Expanding Your Cast of Characters

20160618_183444a (3)As a fiction writer, I am sometimes asked by readers “where do you get your characters?” Usually that question is followed by “are they based on real people?” My answer is “I make them up.” Followed by, “I would never use a real person that I know as a character.” However, all of my characters are based on the sum total of my knowledge of humanity. I build my characters’ appearances, personalities, speech patterns, and behavior based on humanity as I know it or can imagine it. The limitations on my ability to create characters, then, are the limits of my own experience plus my ability to imagine and extend my knowledge to its extremes.

Part of my job in writing fiction is to create fully formed, believable characters that people can recognize, identify with, or at least be able to envision as a functional being. The more types of people I can imagine, the wider will be my casts of characters. So how do I improve and increase my casts of characters? I have to improve my knowledge of humanity as a whole by increasing my knowledge of the unique individuals whose quirks and personality extremes exemplify the wide variations in human behavior. I have to read. I have to read widely on varied topics, particularly about people who aren’t like me, people who live in places I would never live, doing things the I can’t imagine doing. This means reading histories, biographies, memoirs, news stories, and magazine articles about people from all walks of life.

For example, I am a reader and writer of mysteries. Mysteries are what I prefer to read most of the time. However, a diet of strictly mysteries wouldn’t be enough to help improve my writing, so I  read a lot of nonfiction in an effort to broaden my horizons. I read Red Platoon by Clinton Romesha, American Sniper by Chris Kyle, and 13 Hours by Mitchell Zuckoff. These books gave me glimpses into the lives of ordinary soldiers, special forces soldiers, and former soldiers working in dangerous parts of the world. They also illustrated the varying responses of people, both trained and untrained, when pushed to their absolute physical and emotional limits.

books on bookshelves
Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

I read Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S. C. Gwynne. Only the most stubborn, most fanatical people were willing to settle on the Texas frontier in the 1800s, an area that saw 300 years of territorial conflict. The brutality of modern warfare could be matched blow for blow by what was historically referred to as the ‘depredations’ of the Comanches in Texas. That people, like Quanah Parker and special forces operators, can go from the visceral brutality of killing in warfare and step into lives as businessmen says a lot about the plasticity of human nature.

I also read The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis about the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, a pair of Israeli psychologists whose work developed the field of behavioral economics. I read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb about the random, unpredictable events that impact our lives in huge ways. And I read Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larsen about a meteorologist’s failure to predict the 1900 Galveston hurricane. These three books include the issue of scholarly hubris. They discuss how wrong scholars and scientists can be when they think they have all necessary data, but don’t, and the damage to society as a whole that this overconfidence can cause.

Writers, be diligent readers, particularly of nonfiction and particularly of subjects that aren’t already familiar to you. See the world through someone else’s eyes. Expanding your reading horizons will expand your ability to imagine new, unique characters to populate your own stories. Many people live in neighborhoods that are socioeconomically homogenized, work with people who do similar work, volunteer with others who support the same causes, and participate in hobbies, sports, or social activities with those who enjoy those same activities. When you look beyond your own circumscribed lives and interests, you may find personalities that you never knew existed and a range of people you never could have imagined. Step outside your own world and into a wider one to improve your writing.

Let me know your suggestions for great nonfiction books. I’m always looking for more great characters.


N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her debut novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).


                                          Do Your Characters Talk to You?


Writers sometimes get intimately involved with their characters. We will be addressing the topic of author-character communication.  The “experts” tell you that you must know your characters when writing. That’s true, but how do you interact with them and do you talk to them? (There are doctors that treat people like us). There are a number of character trait forms to help you in most writing books, and there is also the back of an envelope. To be successful with your story you need interesting characters the reader can relate to and get behind. The characters must be believable, do things that are “in-character”, and right for that particular character, even if outlandish. It is a very good idea to really know your characters, especially the hero or protagonist. You need to “get into that characters head and live and see things through his / her eyes. Next, your characters need to talk to you as well. Have a dialog with your main characters to help drive your story. (I wouldn’t mention this conversation to too many people—they might outfit you with a new white padded jacket).

Below is a series of questions for consideration when working with your characters. I hope they make you think and consider how well you know your characters before you try and write them into situations they have to get out of.

When you write your characters, do you have a character profile and use it?


Do you talk to your characters when writing?


How well do you know your characters before and when you write?


Do your characters talk to you and if so, how?


Do your characters lead you in the story or do you have the story pretty well established and they follow suit?


If you talk to your characters, do you talk to them out loud or just in your mind?


During the writing process, stories sometimes change, do your characters drive this or do you just get other ideas?


Do your characters change during the story or just solve the mystery?


How do you develop your characters? Do they evolve or do you have a plan for them?


Does setting play a part of your characters personality?


Are your characters real people to you when you write?


We want the reader to like our characters, at least the good guys, how do you do that?


Do you think about your story and the characters when doing other things and not writing?


Have you ever been out in public and looking at a place or see something you could use in your story and start to discuss it with your leading character? Do people look at you strangely if you do this?


If your characters talk to you, what do you talk about?


Have you ever had an argument with one of your characters?


Do you take medication for this?


Remember, your characters work for you and they don’t cost much in pay and benefits, so treat them nice.


Remember: There are meds for this condition and doctors who treat people like us.






Doris McCrawPost copyright 2015 by Doris McCraw


I thought I’d take a break from writing about individual women doctors and investigate a related topic, grooming the cat. If anyone has tried this exercise, you know it is filled with challenges, frustrations and maybe a bit of laughter. Okay a lot of laughter; after the scars have healed.

I can hear you saying, the cat grooms itself. Yes, they do, but sometimes they can use a bit of help. Just ask the cat owner who cleans up after a hairball has landed on the floor, bed cover or your shoes. Because the cat is used to grooming itself, they don’t like their owners manhandling them, unless of course you started when they were really young. How many people have done that?


Just like grooming a cat, anytime you try something new or challenging, there is that learning curve. The pain of getting scratched or worse, being disliked. Like the cat, you will get over it. No, you may not like it but once it’s done you do feel better.

When I started researching ‘my’ doctors, I ran into a lot of stuff, much of it did not even contribute to the overall information I was looking for. I had to clear the excess away and get to the basics. Even as I worked through the ‘women had a hard time’ scenario to get to the actual information, I found myself worrying about whether I would ever find the truth. I’m not saying women didn’t have a difficult time, but back then everyone had a difficult time compared to our lives. When we try to put our lifestyle against another it will always fall short of the other persons truth.  The fiction writer can get away with some of those comparisons, but for historians it can cause problems.


So as I groom my cat, and he starts purring, then wanting to play with the comb, I find pleasure in his response. As I groom away the excess in my research, I also find a great deal of pleasure. But lest you think that excess fur, and excess information are a total waste, you can use the excess to create something new. No, I don’t usually use cat fur, but it would be fun to glue onto something creative. The excess information I don’t use, well it can end up in a story. which is what I did with my latest short.  That titbit of information help me create Tom’s story, a follow up from my first novella, which will appear in an upcoming anthology.


So you see, even grooming the cat has rewards. Until next time, here is to your own joy in grooming your ‘cat’.

home for his heart angela raines

also available as an ebook on Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.

Doris Gardner-McCraw/Angela Raines
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women’s History

Author Page: http://amzn.to/1I0YoeL

Photo and Poem: http://fivesevenfivepage.blogspot.com

Blog: http://renawomyn.blogspot.com/