June 12 – 18: “How difficult is it to let go of a character?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Just like Madonna’s song “The Power of Goodbye,” how difficult it is to let go of a character? Is it different in a series vs. a stand-alone? This week ITW Members David Salkin, L.J. Sellers, Karen M. McManus, Melodie Winawer, David McCaleb, Dennis Hetzel and A.J. Kerns will discuss letting go.


David M. Salkin is the author of 13 novels, with Penguin, Post Hill Press and Permuted Press. Salkin’s novels include military-espionage, action-adventure, science-fiction, horror, and crime thrillers.



Melodie Winawer is a physician-scientist and Associate Professor of Neurology at Columbia University. A graduate of Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University with degrees in biological psychology, medicine, and epidemiology, she has published over fifty nonfiction articles and book chapters. She is fluent in Spanish and French, literate in Latin, and has a passable knowledge of Italian. Dr. Winawer lives with her spouse and their three young children in Brooklyn, New York. The Scribe of Siena is her first novel.


Karen M. McManus earned her BA in English from the College of the Holy Cross and her MA in journalism from Northeastern University. Her debut young adult novel, ONE OF US IS LYING, was released by Delacorte Press/Random House in May 2017, and will be published internationally in 18 territories. To learn more visit www.karenmcmanus.com, or follow @writerkmc on Twitter.


L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries—a four-time winner of the Readers Favorite Awards. She also pens the high-octane Agent Dallas series and provocative standalone thrillers. Her 21 novels have been highly praised by reviewers, and she’s one of the highest-rated crime fiction authors on Amazon. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where many of her novels are set, and she’s an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, and zip-lining. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.


David McCaleb was born on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Growing up on a farm, he studied the teachings of nature, enjoying hunting and fishing, intermingled with hard labor. One of the last green belts on the east coast, the Eastern Shore is steeped in creative culture, with which he credits much of his inspiration. In order to counteract the rigidity of having to make a living, David writes. A lot. He started in 2009 and intensely studies his craft. RECALL, the first novel in the RED OPS series, is available August 2016. RELOAD hits shelves August 2017. The third book in the series is currently in production.


As a native of Chicago, cheering for the Chicago Cubs, loving baseball and obsessing about politics come naturally to Dennis Hetzel. SEASON OF LIES is his second novel, following the award-winning Killing the Curse (written with Rick Robinson) in which events precede those that unfold in the latest novel. As a journalist and media executive, Dennis has won numerous awards for writing, industry leadership and community service, including the 2003 Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for leadership in coverage of race and diversity issues. Since 2010, he has been president and executive director of the Ohio News Media Association in Columbus, Ohio, and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government.


yemenArthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Diversion Books, Inc. NY, NY published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract, and the sequel, The African Contract. The third in the series, The Yemen Contract, was released in June 2016.


  1. For me this topic has come at the right time. I will welcome suggestions and advice from my fellow panelists. My current work winding down to the last chapters is the fourth in the “Contract” series. It is a bridge novel from one protagonist, Hayden Stone, to another (his current partner), Sandra Harrington. Letting go of Hayden at this point is not a problem as he’ll retire to the French Riviera and will always be there to help Sandra out of jam if necessary.
    The problem is letting go of two other characters, the arch villain in previous episodes and the other, a main female character. Both are headed for their demise or retirement. I’m getting mixed reviews from my fellow writers, members of my critiques groups. The despicable villain is so well liked that I’m told I shouldn’t do away with him. He’s too powerful a character. However, the series could use a fresh adversary for the new protagonist. The female character, a potential casualty, is generally disliked by my female writer friends (they favor Sandra) and liked by the male members (and me). She plays a pivotal role in Hayden’s character.
    As the thriller comes to its dramatic conclusion, I also realize that a couple of other minor characters have to meet their end. I’m sorry to see them leave, as they could appear in future novels. I guess it boils down to getting to close to your characters. Like your children, you sometimes have to let them go.

    1. When I was a newspaper editor, I would talk with reporters about “story fatigue” that can hit readers when something is being covered and covered and covered. You can feel this as a tangible thing. However, in the case of an important story, you can’t stop covering it, so the challenge is to keep it fresh and meaningful. (A good current example is the opioid epidemic — a hugely important story to communities that is starting to sound the same.)

      While the analogy isn’t perfect to fiction writing, I do think the same thing can happen with continuing characters. You have to challenge yourself to find fresh angles and “things to do” with characters without them having a personality transplant that would seem phony or forced. So, maybe when they have run their course, it probably is time to let go.

      That said, if the readers would expect you to let them go, maybe you should surprise them and let them live! Or, maybe you have an idea that is just so excellent that it cries out for execution, but it involves a fond farewell, I certainly would give that a try.

    2. “A Camel is a Horse Designed by a Committee”

      Ask ten people and get ten different answers! LOL I feel your pain.
      I write a series call THE TEAM, and over the course of six novels, in heavy combat, some favorite characters are going to get killed! It’s always a challenge to lose strong characters, but also par for the course if you’re writing realistic stories.

      Remember the original Star Trek series on TV with Kirk and Spock ? Any time we saw guys in red suits that weren’t Scotty, we knew their life expectancy was maybe 45 seconds, tops. And we never cared what happened to them because we didn’t know them. But then Spock died… and HOLY CR*P ! We LOVED SPOCK! How could they do that?

      I think when we write characters we love, it’s hard for US to say goodbye to them, just like it is for the audience. And yes, sometimes you’ll even make your audience MAD at you! LOL But if they cry over the death of your imaginary person, then you wrote that really well…

      And then go invent a new one!

      1. Thanks to both you and Dennis for your thoughts. As I near the end of my novel I guess it’ll be fun to surprise myself as well as my readers as to which characters will live for a future story. That is as interesting to me as waiting to know who’ll leave my imaginary world.

        1. Arthur, you almost touch on a point here that maybe isn’t unique to me when I write. Is it just me… or maybe none of us KNOWS who going to die until we start writing!

          Sometimes, as a story is moving along, and a new scene develops, I look at it (a combat scene, for example) and think, uh oh… I have to keep this realistic… there’s no way they all come out unharmed.

          I wouldn’t quite say we paint ourselves into a corner, because we always have that “backspace” button… but there are times when I make a sad face, apologize to my character that I like… and then kill them!

  2. I’m facing this decision right now. After twelve Detective Jackson books, I worry that the series might have run its course. My publisher says it’s harder to pick up new readers this deep into a series. But I still have thousands of Jackson fans who want more stories. Some email me right after the newest book is released to ask when the next one will be available. So I’m torn.

    The decision is also personal for me. Jackson and his team have been in my head for twelve years now, and they feel like friends. It’s hard to accept that I won’t get inside their heads again. So I’ll never write a book ending that closes the door to future Jackson stories. And for now, I’m leaving the decision open.

    But Jackson and his team only a few of my characters. Even for standalones, it’s hard to be done with a progtagonist. I’ve noticed that I keep bringing my female FBI agents back into new standalones, which technically makes anything with that character part of a series. Even The Gauntlet Assassin, my most unusual story, features Lara Evans from the Jackson series—but in the future. So at this point, the only true standalones I have were written long ago, before I stared my Jackson series.

    I have to admit that part of the compulsion to revisit characters is efficacy. I’ve already done the development work, so why not repurpose it? But it’s more than that. Characters become real in my mind when I see the world from their perspective. Also, I write about intriguing women—a sociopathic FBI agent, an adrenaline junkie FBI agent who works exclusively undercover, and an autistic private investigator. Writing their stories is intriguing, so I can’t resist coming back. Developing whole characters is great fun too though.

    Interestingly, even though I always enjoy writing from the antagonist perspective too, I’ve never brought a villain back in a new story. But the, very few survive my wild endings.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when I start plotting the next standalone thriller. I won’t be surprised if one of my protagonists at least makes an appearance.

  3. This question is a timely one. My debut novel was just published two weeks ago, and I always meant for it to be a standalone. The story, and the character arcs, all wrap up as I intended at the end.

    Now I’m working on another novel with new characters in a completely different setting. But I still find myself thinking about the characters in ONE OF US IS LYING, and imagining new scenarios for them. They’re very real to me, and I like the idea of being in their heads again one day.

    It’s an interesting condundrum; on the one hand the story feels complete as is, but on the other, the characters have room for more growth.

  4. I think all authors have examples of characters who are mourned deeply after they’re dispatched from your pages. When you really care about a character – and it can be due to any number of reasons that range from obvious to the reader to intensely personal – it feels cavalier and thoughtless when you exercise your God-like power to determine their untimely demise.

    In my first book, “Killing the Curse,” I had that experience most intensely, perhaps because Chapter One was the last chapter I wrote. (Has anyone else done that?) It was based on feedback from a draft reader, who said I needed to get the story going faster. The father of a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox had died mysteriously, but I hadn’t really developed the details. The death was an important plot element because my antagonist was trying to control whether the pitcher could compete against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

    So, I wrote Chapter One to describe what happened to Don Van Ohmann on a lonely road in eastern Idaho. In the process of making him seem real and a person who readers who would care about, I made my book much better. I certainly didn’t plan on feeling as emotional about it when I wrote the final paragraphs on that chapter. He still seems like a real person to me. The ripple benefit, which seems obvious in hindsight, it that this also made his son, pitcher Trey Van Ohmann, a richer, more-intereseting person. Little did I know then that Trey Van Ohmann would be one of the two main characters of my new novel, “Season of Lies.” I suspect Trey still has more stories to tell.

    RIP Don Van Ohmann, and thanks so much for enriching my work.

  5. My debut novel, The Scribe of Siena, was published three weeks ago. When I finished my first solid version of the book, my friends and readers congratulated me. “Go out and celebrate!” they said. But I didn’t feel like celebrating–I felt like crying. I didn’t want to leave the people I’d spent years with. Of course the book was hardly done–lots more editing happened after that, and It was quite a while before I’d be “done” with my characters. I remember one particular edit very clearly. Right before we submitted the manuscript, my agent, Marly Rusoff, asked me to go back and fill in more of my protagonist Beatrice’s reaction to a major loss in her life–Marly wanted that grief to be more explicit and acute. Although the scene was tragic and difficult, I also felt such intense relief at being able to go back into Beatrice’s head, reimagine how she would feel, and how she would express her feelings, both to herself and others. It was so wonderful to be with Beatrice again. And every time I had to dive back into someone’s head during my editing process, I was always so grateful to return. They are all alive to me, they have their own ideas and will, and I can’t bend them to mine. It’s more like I am transcribing what they do than making them do something.
    Once I’d REALLY finished the book though, the urge to write a sequel was strong. I’d built a world I loved to be in, a story that had more to tell (and it does, both emotionally and historically), and people I was deeply sorry to leave. But…I resisted that urge. I felt I had to move on, travel somewhere else. It was hard to imagine at the beginning that I could love other characters again they way I loved my first characters…sort of how it feels when you are pregnant with your second child, and can’t imagine loving anyone as much as your first. (In my case, I was pregnant with our second and THIRD child, because after our first, we had twins!) And of course, the love was just as great the second time with our next two children. And I’m happy to say that I am falling in love with the characters in my new book, and the place and time they inhabit–Byzantine Greece, rather than medieval Italy. I knew, as a writer, that I needed to go somewhere new and that’s what I’ve done. But maybe someday I’ll go back to the world and the characters that I met through The Scribe of Siena…I know what I’d do next if I did…

  6. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments thus far. What I see is that all of you LOVE your characters, and I think that’s vital. If you don’t, your audience might not either. And I don’t mean only the “good” ones… you can love your evil characters, too. (Because without them, who will your superheroes fight?)

    The TEAM series has seen its share of characters come and go. And a few of them REALLY made me sad. I think that’s a good thing. If I cared, maybe my readers did, too. Now at book 6, the original team of special operators is a fraction of its original size. Hey, it’s dangerous work.

    That said, my 14th novel came out last month. BATTLE SCARS did something to me that had never happened in over 10 years of writing professionally… I cried writing a chapter. Can you BELIEVE that? I made MYSELF cry. Sheesh. But this was a novella of a different sort. I hadn’t written it for the sake of strictly being entertaining, it was a novella i wrote for our veterans, and in particular, those suffering from wounds of combat, both physical and emotional. (I’ve worked with veterans for 20+ years, and it was very personal to me.) One thing I know for sure, the amount of love I had for my characters was palpable, and I’ve already received some calls and emails from veterans who were in tears reading it. The point being, if WE love our characters,but kill them off, I think it hits our readers that way, too.


  7. It’s great to hear others’ comments! It’s interesting to me to see, particularly for those of you who write series books, how you think about what your readers want, not just what you want. Anyone care to elaborate a bit on that?

    1. In my TEAM series, there was a large cast, so it made it a LITTLE easier to kill off a few minor characters in the beginning. By book 3 or 4, readers had a few favorites, and so I was a little more tentative about who I whacked… I was starting to feel like Game of Thrones. LOL

      I think one thing that helped was adding a few new characters to THE TEAM series who were very likable… even the one who only lasted for one book!

      1. I think there’s an interesting distinction between “killing” your characters and not writing about them any more, e.g. leaving your series or deciding not to do a sequel. I knew someone had to die, since my book is, in part about the Plague of the 1340s, and half the world died. It was tough to decide which ones would die–a strange and terrible decision to have to make. Infectious diseases don’t have agency, but novelists do…

  8. Never Say Die

    The English “goodbye”, like the characters in a book, can be so finite. Here today, gone tomorrow.

    In contrast, parting words in other languages encompass a world of possibilities of that which is yet to be experienced.

    Whether it’s, auf wiedersehen in German, arrivederci in Italian, or hasta luego in Spanish, each expresses the probability, and the hope, that we will meet again. And even the Japanese rarely use sayonara, unless it really is “the end.”

    In life, as in writing and in reading, I prefer the meanings that other languages provide for that interim we call separation. And I would like to think that the characters we create in our imaginations, that eventually inhabit the pages of a book, continue on, not only in our minds, but in the minds and perhaps the hearts of our readers.

    So, if you must terminate one of your characters, think of them as an old soldier who has faithfully served, and comfort yourself with the words of General Douglas MacArthur. “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

    No matter how wonderful our stories may be, as we grow and change, some of the characters we loved best as writers and readers do fade away and/or are replaced by others.

    But, they never really die.

    We meet them over and over again in the ways they have touched us and changed us, and made us different and maybe, better, for having met them.

      1. you ARE a writer, Veronica! Get used to saying that. 🙂
        Not just in fiction–those who die remain alive through those that survive and remember them. Memory is an act of love.

        1. Melodie, Thank you for your encouraging words. Interesting that you should point out memory as an act of love, because that describes my novel precisely; my love for my ancestors and their sacrifices that made my life possible.

  9. I keep trying to kill my characters, but my publisher won’t let me. RELOAD, the second in my Red Ops series is where I ran into this a couple times. I let the plot go the way it wanted – what seemed natural and plausible. I wanted to increase the stakes, make the readers love a secondary character throughout the manuscript, root for them almost to the end, then have them shocked by their death in a huge plot twist. It’s real life. Sometimes the good guys don’t make it, and it hurts. There was still plenty of plot and action and other characters to continue the story.

    But…my publisher said, “No.” Not actually in that specific word, but more like a heavy hint. And honestly, they ended up being right on this occasion. I kept the character. It happened twice for the same novel.

    So, no. I don’t have a hard time saying goodbye to characters as long as they are well developed, served their purpose, and the reader loves them. I’m with David Salkin on this one. I was a Trekkie as a kid and, even then, it bothered me how they’d throw unknown characters into the meat grinder. Not only did I not care, but it was irritating. Readers don’t care about someone they don’t know. They can’t know them or root for them until we develop them. And that’s the fun of writing. Readers enjoy getting to know interesting, new, and lovable characters. And we love creating them, because we don’t know how they’re going to turn out half the time ourselves.

    1. Well, I guess when the folks signing the paycheck weigh in… that’s a game-changer! LOL I once changed an ending for the same reason. Truth be told, their reasons were valid, and it could have gone either way… so in my cheesiest fake-Georgia accent, I merely said, “I yield to the Senatahh from New York…” and changed it.

      And I’m glad someone knew my Star Trek reference. I’m not really a Trekkie, but DID love the series as a little boy, and even then would recognize when the red shirts arrived that they were cannon fodder!

      Has anyone other than me actually shed a tear while writing? It only happened once, but I found it surprising in an almost gratifying way… like that character was THAT real to me. Almost a friend…

    1. In THE TEAM series, “Macky” was getting too old for combat roles. I didn’t have the heart to kill him, so he “retired”. It also gave me the ability to bring him back in a cameo if I wanted.
      That said, about half of the original team was dead by book 6!

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