May 30 – June 5: “Characters: do you start from scratch or use models?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re talking characters with ITW Members Kate Kessler, Patricia Rosemoor, Ralph Pezzullo, Jean Heller, Lisa Preston, Jennifer Soosar and William Lashner. When developing characters, do you start from scratch or use models (like real people or movie stars) to build from?




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.



OrchidsLisa Preston turned to writing after careers as a fire department paramedic and a city police officer. Experience in her earlier professions enhance the medical and legal passages of her fiction and non-fiction. Her debut novel, Orchids and Stone, was released by Thomas & Mercer in April 2016, and has been described both as a thriller and as domestic noir. Her published work includes non-fiction books and articles on animals, particularly the care and training of dogs and horses. Away from her desk, she spends hours on backcountry trails as a runner and rider, sometimes combining her two outdoor pursuits via the obscure sport of Ride and Tie.


his deceptionNew York Times and USA Today bestselling author Patricia Rosemoor has had 98 novels with 8 publishers and more than 7 million books in print. Her novels are romantic suspense or paranormal romantic thrillers. Patricia won a Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America and two Reviewers Choice and two Career Achievement Awards from Romantic Times BOOKreviews; she taught Suspense-Thriller Writing at Columbia College Chicago.



Hunt the DragonRalph Pezzullo is a New York Times bestselling author, and an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. His books have been published in over twenty languages and include Jawbreaker (with CIA operative Gary Berntsen), Inside SEAL Team Six (with Don Mann), The Walk-In, At the Fall of Somoza, Plunging Into Haiti (winner of the 2006 Douglas Dillon Prize for American Diplomacy), Eve Missing, Blood of My Blood, Most Evil (with Steve Hodel), the SEAL Team Six thrillers Hunt the Wolf, Hunt the Scorpion, Hunt the Falcon, Hunt the Jackal, Hunt the Fox, and The Navy SEAL Survival Handbook (also with Don Mann), and most recently Zero Footprint.


it takes oneKate Kessler is a former juvenile delinquent who went from reading Nancy Drew to Sidney Sheldon by age eleven. A peculiar addiction to soap operas at a young age, and an overblown sense of curiosity often resulted in landing her in trouble, an affliction that continued into her teens. These days. She lives in New England with her patient and supportive husband and four cats, who provide all the external drama her life needs.



four night runWilliam Lashner is the author of the Edgar-Award nominated novel The Barkeep, as well as the Victor Carl series. A graduate of the New York University school of Law and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Lashner lives outside of Philadelphia with his wife and three children. The Four-Night Run is his latest novel.



PTA_SoosarJennifer Soosar watched too much ‘America’s Most Wanted’ growing up and has been writing about the criminal mind ever since. She has written dozens of screenplays and her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (May 2016). Her debut novel, PARENT TEACHER ASSOCIATION, will be published by Black Opal Books in early 2017. A native of Toronto, she has a degree in anthropology from York University and is a member of ITW, and Crime Writers of Canada.




  1. When I sit down to create a new character, I start with a name. Some characters fight me when it comes to revealing their names, others introduce themselves immediately. Once I have their name, I start thinking about what kind of person they are. Once that’s done, I start to think about what they look like.

    I like to ‘cast’ my books. Once I know the characters, I’ll look for models or actors that could play them if I was making a movie. What this helps me do is keep character appearance consistent. If I say my character has blonde hair, I know the exact shade if I have a photo of Charlize Theron to remind me.

    Eventually, my characters STOP looking like the people I cast and take on their own face (though the description basically remains). This is how I know the character has become real to me, because they don’t look like someone playing a role, but rather a real person.

    It’s funny, because sometimes I’ll cast people I don’t necessarily find attractive, and then when I make them my character, they start to become more attractive in my eyes! I’m not sure what that says about me! lol

    1. Names are one of my biggest challenges, usually the last thing I come up with. Names have so much meaning and character implications. I can see how that would be a good trigger for creating a character.

      1. Sometimes names are hard to come by, but most times they are what comes first. I think the name is what really makes the character, so it also makes sense to me that you would take time with it, to make sure you give your character the best name you can!

  2. For me, every character develops differently, and it isn’t unheard of for them to change smack in the middle of the story. Just last night, a character who started out as a good guy became a key villain because I needed him to be, and he was perfectly situated in the book to play that role.

    I generally try not to make any of my fictional characters clones of people I know. For one thing, I want my friends to stay friends, and I fear copying them onto the printed page might be counterproductive. What if they don’t see themselves the way I see them? What if they don’t like my characterizations? What if I embarrass them? Oops.

    When people I know ask me, “Am I in the book?” I always want to be able to tell them no. And I explain why. They come to see my point of view. Most of the time.

    However, with a capital H, I am not above stealing a mannerism from a friend. In fact, I do it a lot. One woman I know who, with her brother, owns a wonderful Italian restaurant in my Chicago neighborhood, has a fascinating habit. When someone is telling her something, and she gets it, she says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” Five times. Exactly. It’s a Chicago Italian thing, I’ve learned. It has now been immortalized in the Deuce Mora book I’m currently writing.

    Deuce’s own personality is modeled pretty much on my own, or at least as I see myself. She’s a lot taller than I am, and a lot younger. But she has my smart mouth and my general outlook on the world. My husband once said of my tendency to speak without first debating what to say, “With Jean, what comes up comes out.” It’s true. Deuce has the same problem. But it makes her a lot of fun to write.

    Most of my characters are made from whole cloth. In my two decades as a journalist, I met thousands of people, most nice and normal, some not so much, and then there were the politicians. I’m certain that a lot of their various attributes, looks, and speaking styles stuck with me somewhere in the attic of my brain where junk lives. It’s a treasure chest of useless information. But it’s not worthless information.

    When I need to develop a character, I just go rummaging around in the attic.

  3. Scratch and riff! I think about what the story needs, the motivations that would drive different decisions and actions; this reflection spark the creation. Parts of characters are sometimes an amalgam of aspects of models. I learn the characters’ verbal tics, strengths and weaknesses, their food, recreational and entertainment tastes, et cetera. I know about their work, family, friends and past.

    Similarly, it’s worth knowing minor characters fairly well. Details that aren’t revealed in the story may be fleshed out in my mind or notes for the sake of my understanding the person better. A character’s work or education may not be relevant to the story, but those factors influence how that person speaks and responds. In order to write a scene, I need to know more about a witness than is revealed by that person’s two sentence or half page interview regarding the crime.

  4. My characters are always figments of my imagination. I build them from the premise of the story. What is the mystery/thriller element? How do the main characters—heroine, hero, villain—play into the story? What are their backstories? Why is what is happening with the mystery/suspense element so important to each of them?

    I develop characters as I develop the plot—building brick by brick, going back and forth between the two elements—but very often (well, usually) characters have a mind of their own and they don’t always play nice. So what I’ve first envisioned may not work as I thought it would. I can fight with it all I want to no avail. I have to remain as flexible with them as I am with the plot, and I often have to rethink their pasts and motives.

    And then I rewrite as I go.

    His Deception was no exception. The premise was my heroine having a secret bodyguard and they would fall in love before she learned who he really was. That was it. So who was she? Who was her secret bodyguard? And who was the person threatening the millionaire’s daughter?

    Katelyn’s father wanted her to have a bodyguard as did her two half-siblings. An assault rifle manufactured by one of his companies fell into the wrong hands and was used on a campus killing spree. Now someone is sending him texts asking how he would feel if he lost one of his children. When she refuses—her last name different than his, she lives in a different state, hardly anyone knows he’s her father—he hires a secret bodyguard anyway. Katelyn is independent like her mother who left her father when he tried to run every aspect of her life. Her father has tried to include her with his family, but his wife and her half-siblings have never treated her with respect or love or made her feel like she belonged…making her long for someone who would do so. Enter Thorne.

    Thorne doesn’t like the fact that Katelyn doesn’t know who he is, but he’s been a protector since his time in Afghanistan when he saved most of the men in his company. I knew that about him. Knew that made him strong and honorable and able to handle anything. What I didn’t know was why, and I was deep into their escalating romance before I figured it out. He was tough because he’d been a foster kid handed from home to home, landing in a desperate situation with an abusive foster father. He ran when he was sixteen and never stopped running. Never thought of doing so—of having anyone to call his own—until Katelyn.

    1. I absolutely love your explanation of how you develop your characters.

      This: “I develop characters as I develop the plot—building brick by brick, going back and forth between the two elements—but very often (well, usually) characters have a mind of their own and they don’t always play nice. So what I’ve first envisioned may not work as I thought it would. I can fight with it all I want to no avail. I have to remain as flexible with them as I am with the plot, and I often have to rethink their pasts and motives.

      And then I rewrite as I go.”

      Yes. Exactly how I find my characters, too. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  5. Hey Guys,

    The great thing about this topic is it has forced me to think about how I actually create my main characters, as opposed to how I think I ought to. I feel like I should be making detailed histories of my characters, with notebooks full of nuggets, but that is not how I actually do it. The process, for me, goes like this:

    (1) Everything for me starts with the story — what story I want to tell and how it’s going to move to its slam-bang conclusion. One of the things I love about Eugene O’Neill’s plays are how his stories and characters mesh so perfectly. His stories and characters work together like a nutcracker and a nut and that’s what I try to do. I want a character that when placed in the dire situation I create will crack to her core.

    (2) The spark for the character always seems to come in the writing, not in the conceiving. I might have a strong sense of the character, but until something that I actually write makes him come alive for me on the page, I don’t have what I need. In THE FOUR-NIGHT RUN it is in J.D. Scrbacek’s smirk. I wasn’t planning on it showing up, it just came out in the typing, but when it did, that, along with fancy suit, made me want to wipe the smirk right off his face, and I had just the story to do it.

    (3) Finally, when I have a character, minor or major, that isn’t sharp enough, instead of giving her less to do, I give her more to do. I have her tell a story, or make an argument, or just generally talk about herself and the world. I’ll end up cutting a lot of this, but I have found the more she talks, the sharper she becomes for me. I’m in effect mining for a piece of gold.

    I hope that helps. I really am a magpie when it comes to character, I’ll steal anything from anybody, but I have found that when it develops in the writing it is much stronger than when I come to the work with a very specific model that I want to impose onto the story.

  6. The simple answer is: It depends. When I’m writing novels like the SEAL Team 6 series that closely follow real life situations, I base the characters on actual people. Members or former members of SEAL Team 6, in that case. I say “base” because while the characters take on attributes of real people, certain characteristics including much of their inner lives are imagined. For example, the lead character of the series Tom Crocker bears a lot of similarity to my co-author Don Mann, but he doesn’t always think and act like him.

    When Don and I started writing the series, I spent a lot of time asking him about guys he served with on SEAL Teams. Many of Crocker’s teammates are based on these individuals. Also, a number of Crocker’s antagonists, including members if ISIS, Mexican drug cartel leaders, Iranian Qods Force operatives, and North Korean military figures are inspired by real people. My job as a writer is to get inside their heads and imagine how they would think, speak, and act in a particular situation.

    Creating characters is an act of imagination and an ability I developed as a playwright. When conceiving completely fictional characters, I often sketch them first. Once I develop a clear a picture of how they look, I start to imagine how they would speak, move, and interact with other people.

    To my mind, this is one of the most challenging and critical aspects of writing compelling fiction, whether it’s a novel, screenplay, or play. All of us are fascinated by people and how they think and act in difficult circumstances.

    And all people struggle to become who they want to be, and live up to a set of standards they take on for themselves. They’re defined by their beliefs and histories. Whether, they’re Navy SEALS or housewives trying to make ends meet, they face inevitable challenges and conflict. Whether they’re based on real people or wholly imagined, interesting, I believe complex characters are one of the essential ingredients of a good thriller.

    1. “It depends” really does fit for me, too. Facets of a character may be developed, yet come in fully as I write. And I’m so with you on complex characters…they are essential to a strong story.

  7. Mind if I chime in?

    All of your methods are very interesting, and after thinking about it, I find that I work up the premise of the novel first. Then I look for the characters that can make it happen. For example: My recent work has a protag (female) who is a sniper in Afghanistan. That’s what she does, but as I develop what she is, I look for opposites, an offset to counter-balance her function in the story. In this case, I took a characteristic from my wife. The sniper is a devout Catholic. Then I ask myself if the pairing is credible. I scrutinize the believably of the concept. When I compared real soldiers in a real war, I found that these two opposing concepts to be completely compatible and totally believable, because in war, men find their God, especially when pulling the trigger.

    Oh … my protag looks nothing like my wife, but the victim does.


    Thanks for letting me play.
    DB Corey

  8. Oh, yes! People watching is the best. The other day my husband and I were at a park. There was this woman in a surgical mask cleaning the inside of her car with wads of toilet paper. She had a bed sheet over the driver’s seat, and was talking to herself in a language I couldn’t identify. I had to stop myself from staring because my imagination was already running wild on the topic of what she might be doing.

  9. Glad you’re chiming in, DB. Your sniper story sounds like it could have a fresh take. I think of it as sketching, when we’re pairing things, trying on the credibility and see how things fit, especially in the early stages of character creations.

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