Your Characters, Real or Imagined

Writing is easy for me. I don’t mope around the house, struggling with a story, and have never accepted the concept of writer’s block. The question of what to write about has never entered my mind. There are a million things to include in a manuscript, and I spend more thinking time on what not to add.

For me, writing is fun, and the creative process is always fresh and exciting. In my experience, it’s as simple as putting the characters on a mental stage, then sit back to watch a river of words flow onto the page…er…screen. I don’t outline or pre-plan what will happen. My characters take care of that, and far be it for me to interfere in their (usually) chaos-filled lives.

I hear a lot about building characters. Some folks spend days or even weeks developing a written backstory for each fictional person they create. It’s how they write, and there’s no way I’m gonna say this method is right or wrong. If that’s the way it works for you, more power to you. Writers write, and they create in their own way.

However, my characters appear as the story progresses. Some might begin as secondary characters who help move the story along. Others are around for a single chapter, to help establish a scene, or to prod a reaction from the protagonist or antagonist, and they often are there to simply add spice and provide comic relief.

They are young, old, strong, weak, craggy, funny, lanky, portly, and always with distinctive voices. Many are part of an ensemble cast that grew over the years as the Red River and Sonny Hawke books matured.

But who are they, these fictions that I construct without conscious thought or planning?

One is Retired Texas Ranger Tom Bell, old, grizzled, tough as a bootheel.

He developed over the course of a few days. Building Tom Bell (I always refer to him by both  names) was like snapping mental Lego blocks together one piece at a time until he matured on the page. He’s partly a real deputy I once knew, partly drawn from life, and wholly cobbled together from actors I’ve seen in a hundred movies.

My daughters insist Tom Bell is my alter ego. Honestly, I hope I’m as spry as he when I reach his advanced age.

Early on, many of my characters were loosely based on people I’ve known, such as The Hunting Club membership. I used several old hunting and fishing buddies as the basis of my 33-near-old newspaper column giving them nicknames at the outset, and stretching the truth about our adventures. But as the months, then years (good lord, then decades) went by, those characters took on a life of their own, and are now so far removed from the boys that only friends and family can tell the differences in the two entities.

By the way. A word of caution belongs here. I once wrote a column about the time when Hunting Club members and I went to the Texas panhandle for pheasant season. On the way, we discussed a thousand things, including an acquaintance who often told his wife he was hunting with his friends, only to spend time with a girlfriend.. We made a lot of cracks about it, and the next weekend I wove those stories and observations into a completely fictional character. The Membership’s wives read the column and immediately cornered the boys in order to find out exactly who I was talking about. They soon cornered me and explained that if I ever wrote anything so close to home again, I’d walk like John Wayne for the rest of my life.

In the Red River series, Neal Box, Floyd Cass, Oak Peterson, and Deputy John Washington were all based on real people who have since passed away, but I changed their names. It was enough in those situations, because I molded the resulting characters to fit the storyline.

But human nature requires readers to look for familiarity in an author’s characters, and though most of the time they’re completely made up, folks often think they recognize themselves or someone else.

Our house phone rang one night about eight or nine years ago and my elderly Aunt Millie (not her real name) was on the other end of the line. She’d been in an assisted living facility for years, and I was remiss in visiting her. I thought that’s what the call was about when I saw her name on the caller ID, but cousin, was I wrong.

“Hello Aunt Millie!”

“Reavis Zane, I got a bone to pick with you.”

Sigh. When the old folks who once changed your diapers use both names, you done messed up in some way.

“I know. I’m sorry I haven’t been by. How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine.” Those two words were short, clipped. “That’s not why I’m calling.”

I flipped through a rack of mental files, trying to identify some other transgression, but came up blank. Another sigh. It’s what you do when there’s a whoopin’ coming and all you can do is take it. “Well, go to pickin’. What’d I do?”

She straightened me out right quick. “You’re telling family secrets in them books you’re a-writin’.”

Maybe. In those early years, lot of what I used as the framework in the books happened in some way to myself or others, and were based loosely on tales spun by the old folks. I draped those recollections as best I could to conceal what was real, but a lot was made up from whole cloth.

In this instance, I had no idea what she was talking about. “Which secrets are those?”

“Why, you know what I’m talkin’ about.”

It was the classic Older Adult Strategy used on me by parents, teachers, and at least one high school principal. Pile on the guilt and wait for a confession. I knew better. I’d survived my larval years by either begging forgiveness, or feigning complete innocence.

Volley back into her court. “No ma’am. I don’t know what you mean. Tell me so I can remember.”

“You wrote in this last book about Maxine and T.J. getting together and runnin’ off with one another.”

Growing up, I must have heard a dozen stories about marital infidelity when the old folks forgot us kids were listening to their conversations and drifted off into juicy details. But in this instance, I made up the couple who left their spouses and started a new life.

“Really. Aunt Maxine and Uncle T.J. did that?”

“That’s right.” I heard ice tinkle in a glass and figured she was drinking iced tea, or had gone to hard liquor (where she was driving me). “I just read that part in your book where a couple run off together. You’re talking about kinfolk. You cain’t go opening doors like that. Family skeletons need to stay where they are.”

“Hummm…so Maxine and T.J. ran off together?”

A low gasp. “You didn’t know?”

“No ma’am.”

“Well, I’m not gonna talk about that!”

And she hung up.

After a little digging, I learned what happened way back in the early 1960s, but I swear to you all, they weren’t in mind when I made up those people.

So here’s a little advice. Basing characters on long dead historical figures is a common occurrence for writers. Amy Cook, Writer’s Digest legal analyst, says: “You can write about historical people because the two main legal areas you need to worry about when writing about real people—defamation of character and invasion of privacy—only apply to living people. The deceased’s heirs cannot sue under those causes of action either.”

Using living people can be legally hazardous. Apply a little common sense and don’t be defamatory if someone is still sucking air and kicking. But I dassent go any deeper into this rabbit hole right now. There are dozens of detailed and well-researched articles online about using real people.

Be careful of your own family, too. They might have a crow to pick with you.

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About Reavis Wortham

NYT Bestselling Author and two-time Spur Award winner Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

40 thoughts on “Your Characters, Real or Imagined

  1. Good morning, Rev. You have demonstrated today that your great stories aren’t limited to your novels. I’ve had some ‘spainin’ to do about events in a couple of my own. Thanks for the introduction to Aunt Millie and the Hunting Club. You make them vivid and alive in just a few sentences, which is what it’s all about.

    Have a great weekend.

    • Good morning, Joe.

      Thanks for the compliment. I believe we’ve all had some ‘splainin’ to do in the past. Some of us got really good at it and became authors…

      Glad to introduce you to the Hunting Club. I’ve been considering the inclusion of the columns on my web page. Might have to do that, so folks can enjoy them. It would also be a good way for readers to see the evolution of a writer. Though I’m proud of my first published column on August 14, 1988, and it’s framed on the wall, it REALLY needs work. Even I can see the changes.

      Have a great week, kind sir.


  2. If I remember correctly, William Faulkner wrote about real people and included real events and even personality quirks. He did this so well that those described, and their acquaintances, knew exactly who they were. No one raised a stink because to do so would surely prove that what the “fictional” character did was true. I imagine the people in that old Southern town held their breath every time a new book came out. When I read that as a high school literature student, I decided to never base any character even loosely on a real person. Looking back though, I would sure like to, just to show some people they didn’t get away with it.

    • There are some living people I’d like to put in a fictional shallow grave, but I won’t honor them with a character. Faulkner and others have used real names, as you said. One of my favorite writers is the late William Humphrey who wrote “Home From the Hill” (which became the movie of the same name starring Robert Mitchum and very young George Hamilton and George Peppard. I believe he used once-living characters, and to me, it brought his writing home. In fact, he’s one who heavily influenced my style and voice. I also probably lean toward his writing because he grew up in Clarksville, Texas, not far from my home town of Paris. In fact, my grandaddy who is the foundation for my protagonist Ned Parker, was a constable at that time and provided security for Mitchum. Now there are some stories about folks getting in trouble in the nearby honky tonks.

      Many thanks for writing.


  3. Reavis, everything you said is spot on, in my book. I never make up my characters or question where they come from. I figure they’re in another dimension or something and their story is ongoing even when I’m not looking in on them. Though I’m fortunate they don’t close the curtains when I do.

    A quick story: When I was living in Roswell NM a few decades ago, one morning a lad of about 8 shot out of the house across the street and raced down the road.

    A moment later his momma appeared on the stoop, holding the screen door open with her left hand, and yelling at the top of her lungs, “James Earl Waddell, don’t you make me call you by all three of your names!”

    As they say in God’s country, ‘Bless her heart.”

    • Love that story! You gotta be in serious trouble for your mama to use all three names. I like the way you put that. Speaking for myself, my characters must be from another dimension, or created by my subconscious as I sleep. Now there’s a whole blog post, subconscious writing. My late father-in-law gave me one of the, if not the greatest, compliments on my books when he said, “I always look forward to the next Red River book so I can catch up with the Parkers who’re like family.”

      Re: Bless your heart. Most southerners know what that means. I have an entire blog post on that phrase coming soon.


  4. Sir. I think you and I may have some of the same relatives.

    I saw a hilarious Twitter thread yesterday where someone from Los Angeles was posting about her Alabama relatives. Her great-aunt shot her great-uncle in the driveway (a long time ago,) and the town’s reaction was ‘Good job, Margaret.” Then her aunt popped on to clarify which great uncle it was (she had the wrong great-uncle). Then someone else told out-of-towners the proper pronunciation of the town of Arab, Alabama (it’s AY-rab). It was a hoot.

    • We might be kinfolk, no doubt. Those old stories are great, aren’t they, and the great-uncle probably Needed killin’.

      Texas and southern pronunciations seem to bumfuzzle people who are not from around there. We have a nearby community spelled Lebanon, but it’s pronounced L’bnun. We always know who the “move-ins’ are.


  5. Great Saturday morning start, Rev. (It IS Saturday, isn’t it?)
    My characters tend to be composites of people, parts real, parts made up. When I first started writing, I was afraid readers would think it was me in the books, especially since my first publications were romance-based.
    My mom wanted to know if I had personal experience with what happened in the sex scenes, or if I “looked it up.”
    CJ Box was asked if people recognized themselves in his books. He said, “Everyone thinks my made up characters are them. The real people (and he often writes some of his characters, especially political ones, in a less than glowing light) never see themselves.”

    • Morning, Terry, and yep, it’s Saturday. The day I stay home to avoid all the masses and traffic.

      CJ is right, those who need to see, don’t.

      I have a manuscript in progress with the only sex scene I’ve ever attempted. When that came out in conversation with my grown and married daughters, their response was, “Ewwwww!!!”

      Thanks for the holler!


  6. Great post, Rev. Interesting stories and good advice.

    I write middle-grade fantasy, and have created a Mad River Magic gang, loosely based on my seven grandchildren. I sought permission from the parents before I started, and give the parents a chance to review the manuscript before I publish. In one of the first books, I did have to make some changes in the plot to satisfy one of the mothers. The grandchildren are still young, so someday one of them may have a bone to pick with me. If they want financial compensation for what I’ve written, I’ll just take it out of their inheritance.

    Thanks for the post, and have a great day!

    • Good afternoon, Steve.

      Thanks for the comment. When I started writing about the Hunting Club, I made sure they agreed to appear in the columns, but none of them ever tried to censor any of the stories (though like I said, I wrote one that almost got me killed).


  7. Great post, Rev. I often use mash-ups of several real people when creating a new character, then as the story progresses, the character becomes someone else entirely and the original inspiration is long gone. Though I did base two human characters on my dogs by envisioning how they’d act if they were human. Worked great. 😀

    • Thanks so much, Sue.

      Interesting idea, basing human characters on the personalities of dogs.

      In my experience, once characters appear in the story, they immediately reveal their backstory to me, and the reader. Funny how the mind develops them out, and I bet friends, acquaintances, and even movie or TV characters help flesh them out.



  8. Another fun and fascinating post, Rev. Gave my Saturday a great start. I’m always interested to see how another writer creates their stories.

    My characters pretty much come to me, not fully formed, but like people you might encounter while waiting for a bus, or via a friend. I get an image and then fill it in with behavior and dialogue, and little backstory, all while writing. I’m an outliner, and I think about characters beforehand, especially my leads, but it isn’t until I’m writing that they start to become real, and even then, it’s work to get them to open up.

    It’s all part of the process. For me, it can definitely be work, but work well worth doing.

    I’m with you about knowing you’re in trouble when a relative uses your full name, in my case all three names. We always knew mom had a bone to pick with one of us when she addressed us with our full names 🙂

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • You’d likely be Dale Ivan to most folks in our part of the world. I love how it flows.

      Glad you enjoy these posts. They’re fun, and I hope somewhat educational. I was once a teacher and found that my students always responded better to stories than dry facts (and I don’t mean that to be disrespectful to anyone who posts on this page or any others). I learned at the knee of storytellers, and they helped develop my style.

      I’m a history buff, always have been. I suffered through high school classes, listening to a litany of facts and dates we had to regurgitate at test time. In college, I took still another history course by a master. He came in opened his notes, and ignored them for the entire hour and a half, telling anecdotes that sounded like those stories I heard up at our rural country store. His conversational tone made them come alive, and come to think of it, Ken Burns must have taken a page from this professors Book on Teaching, because that’s exactly what it was like.

      Great to hear from you.


  9. Thanks for the Saturday smile, Rev.

    I create characters the same way you do–toss them into trouble and see what they do. Their reactions to those problems are key to unlock their personalities–likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, demons and angels.

    They take on a life of their own, aided and abetted by my subconscious who knows them better than I do.

    • Howdy Debbie.

      I’m glad that something I wrote made you smile, but on the other hand, I didn’t realize I’d written anything funny in this very, very serious blog post…..

      If we didn’t toss our characters into chaos, our books would be boring. Readers want action, chaos, sharp dialogue, and at the end, resolution. That’s what we’re here for.

      Thanks for commenting.


  10. Great post, Mr. Wortham. I have some family “skeletons” who still have flesh on dem bones . . . I’ll be very careful to not give them occasion to come rattling at my door.

    And BTW, your way of talking puts me in mind of my Oklahoma grandpa and grandma. Like a wind from the past blowing through my brain.


    • Howdy Deb.

      All my people are from Northeast Texas and live on the Red River. We’re likely kin in some way, and we all talk the same because we were raised by survivors from the Great Depression and WWII.

      Frankly, one major reason I wanted to write my novels was to preserve their ways of life, and their way of speaking. I was lucky enough to combine my writing voice and style into such a way that triggers the reaction you felt. I wanted to remind everyone about what it was like, and still is in many parts of this great country. The Bride and I always feel a kinship with people who live in the small towns we visit, and it always makes us feel good to hear them talk.

      I hope to keep that breeze flowing through your mind, stirring up old recollections that will make you sometimes grin, and other times, sigh with long-remembered satisfaction.

  11. Good points, all. I sometimes base characters on people I know, but, as you mentioned, they tend to drift away. I’m also not an advocate of advance character sketches or backstories. No one knows all there is to know about another person on first acquaintance. We learn about people as we get to know them. That’s how I get to know my characters, particularly as some of them are shaped going forward by the events they’ve endured in a book.

    • Hey Dana.

      I like to bring character’s backstory along a little at a time. I dislike info dumps. They’re clunky and slow the story down. Little things work, like adding spices to a soup or stew. It doesn’t take much. Giving them an interesting little habit is enough for one paragraph. A few lines down, maybe mention a mannerism, even describing a split fingernail on a farmer’s thumb is enough for the reader. They can fill in the rest. Later, in another chapter, adding a line of the character’s history is enough to generate more interest. A little spice at a time.


  12. I was christened Alan Garry. My dad was Alan David. When either of us was in caw-caw, my mother (his wife, of course) would call us by both first names. It got to the point where all she had to do was start with “Alan” and my tail would wrap around, protecting my nackers. Great character-building post, Rev. Great voice you got. Bet you’re a blast to drink hard liquor with, then go shootin’ pheasants.

      • Nackers would be the male counterpart to ovaries in females.
        A one word answer might be considered impolite in some circles. My personal filter on such matters is almost nonfunctional since many of my family members are in healthcare, doctors and nurses. They tend to call a spade, a spade.

    • Good morning Alan Garry!

      I love names like that. As you may know, I’m Reavis Zane, and my little brother is Rocky Lane. Sounds like five miles of bad road, and I’m afraid that monicker had something to do with a few rough years when he was younger.

      Thanks for the compliment on my style and voice. I do love hard liquor, Bombay Sapphire right now, and most Scotches. My dear friend John Gilstrap can tell you whether I’m fun or not, but let’s enjoy those drinks AFTER we get back in from the field.

      Lordy, I haven’t hunted pheasants in a good long while My good friend and author, Sandra Brannan lives in South Dakota and keeps trying to get me up there to hunt with her family. You may have sparked a February idea!


  13. My Steel Magnolia mom was a great believer is not airing your dirty laundry in public, and I researched and read Thomas Wolfe, the great North Carolina writer, who trashed his relationship with his family and his town by writing LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL. So, no real people in anything I’ve ever written. I’m also perfectly capable of creating someone from scratch who will fit what I need in my novels. I control my novels, my characters don’t.

    • Good afternoon, Marilynn.

      A number of authors have been chastised for using real people, but it worked for them in some way (and I can bet there were already issues between Wolfe and even Faulkner before the works came out).

      That’s the beauty of writing. No way is the RIGHT way. We find what works for us and put it to work. Think Hemingway. His sentences for the most part are short, and that made him famous. On the other hand, Cormac McCarthy seems to abhor punctuation.

      And like you, Jules Verne and Robert E. Howard’s characters were complete fabrications.

      Thanks for commenting today.


  14. Excellent post!

    I guess I’m lucky so far in that my characters are either 400 years old, or in my latest series, 40,000. No Neanderthals have come after me yet.

    • Watch out, I’ve just learned I’m about 3% Neanderthal. Guess that explains a lot of what’s happened in my life.

    • You’re related to the Bride! She’s 2% Neanderthal.

      Thinking hard on your comment, I believe you should be safe from repercussions at this point in time. Lemme know if any anthropologists give you the business. It will definitely be an interesting event, if it happens.


    • Afternoon, my good friend!

      Yep, and that event goes back to my first Kill Zone column about writing anywhere. For the uninformed; John and I were in Florida for several days to train with the State SWAT team. I’d forgotten about having a deadline and was forced to write in the back seat of a vehicle while we blew down the highway at around 3:00 AM or so. John and another good friend who was there to TRAIN the SWAT team were in the front, chatting, while I hammered away at the keys.

      I was successful because (1) I can write anywhere, (2) My characters had control of the column because I put them on stage, wrote an opening line, and got out of the way, and (3) I was desperate not to miss the deadline.

      In fact, I sent it, without review or rewrite, using a personal hotspot from that car following its headlights through the dark Florida morning.

      That training exercise can be the basis for one of these posts. Some of the most valuable time I’ve spent doing research.

      Tipping a Bombay tonight to your new adventure!


  15. Fust, and most importantest, Rev, thanks for your post and all them comments. Thet took time, an’ I ‘preciate it very much.

    My theory is that creation happens in the Unconscious, in a not-very-big place without a conscience in the mid-brain. Things happen faster there, ’cause ideas don’t have to travel so far to put themselves together. That place already knows my character’s mother-in-law’s aunt’s half-niece’s vehicle make and model, while I’m still wonderin’ whether to call that MC “Travis” or “Corson.” (Yes, the niece drives an F-150. How’d you guess?)

    So I don’t design characters; my story’s need for a particular sort of person evokes them on two legs in my Unconscious. When I named my desert story’s MC “Abilene,” I didn’t know that meant “watery place,” but he brings water (and absolution) to someone he meets in Saguaro Flat.

  16. Exactly. We’re working and writing even though we aren’t sitting at a desk and thinking about it. I’ve dreamed an entire novel, which I wrote in six weeks, and just last night dreamed a short story with an impressive twist, which I wrote today.

    Thanks for your insight!


  17. I love reading your posts, Reavis.

    My characters tend to be composites of people I know. One exception was the character of Cece in my first novel. Cece was based on a close friend of mine (I’ll call her J) who has an amazing talent: she knows how to be a true friend. Cece displays this in the book, along with a quirkiness that J doesn’t possess. Readers have all loved Cece. Maybe it’s because her character rings true.

    Thanks for a great evening read!

    • You’re welcome. Glad I entertained. Whether it happens intentionally or subconsciously, I think the characteristics of friends and acquaintances, family and fictionalize characters we’ve seen on TV and in movies, all tend to seem into our stories.

      Thanks for reading and replying.


  18. Love your posts, Rev! Always entertaining on so many levels.
    “Larval stage” ….that made me guffaw!

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