate from the characters I’m writing about, at least in a professional sense. My characters are archaeologists, police detectives, pathologists, antiquities experts—and I’m a writer, who has no real life experience or expertise at any of those jobs. But characters are also human beings, with all the doubts, fears, and phobias connected with being human, and that’s where it’s easy to see the blurring of their personalities with your own. Though they’re often involved in very different kinds of work, my characters often muse about the very same things I muse about, and in quieter moments between suspenseful action, they tend to ponder the same philosophical questions that are running through my mind.

    Since I write a strong female lead, people tend to assume that Nora Gavin is a version of me (the usual younger, fitter, prettier version, of course…) And I suppose she is—but so is Cormac Maguire, the leading man. Since Nora is American, and Cormac is Irish—just like my husband and me—people often want to know whether Nora is me and Cormac is my husband. And I usually say, ‘Yes. Except for when I’m Cormac and he’s Nora.’ And that’s not being cheeky, I swear, just accurate. Nobody in my stories is cut from the whole cloth of a real person. And as much as we try to differentiate all the characters in a story, we writers are in a sense EVERY character. This question kind of harks back to last week’s question about protagonist vs. antagonist as well. Even the villiains in my novels have a bit of me in them.

    Each of the characters ends up an amalgam, a blend of quirks and characteristics pulled from lots of different people, including ourselves and the people we love to study all around us: we might combine a turn of phrase here, a mannerism there, the particular gait from yet another individual.

    For me, one of the main points of writing fiction is to delve into the inner workings of empathy, to find out what it might feel like to be someone else, facing all manner of hardships and challenges and moral questions, and exploring how you yourself might react in any given situation. That’s why I read fiction, too…

  6. The protagonist of my thriller novels, The Crown and The Chalice, is a Dominican novice living in England in the 1530s. So I am writing about someone of a religion I don’t practice, in a country I don’t live in, in a time I am five centuries past. No, this character is not *me.” But I love the challenge of writing in the first person in these books, inhabiting a person who is so far from me.

  7. It’s easy to separate myself from my characters because I’m not as exciting as they are. My life is simple and my characters lives are always full of drama and/or suspense. In my Blake sisters series (Savannah’s Curse/Montana’s Way), the sisters find themselves in dangerous situations. They have to rely upon skills they were taught while growing up to assist them in saving each other’s lives. I don’t like living life on the edge like the Blake sisters. Even in some of my lighter books, such as Hollywood Deception or Double Platinum, the characters lives seem to be one situation after another. The characters don’t like facing their issues head on. I’m the opposite. I like to confront situations so that I can deal with it and then move on. I remember the insecurities, the questions, the issues that teens may have because I remember how it is to be a teenager so I enjoy writing young adult books too. I like to learn from my characters too. Delilah (based on the biblical story of Samson and Delilah) and Ruthless (based on the biblical story of David and Bathsheba) have characters that are faced with real life situations and although some of their actions are deadly, there’s so much to learn from them.

  8. When I’m writing I am completely in my zone, and that includes the involvement in my characters. I think about them constantly whether I am writing or not. LOL! It’s always been that way for me but since I am writing a series right now, my characters are constantly in my head even more. But hey, I enjoy it. LOL! I think it’s fun, and makes writing interesting to me. I’ve never met an author who didn’t feel the same way. Also my favorite characters are the villains. I love the bad boys and bad girls.

    I’m definitely gonna check out some of the authors here. I love Shelia Goss’ work already.

  9. With my thrillers, the story lines are so far from my own real life that naturally, the characters are also very different from myself. I try to make my characters very normal people so that when they collide with a very abnormal situation, the drama and suspense is major. But even in making them normal, they couldn’t be anything like me because I wouldn’t make the choices they have to make to keep the story rolling. I’ve noticed that in my writings that are not thrillers, I am a much more likely to draw from my own characteristics than I am with my thrillers. Maybe I am just protecting myself from my own creativity…

  10. Hi all! It seems to me that the writer’s duty – and real joy – is not to separate himself from his characters, but to step into them fully enough so that he can truly be them, at least for the moment of writing. When you think about it this is quite a psychotic profession we have.

    As a former massage therapist, I find one excellent way to ‘get into my characters’ is to figure out what body posture they have. Do they stand tall, do they crouch or slouch? Is there a limp, or do they walk with an energetic bounce? Once my character development has gone this far, then physically putting myself into the body usage of my character brings that character to life in my mind.

    Then, when my writing day is done, I fall back into my own particular enervated slouch and shuffling of feet, and I am myself again. It’s pretty cool, actually.

  11. Tony’s comments are so interesting. How many of you act out at least portions of the hair-raising situations you put your characters through — trying to feel what they’re feeling while wrestling with the villain, and the like? My husband is a good sport, and always game when I ask him to play a part!

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