Characters – Can’t Live With Them; Can’t Write Without Them by Sandra S. Kerns

Please help me welcome my friend and fellow Colorado Romance Writers member, Sandra S. Kerns to my blog. Sandra is giving away two $5 Amazon gift cards, so be sure to comment.

Characters – Can’t Live With Them; Can’t Write Without Them

Dream_StalkerSmall_(3)_2If you are a writer I’m sure at some time in your career you have been asked, “How did you come up with that character; character’s name, or character’s attitude?” If you are a reader, I’m sure you’ve wondered where the writer came up with the character. So I thought today we would spend some time pondering this issue.

All of the characters in my books share a trait or two with people I know or have seen, though they rarely are direct clones of those people. We take silly/serious personality traits from one person, odd physical tics from others, and emotional wounds from still others. In this way we can create an endless number of interesting and diverse characters from only a handful of people. Sounds easy, right?

Not necessarily.

We spend a lot of time working on the appearance, personality, and the motivations and conflicts of characters. Some writers even have scenes outlined with which characters will do what. After all this work what happens when we start writing the story? The characters don’t pay any attention to our plans.

Oh come on, are you seriously going to tell me that you’ve never had a character refuse to do what you wanted?

Okay, so they don’t stop, turn around with hands on hips and say, “Sandra, I am not doing that.” But they may as well when you write the scene the way you want and it feels totally wrong. You know that if you continue making your hero/heroine do things this way the entire story is going to feel forced. Your flow gets all screwed up and every word you type is forced. That, my friends, is your character telling you NO.

Now that you recognize it, what should you do about it?

The first thing I do is walk away. Granted, I’m usually walking away in a huff, gesturing wildly, and saying unkind things about the character or myself. Eventually I calm down and take a break to do something completely un-writing related. It helps to clear the clouds of frustration from my mind. When I return to my story I don’t start right back trying to force the scene. I reread it, trying to understand why it isn’t working; why the characters are fighting me every step of the way. Sometimes the proverbial light bulb will come on and I realize what I was doing wrong. Sometimes not.

When clarity doesn’t come I start writing the scene again. If the frustration with every word starts building again I stop. At this point I realize I need to talk to my character and figure out why things aren’t working. This is where some of my pre-writing work – most of which is done in my head not on paper – comes into play.

Years ago a writing group I belong to had a character motivation/conflict program with a little competition added in. The idea was to inspire us to really get to know our characters. I was writing a story with a detective as the hero at the time. I figured a good way to really get to know his deep dark secrets was to have him go to a psychiatrist. So I made up this situation where he had to go to the department psychiatrist after a shooting. Don’t worry; I’m not going to give you a list of questions to answer. To be honest, the psychiatrist (me) didn’t get a chance to ask much because the detective sat down (yes, I could see it all clearly when I closed my eyes) and pretty much wouldn’t shut up until he’d spilled what he considered his entire life story. When he finished he sat there with a smug self-satisfied look on his face and his arms crossed thinking he’d shot down every possible reason the psychiatrist could come up with to explain anything. I can still picture it in my mind and it usually brings a smile to my face because that character delivered info-dump provided me everything I needed to write his story.

Was this an in depth character outline? No, but it gave me a sense of what this character would be like if I met the flesh and blood version of him. It took him off the page and made him real for me. It’s become almost second nature for me to do something similar with all my characters now. I have honestly answered people’s questions about my characters at times with, “Oh, he/she would never do something like that.” Then I go on to explain why.

When I’m critiquing or visiting with other writers about a scene they wrote that feels forced to me, or that they aren’t happy about, I ask them to tell me why the character reacted that way. It makes them dig deeper into the characters psyche. It has made for memorable “aha” moments.

Has this stopped my characters from taking ‘left turns’ when I want them to go right? Not always. But now I realize much sooner that I am forcing my personality on their actions instead of letting their background and life lessons lead the way. Learning this has made for a much more joyful writing experience for me and I hope it will help you, too.

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Originally from upstate New York, Sandra now lives in Northern Colorado. She writes primarily romantic suspense. Now and then she dabbles in futuristic romance just to mix things up. She belongs to Romance Writer’s of America and two of its chapters as well as Crested Butte Writers. She has won several writing awards. Not one to rest on her laurels she keeps busy writing new stories. If she doesn’t, her sister sends her a loud email asking what she’s doing and why she hasn’t sent pages for review. Feel free to stop by her website at and say hi.


Eddie stood silently absorbing the hushed sounds of the darkness around him. To some, if anyone were up at this early hour, it might appear as if he were giving thanks to the heavens. He felt a grin pull at his mouth because they wouldn’t be that far from the truth. Other than being a little chilly for him, he favored this time of day. In these early hours of the morning there were no noisy people in his way and no damned glaring Colorado sunshine blinding him. Nothing interrupted him as he prepared for the task ahead. Even the old brick building in downtown Pinecrest seemed to pause with him, as if gearing up for the attention it would soon draw.

The early morning air whispered around him, tossing the tails of his trench coat. The flapping of them around his knees changed the grin to an uncharacteristic smile. He hadn’t felt this positive in two years. Even the recent missions hadn’t held such an optimistic feel. He tipped his head back and stared up at the dark, star-strewn sky. Pinecrest, Colorado didn’t have as many street lights as other cities, which made it easier, even downtown, to appreciate the number of stars above. Eddie closed his eyes and drew all the positive power of the night’s quiet comfort deep inside. Pulling his gloved hand from his pocket, he pushed the button on the panel next to the old building’s door. A woman’s wary voice came over the speaker.

“Who is it?”

“Eddie Craven, Ms. Tibbets. I called earlier. I have the information you wanted,” he spoke into the intercom, jumping when the obnoxious buzzer released the door’s lock. All the calming effects of the previous moments disappeared. He hated the sign of weakness. In his frustration, he yanked open the door with more force than necessary.

Once inside the dark stairwell, Eddie flexed his hands several times to cool the rush of anger. It wouldn’t do to hurry this through and miss all the satisfaction because of a stupid buzzer. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. Yes, there, that was better. He took hold of the railing and paused to let the coolness of the metal penetrate the thin leather covering his hand before he started up the steps.

Eddie looked up at the landing. An apartment door stood ajar, light spilling out. He squinted. He hated bright light and the pain it brought to his sensitive eyes. The constant sunshine, especially in the summer months, was one of the reasons he had enjoyed missions outside of Colorado. The other . . . memories. Pinecrest was much too close to the worst of them. His abandonment, the group home, the pain, the …

He needed to stop the negative direction of his thoughts. He reminded himself how easy this particular mission had been. He would have to use this ruse again. Posing as a PI who specialized in finding children given up for adoption had worked like a charm. He shook his head remembering how Ms. Tibbets had pleaded with him for his help. It worked as well as when he’d worn the cleric’s collar. The memory of wearing it while he sat across the table from the cop in Philadelphia washed over Eddie. People always trusted a man of religion. The desperate were always so gullible, and Detective Dawson had definitely been desperate.

The door at the landing opened further, sending more light flooding downward. The added glare forced him to put on his tinted glasses. Another weakness he had to accept, but getting a headache would ruin the satisfaction of completing his task.

“Did you find her?” Ms. Tibbets called down from above in a voice full of hope.

“That’s what you paid me for, isn’t it?” he asked and smiled the innocent, generous smile he’d mastered over the years. Yes, he would definitely have to use this ploy again. Payment for his mission was a bonus he hadn’t experienced.

“I can’t believe it,” she said waving her arm toward him. “Come in, come in.”

He stepped onto the landing and felt the first wave of triumph. It was followed by another feeling, one Eddie couldn’t identify, but knew he’d felt before. He tried to classify it, but it evaporated before he could. Shaking it off, he focused on the task at hand.

15 thoughts on “Characters – Can’t Live With Them; Can’t Write Without Them by Sandra S. Kerns

  1. A fascinating and enjoyable post -particularly for me because my latest novel is about a writer who talks to (and frequently argues with) the character he has made famous.

    I also sometimes struggle with characters who just won’t do what they were meant to but I hadn’t considered that I was inflicting my own personality on their actions. I’ll definitely try the psychiatrist’s couch in future.

    Lovely excerpt. It’s beautifully-written and sounds like a great story. Best of luck with it.

    • Lynette,

      Thank you for the compliment. I really enjoyed writing Dream Stalker. All three of the main characters have major issues.
      Don’t worry about putting a few of your own personaility bits in your characters – we are our best source of inspiration after all. :0

  2. Enjoyed the post Sandra. I slip into my characters’ skin when I write and I flesh them out with traits from friends and family etc. We’re all a tad schizophrenic with the stories in our heads anyway. 🙂 Best luck.


    • Rose,

      Unfortunately, I think I have to agree with you here. Would a totally sane person have people running around in their heads doing all kinds of things? Nope, we writers are a special breed. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Love this, Sandra, Love the excerpt as well. When I first started writing I asked a Colonel what he did when his characters wouldn’t cooperate. He told me his characters always did what he told them too. (Mine sure don’t — they must not have military training ))) Good to see you have so much success and that cover is to die for!!!

    • Donnell,
      So glad you stopped in! Hey, even my military heroes don’t obey orders I give them 🙂 My sister and I debated on that cover for months. She won, and from the responses I’ve received on it, I’m glad. Thanks for checking out the blog.

  4. Sandra.
    What a great post and I loved the excerpt. Looks like I have another book to add to my “to read” list.
    I love how you took your character to a psychiatrist. What a great way to learn who they really are.
    Thanks for the innovative idea.

    • Caryn,
      You’re so welcome. It’s just one of the most effective ways I’ve found to deal with my characters.
      Thanks for the positive feedback on the excerpt. Wish I could say I’m sorry I am adding to your reading addiction, but, I’m not! 🙂
      Happy Reading.

  5. That’s an interesting way to find out what’s not working in a scene. That cover is fantastic and so intriguing. I would see it on the shelf and go oh this looks like it will be really good. Thanks for sharing your tips today.

    • Kathy, thanks for the kind comments. I’m really glad people like the new cover. My first series covers were well liked also, but totally different.
      Yes, sometimes I send my characters back to the psychiatrist when a scene is giving me fits. I love playing doctor 🙂
      Happy reading!

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