Let Your Characters Take Over

by G.B. Pool

Let me repeat myself:

When your characters start talking,

get out of the way and let them talk.

Why do I say this? Because I have done just that and my characters have taken me places I didn’t know I would be going to. They have told me who they were when I thought they were somebody else. This goes for minor characters as well as major characters.

When I was writing CAVERNS about rats eating away the ground underneath the high rises along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, I was going to kill off a cop who first discovers the rats, but as I was writing about him, I realized I liked this guy, so I had him turn into one of the three male leads in the book. I gave him a life with a not-so-great wife, a great kid, and a really nice girlfriend. He kept telling me who he was and the story grew. I even have my female lead in the story help rescue the girlfriend. Who knew there was that much more story to write? I guess my character did, because the cop character kept nudging me to write more about himself.

One of my three detective series features this guy named Johnny Casino. I figured that would be his name. I grew up reading detective novels that my mother had and watching detective shows on television. There were three famous detectives from old TV series and a movie whose name was like a playing card: Spade, Diamond and Heart. Sam Spade from the Humphrey Bogart movie The Maltese Falcon, David Janssen’s TV series “Richard Diamond, Private Detective,” and Robert Wagner who starred in “Hart to Hart.” I wanted my detective to be the fourth playing card, a club. But “Club” wasn’t right for a last name, so I thought: what name means club? How about casino? And Johnny Casino was born.

But wait: Johnny was more than just a name. He started “talking” to me about who he was. The first page of The Johnny Casino Casebook 1, Past Imperfect, the first book in the trilogy, was literally Johnny telling me about himself. I just typed out what he was saying. This is the first paragraph in that book:

My name is Johnny Casino. I’m a retired P.I. with a past. I just hope it doesn’t catch up with me. Before I went legit, I ran numbers in Jersey for Big Louie “Fingers” D’Abruzzo and then busted heads in Miami for Big Eddie “Mambo” Fontaine. But at the ripe old age of twenty-four, Little Johnny beat a hasty retreat to L.A. when somebody slipped the cops a hot tip and all of a sudden, I became the fall guy for the Mob.

That first page was typed out in one continuous effort… No re-writes. This was who the character was going to be. I couldn’t tell you where it came from, but there it was. He knew he was born in Jersey. His dad was a consiglieri to a local crime family. His mother was from another crime family in Chicago. He worked for the mob for a while until he told himself this wasn’t the life for him and eventually moves to California. But Johnny’s real name had been Cassini back in Jersey. He changed it when he made that move to Los Angeles. But in The Johnny Casino Casebook 2, Looking for Johnny Nobody, Johnny finds out he really wasn’t a Cassini. He meets his real mother and her second husband. Johnny’s father, a cop, had been killed before he was born and an unscrupulous organization basically took him from his mother and sold him to the New Jersey pair. And how did I learn all this stuff? Johnny told me when I was writing out more of his biography for the second book.

Biography? Why not? I learned to do this when I took acting lessons in the last century. Back in 1973, I took acting lessons so I could learn how to write dialogue. It was a great way to see what actors needed to do to bring their characters to life. My teachers, Rudy Solari and Guy Stockwell, were fabulous teachers. They wanted the actor to know who they were portraying before they set foot on the stage or in front of the camera, so they had the actor write a brief bio of their character. The script doesn’t tell you everything, so Rudy said create a life for these people that you are portraying. I did it then and I still do it for the characters I write. It can be a paragraph or pages long. Just enough to know where the character came from, who they are, and why they do what they do. It really does a make a difference to the actor. If the character had a rough upbringing, they will hit the stage with attitude. If they were sheltered or beaten, they will hunch over, head down, eyes averted. The actor needs to know this. So does the writer.

Sometimes the character tells me who they are when I’m writing their dialogue. They’ll start saying something that defines them. I did this recently with one of the short stories in the third Chance McCoy book, my third detective series. I wanted a television scriptwriter to write a murder mystery that has something in the plot that rings a bell with somebody who recognizes exactly what they had done in a fairly recent murder. I was going to have the gal be a mousy little writer, but as she started to appear on the page, I realized this lady was no shrinking violet. Chance McCoy might have a lady-friend from book two, but this gal gets him thinking about doing something more permanent about his relationship with that first woman. And it all came about when this new character started talking about herself in her own voice.

I really do this, and I’m not the only writer who “hears voices.” Other writers tell me the same thing. And if you ask an actor who has taken acting lessons, they will tell you about doing “improv.” That’s when an actor will be on stage “in character” and will let their imagination make up dialogue that fits the character and the scene they’re creating on the spot. The Improv Comedy Club in the Los Angeles area and The Second City Improve group in Chicago have been doing this for decades.

So, open your mind and your imagination and let some of these characters you are fashioning tell you a little more about themselves. You never know who will appear on the page to make your story terrific. Write On!

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes three detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence), The Johnny Casino Casebook Series, and the Chance McCoy detective series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS, Only in Hollywood, and Closer. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook and So You Want to be a Writer are available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

18 thoughts on “Let Your Characters Take Over”

  1. Gayle, great post. I, too, fell in love with a character I aimed to make the killer but the more I conversed with him the greater my love, so I picked someone else to do the murders.
    I am still enjoying my daughter’s home in Hernando Beah, FL – weather is amazingly cool

    Liked by 2 people

    1. These characters do have a mind of their own or at least a personality we didn’t know was there. It’s fun to see that other writers are saying the same thing. Enjoy the beach.


  2. What a fun post, Gayle. Did any of your characters tell you what to say? I always find it fun too when my characters leap out of my head and tell me what they’re up to next.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I write bios for my characters and am amazed at the interesting backgrounds they have. An improv class would be very helpful for creating dialogue. Fun too. Thanks for another inspiring post, Gayle.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Excellent advice, and invaluable as well, especially in the beginning of a manuscript. Let your characters contribute to the story by telling you who they are and what they want. What better way to get to know them? Your technique worked for me and so many writers I know.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. As usual, your post is fascinating and full of information. And I, too, love it when my characters take over and I have ‘channelled’ them for pages and pages, unaware of what I’ve written! Especially when minor characters tell me they have more to say. Thanks Gayle, I always learn more from your posts.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I love this post! I’ve had the same thing happen to me where I had to change the killer … and it was into my fourth draft with a deadline looming. I just knew he was innocent. Great tips here – and as always I learn something new and so helpful.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Gayle, and all you lovely fiction writers make me envious. Ah, for a book! But alas. Maybe I’ll start a short story using your technique. I’ll find a name in an unusual way, and see what they have to say to me. They would probably say…. “I don’t like my name!” Haha. Good post Gayle. You are ever the writing teacher for us!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jaxon, the name you gave the character begs for a history of where she got her first name and then the heritage from which she came with those last names if that will play a part in her story which it obviously could. Her past might be the key to who she is and where she’s going whether it’s to discover a long lost family member or to find out that the two last names are really part of a larger mystery as to her true identity. Okay. That’s my initial take. Write On!


  8. Great post, Gayle, and your insights about characters of course pulled me in! And helped a lot… my WIP has several characters I really like and going back and forth over who’s perspective I should use to tell the story, and your post is helping me sort that out! (loved Caverns by the way!) You are a great writing teacher…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mad, The characters you have written in your Mojave series are so real I feel like I know them. But as my friend Bruce Cook (writing as Brant Randall did in his book, Blood Harvest) did, he had several characters take chapters on their own and write from their own POV. It worked. So your very strong characters will work it out.


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