January 4 – 10: “Are random character generators going too far?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The internet is full of helpful websites for crafting and researching plots, history, characters, setting, but are random character generators going too far? This week we’re joined by ITW Members Shiloh Walker, Terry Shames, Bernard Maestas and Jean Heller.




Say That to My Face by Bernard MaestasBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games or the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book.



hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, Maximum Impact and Handyman by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, The Someday File, to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.


Headed for TroubleShiloh Walker is an award-winning writer…yes, really! She’s also a mom, a wife, a reader, and she pretends to be an amateur photographer. Her Secrets and Shadows series includes Burn for Me, Break for Me, and Long for Me. To learn more about Shiloh, please visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@shilohwalker).



Necessary Murder_cover (1)Terry Shames (Berkeley, CA) is the Macavity Award-winning author of the Samuel Craddock mysteries A KILLING AT COTTON HILL, THE LAST DEATH OF JACK HARBIN, DEAD BROKE IN JARRETT CREEK, and A DEADLY AFFAIR AT BOBTAIL RIDGE. She is also the coeditor of FIRE IN THE HILLS, a book of stories, poems, and photographs about the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. She grew up in Texas and continues to be fascinated by the convoluted loyalties and betrayals of the small town where her grandfather was the mayor. Terry is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.



  1. This turned out to be a fun exercise.

    I had heard of character generators, but more along the lines of video, film, and television. I suspected these had nothing to do with this week’s discussion. I had never encountered a character generator for print, so I went looking.

    The program I found asked for the decade in which the character was born, gender, and ethnicity, and that was all. I laughed with scorn as I asked the program to build me a character, Western European, born in the 1980s, and female. But I stopped laughing when I saw that many of the attributes ascribed to the computer-generated character were traits I’d given my own character as I developed her without a computer’s help.

    Except for the name. The program called her Lauren Gilmore, which sounds more like a romance writer’s pen name than the protagonist in a mystery/thriller. My character’s actual name is Deuce Mora, which I like a lot better.

    There were so many attributes assigned by the computer to the Lauren character that I suppose it was inevitable a few would be on the mark in terms of similarities to traits I’d given to Deuce. Others were wildly off the mark. But I was particularly amused at the list of professions for which this Lauren character would be well-suited. One of them was: Dictator.

    Is there a university where you can major in that?

    And there was no indication as to whether this Lauren person would be a benevolent dictator or a monster. I presume the author would want to decide between the two before starting the Lauren profile.

    In any event, it was fun, but totally useless. My real character, Deuce Mora, is a newspaper columnist. I spent an entire career as a newspaper reporter and editor. I think my personal reactions to elements of that profession and the way those elements shaped my outlook on life and, to some extent, my personality, were a lot more valuable than a computer-generated everywoman.

    This is not to say that a writer stuck for some interesting traits to give a character couldn’t use a computer construct to generate ideas. The programs aren’t limited to building protagonists. Evil-doers have personalities, too.

    For example, should Lauren be written as a dictator, surely she would have this computer program trait suggestion: “suspicious of others.” But did I really need a computer to tell me that?

  2. Not all random generators are created equal.

    I’m curious to hear what my fellow thriller writers think but I, for one, can find an entire story arc or derailed by a minute detail. Rolling right along in a chapter and, suddenly, I need a name for a background character and, before I know it, I’m sidetracked trying to think of one. In instances like these, random generators are a godsend, for sure.

    Beyond those little snags, however, I’ve found some use for random generators in drawing up ideas for stories in general. There are a host of generators that can help you with everything from country and ship names to magical spells and phony tarot cards. Sometimes all you need is a little nudge to get your own imagination flowing.

    Back in the “old days” we used to scroll through baby name webpages for hours until we hit on the right name, either for a protagonist or a minor character. Frankly, I feel like random name generators are just progress, taking some of the unnecessary frustration and legwork out of it and letting us focus on the real art.

    I did come across one generator that would come up with a whole character for you. It gave a first, middle, and last name, and even made up a social security number. There were notes about education, profession, personality quirks. I thought that was a bit much. Then again, any of those details might have been helpful for a character you already have in mind.

    I think these random generators are fantastic progress in some ways. Like all progress, however, there comes a point where it ruins everything. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to plug in a few parameters and have a whole story generated for you. I’m sure we’ll have random passage and chapter generators to fill in the gaps.

    For the time being, however, I have a list of go-to generators for different things. They certainly come in handy to keep the gears of progress turning on a story. But I agree that there is a fine line that should be crossed with care.

    1. Bernard,
      From my limited experience with character generators (the time it took me to drink a 24-ounce thermal mug of coffee this morning), I can see where a generator would be helpful in suggesting quirks I could assign to characters. I was rather taken with the number of possibilities the generator came up with on my first try.

      But I’m quite sure I wouldn’t use one to help develop plot lines or passages of a story. I agree with you completely on that point. And I know I wouldn’t use a generator to build a character for me from the ground up. At that point, the craft of writing becomes something akin to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. And the full picture likely will have cracks running all through it.

      1. Jean,

        First off, I think your idea of a group write up based solely on generators would be both hysterical and educational. Like you mention in this post, the danger is where the actual craft of writing becomes just piecing things together and loses the actual art behind it. There’s already enough of that going on because, really, everything has been done already.

        I noticed last year, when pitching my latest novel, the upcoming CONCRETE SMILE, that agents now even tell you what title they’re looking for. “I’m interested in Twilight, not Hunger Games.” If everything has already been done and we also start leaning on random generators like crutches instead of just a quick spark, I think the entire craft of writing is in trouble. As long as we’re making an effort, though, to tell somewhat unique stories drawn mostly for our own minds, there’s still some validity left.

  3. Random character generators? My first thought on being presented with this question was, “Absolutely not1” But then I remembered that I’ve never even heard of a character generator, much less seen one, so I figured I’d better do a little research and then put in my two cents. I Googled it and found a few different ones that promised to provide everything from hair color to character flaws to special talent. Seventh Sanctum has a list of random characters like, “the awkward acrobat from a big family” or “the athletic, materialistic traitor.” As I read them, it looked like these were more for game playing than for novel writing, although they included novelists in their potential users.

    After this my question was, why would someone writing a thriller need such a program? When I write, characters show up and take their rightful place in the action. I tried to imagine coming to a place in a book where I would need a random character like the awkward acrobat, and I failed. For me, there is no such thing as a random character. Each person in a novel has to fulfill a need to move the story forward, or to explain the past, or to interact with another character.

    I suppose I could be missing an opportunity to expand my horizons. Next time I’m writing a scene maybe I’ll go to a random character generator and instruct it to send me a character. Who knows? There may be a circus novel in my future about an awkward acrobat who becomes a master spy!

    1. Terry,
      An awkward acrobat would probably kill himself before he could do much significant spying.

      Maybe we should write a group sendup of a thriller put together by a generator. It could be pretty funny. And there definitely would be a place for an awkward acrobat in there, and maybe even a suspicious dictator.

  4. My reaction was in line with Terry’s – no way! Though the discovery from Jean’s brief investigation is eye-opening. Let’s hope agents and publishers do not start depending on random generators, as suggested by Bernard. In the end, such programs are another tool, like pen or keyboard, encouraging laziness in some hands, inspiring creativity in others.

    1. Susan, you actually hit it on the head here. Using them as tools is a great way to put it.

      Personally, I write better on a keyboard than I ever could with a pen and notebook. I sort of consider the occasional visit to a name generator akin to that. It keeps me productive and efficient but I don’t rely on it too heavily.

    1. Elizabeth,
      The one I used in my brief investigation was: http://character.namegeneratorfun.com
      Initially, it asked me, among a few other things, the decade in which the character was born. I noticed this morning that question is gone now. So all this supposedly good information is being generated solely with questions of ethnicity and gender being considered.

      Not what I would call extremely reliable.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!