August 19 – 25: “How do you separate yourself from the characters you write?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The questions keep coming this summer! This week ITW members Andy Wolfendon, Lynn Chandler Willis, Ann Simas, Ronie Kendig and J. A. Walsh will answer the question: How do you separate yourself from the characters you write? Or do you? Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss this!


Award-winning author Lynn Chandler Willis was the first woman in a decade to win the Private Eye Writers of America’s Best 1st PI Novel with her Shamus-nominated book, Wink of an Eye. Her traditional mystery series featuring newspaper publisher and reporter Ava Logan kicked off with Tell Me No Lies. The series continues in June and July 2019 with Tell Me No Secrets and Tell Me You Love Me. Her first published novel, The Rising, won the Grace Award for Excellence in Faith-based Fiction. Her work usually features small towns with big characters. She lives in the heart of North Carolina with Finn, a rescue border collie, and hopes to one day retire to the Appalachian region she often writes about.


J. A. Walsh worked in intelligence and counter-terrorism after the 9/11 attacks before embarking on a career advising the U.S. military on energy security strategies. He has degrees in Russian, English literature, and Environmental Law. He lives in North Carolina with his family.



Andy Wolfendon is a ghostwriter of over sixty books for adults and children. His screenplays have been optioned numerous times in Hollywood. He has written/designed over twenty-five computer and video games, many of which have won major industry awards. His award-winning stage play Empties has had multiple productions. Andy has done scriptwriting work for Blizzard Entertainment, Disney, Titanium Comics, Viacom, and other entertainment companies. FISHERMEN’S COURT is his first novel.


Ann Simas lives in Oregon, but she is a Colorado girl at heart, having grown up in the Rocky Mountains. She has been an avid reader since childhood and penned her first fiction “book” in high school. She particularly likes to write mystery-thriller-suspense with a love story and paranormal or supernatural elements. She is the author of 27 novels, 1 short-story collection, and 1 novella. An award-winning watercolorist and a budding photographer, Ann enjoys needlework and gardening in her spare time. She is her family’s “genealogist” and has been blessed with the opportunity to conduct firsthand research in Italy for both her writing and her family tree. The genealogy research from decades old documents in Italian, she says, has been a supreme but gratifying challenge.


Ronie Kendig is an award-winning, bestselling author of over twenty titles. She grew up an army brat, and now she and her army-veteran husband live a short train ride from New York City with their children, VVolt N629 (retired military working dog) and Benning the stealth golden. Ronie’s degree in psychology has helped her pen novels of intense, raw characters.


  1. With any book, I start with characters first and spend countless hours fleshing out their backstory, personality, wounds, and goals. Some characters leap onto the page fully formed, leaving me in awe and a little jealous of their individuality (I wish they all came so easily!). Others take more work, including one character who refused to give me his true backstory and finally just told me he didn’t care what I wrote as long as I stayed out of his business. In the end, I think every character an author develops has some morsel of themselves within said character, even if it’s a smidgen of the dark side.

    With the frightening reality that forensic linguistics can identify not only our age, background, ethnicity, etc., and also our guilt or innocence, authors are challenged to compellingly write a character who acts in opposition to the author’s personal beliefs, because those seep into the words we chose, the phrases implemented, and/or the structure of the sentences we write.

    Some of my characters left me a bit dumbstruck after the fact because I realized, “Wow. That’s me.” At first, that bothered me, but now—not so much because my personality is a viable archetype like any other. And it’s vital to connect with something within each character to write convincingly.

  2. This is an interesting question and I had to think about it for a while. Here’s what I came up with. I have to put myself into each character I write in order to be able to portray them properly. Obviously, I’ve never killed anyone, so putting myself into a killer’s shoes, for instance, is a little tougher.

    Locally, I worked for the DA’s office for a while, and then their Victims’ Services Program, and before that, Parole and Probation in Santa Barbara, so it’s not like I’ve never been exposed to criminal minds. I’ve also taken a Forensics class, done a ride-along with the local PD, taken a Criminal Investigation class, read a lot of books related to crimes and post-mortems, and been the victim of several crimes (don’t worry, nothing mind-blowing!). That said, I will never experience the evil that my antagonists do, but I’m still able to portray their thoughts and actions in a believable way. In that case, I guess you could say I’m both separate and not separate from my characters.

    On the other hand, I really let myself get involved in my female protagonists’ lives. I work hard at imagining how I’d feel in each of their situations—what they’d do, what they’d say, how they’d react. For my Grace Gabbiano Mysteries, the former police chief of Coburg once told me that he could see me in my Grace character. I took that as a compliment, because I think Grace is a strong woman of good moral character, and she is spunky. She does, however, take chances that I’m pretty sure I’d never take…but then, she is a cop, so she’s trained to take chances ordinary people like me wouldn’t.

  3. Character creation can be a mysterious thing. Often, in my experience, a character will show up in a scene and start talking and behaving in ways I don’t expect or fully understand. They’ll have an attitude and voice that seems to come from them, not from me. They seem very unlike me. My job is get out of their way and watch what they do. I love it when that happens; it feels like “the muse” at work. It can be disconcerting, though. There have been times when a new character has hijacked an entire scene, even an entire story.

    Other times character creation is a more deliberate and self-involved process.

    When I was younger, I was an actor, and I learned a version of the Method. We were taught that every character you play is essentially yourself, but with a different set of circumstances. I often approach writing my main characters in a similar way. “This character is me if I was a seven-year old girl who was afraid of adults and had only imaginary friends.” “This character is me if I was ninety-five, lonely, and had hurt everyone I loved.” In a sense, the emotional palette is the same for all characters. We all want love, we all have fears, we all have the same hierarchy of needs. But these play out very differently, based on each character’s back-story and which aspects of themselves they have developed or repressed, etc.

    The central conflict in a story is usually embodied by two main characters. For me, these two characters often represent two aspects of myself. That’s how I develop many of my stories. I’ll look to some area of my life where I’ve experienced inner conflict—logic vs. spirituality, taking vs. giving, intellect vs. emotion—and I’ll create characters that embody these two sides of myself. So they’re both me, in a deep sense, but with very different outer trappings and dominant traits. When I’m writing scenes between them, it’s like playing chess with myself. I can get into each of their heads and understand their motivations, and I don’t judge one as good and the other bad. They’re pretty evenly matched.

    A lot of my stories contain a mix of characters that are “me in disguise” and others that are more of the wild-card type. The interplay amongst all of these characters is what keeps the writing exciting and fun for me.

  4. ITW Colleagues:

    Glad to be joining this conversation and I have a slightly different take on it — less from a craft perspective.

    This is a question that I struggled with in the creation of Sami Lakhani, the protagonist of my debut, Purpose of Evasion. Like Sami, I was an intelligence officer, and that shared experience is at the heart of the novel’s plot and Sami’s character. By the same token, Sami is a gay, Muslim-American and I am not.

    On my book tour, very often the first question I am asked is: “What qualifies you to write this character?” It came up immediately in this interview with Boston’s PBS affiliate, and it is a very fair question:

    1) I don’t know. It is not a glib answer. Own Voices is the most important change of our time in American literary culture. And long overdue. There were no spy heroes like Sami Lakhani in American espionage fiction, and so I created one. I hope there will be many more and that those characters will be created by members of the communities that are not represented in our spy fiction cannon…

    2)…But, members of those communities are doing critically important work in protecting America’s national security as intelligence officers. I created Sami because he is a composite of many officers I served with. Americans with global cultural and familial ties, linguistic skills, and a commitment to protecting Americans from adversaries while improving our relations with allies.

    So I created Sami Lakhani. I am not at all dismissive of the difficulties of my giving voice to Sami as a gay, Muslim-American. He is the story’s hero. Getting the character right is critical to the book’s success.

    And yet, I am also conscious of being a creator and the power of the impulse to create what we as writers see the world needs from us. When I set out to write a spy novel, like any book, I asked myself: “Why does the world need this book and why does it need it from me?” Until I hit upon Sami fighting against the rising threat of White Nationalism in the United States, I did not have a satisfactory answer.

    I am supportive of the publishing industry embracing Own Voices and ensuring that communities who have not been represented in American literature are given their chance. I think we as creators must all continue to create the characters that tell the stories we believe the word needs to hear from our unique perspectives.

    It has to be done with utmost care to the perspective, deep research and consultation on characterization, and input from communities that are represented on the page.


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