How Do I CAST My Story?

~ By Jeff Salter

This post originally appeared here.

First of all, let me say that it’s not particularly easy for me to delve into the “how” and “why” of what or who I write. Not that I’m trying to keep big secrets here… more like I just don’t think about the process all that much.

Authors come in two basic packages — with some (like me) falling somewhere in between. The plotters are those who diligently outline everything, build background files on the major characters, sketch out the entire plotline (including supplemental plot threads), determine the arcs of both plot and characters’ development, etc. Many are quite successful at that process and I’m not one to knock it. It’s just not for me… and, yes, I have tried it. A little.

The pants-ters are those authors who get a flicker of an idea and sit down and pound the keyboard for hours on end. They may have a general idea of where they’re going but not necessarily how to get there (or how long – in plot time – it will take). I’ve never been able to be super organized as I’ve seen recommended in workshops and blogs. I have well over 100 “starts” and hardly any of them — to my recollection — ever arose out of any seriously structured activity.

I’m definitely more of a pants-ter than a plotter, though sometimes writing by the seat of my pants can get me into trouble. I’ve found myself merrily writing scenes and dialog and then suddenly realizing I was heading down a rabbit trail. Not only would that material have to be culled, but I’d wasted a lot of time making that tangential trip. I’ve also pulled this stunt: write the beginning third… then skip to the final third… and then go back to the middle and try to fit it all together. I do NOT recommend this process! The continuity issues alone will drive you nuts.

Many of my stories come from a “what if?” notion. Like, “what if a hung-over woman wakes up in the pitch dark space where the Halloween festival was held and she’s still locked in the fund-raising jail?” [Rescued By That New Guy In Town] Or “what if a level-headed career woman has her apartment invaded by her sick boyfriend who won’t take no for answer?” [Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold] Or “what if a young lady reluctantly does a favor for her aunt and everything goes haywire?” [One simple Favor]. In each of those examples, I developed the “What-If” situation before I realized who the character could / should be… and what she’d be like.

In a recent post by Patricia Kiyono, I noted a few details about my process, so let me repeat those here:

Usually, I begin with an image or a concept and work out the primary plotline from there. As I move along, the secondary story arcs usually pop up. As far as characters, I start with the heroine and hero. Then I figure out who they know, where they live / work / etc… and who they confide in. After that, I mainly follow them around and listen to what they say. Watch what they do. Take a LOT of notes!

spotlightsIt’s not quite that simple or straightforward… and, of course, that’s not the complete process either.

Though I can’t think of any specific examples right this minute, I’ve had several of these “What If?” notions and not been able to decide right away if that situation calls for a male or female. Sometimes I have to write a bit about what might happen before it becomes apparent to me which gender to place in the central role.

Our Actual Topic

But our actual topic today is about whether we use a formula to create our major characters. I don’t think I use a formula, per se, but there are certain features which I find I utilize often.

Though I have a parade of villains who are despicably different, many of my main characters have certain similarities.

For most of my stories driven by a heroine, I often write her as smart and capable, but (initially) lacking in assertiveness and/or confidence — usually because she’s recovering from wounds of a bad relationship or unfortunate circumstances (or both). By the end of that story, however, she has surprised herself at how resourceful, courageous, and strong she truly is.

For the stories driven by a hero, I often write him as a somewhat solitary, self-reliant figure who needs the love of a good woman but hasn’t met her yet. He often has emotional baggage, as well… and many of these guys are ex-military. Some of my hero characters have a lot in common with the loners of the Wild West, so it may surprise you to learn that I’ve just recently written my very first story featuring a real cowboy. [It’s due out very soon from Clean Reads.] Many of my heroes have a “secret” back-story which sometimes turns out as not necessarily such a BIG DEAL… but he just figures it’s nobody else’s business. Still, it gives the heroine something to dig around for. Ha.

Almost as important as WHO the heroine (or hero) is… are the people who surround them. Many of my primary characters have wise aunts or uncles they confide in, some have close friends (whether at work or living nearby) who serve as their sounding boards. In cases where my plot is comedic or even screwball, I use these “straight” characters to verbalize what I think the reader might be thinking, as in “I can’t believe you’re going out with that crazy guy AGAIN! Are you bonkers?”. It’s also important (to me) to establish who my primary characters work with. Sometimes they have wise and understanding bosses… but often they have clueless, incompetent idiots in the head office… and getting important things done becomes a monumental task.


If you’re a writer, how do you decide upon your major characters?

If you’re a reader, what type characters do you most enjoy?

About Jeff:

Writing has been my driving interest since about fourth grade… and I’ve never stopped. I love creating believable characters and turning them loose with interesting and/or humorous situations. Dialog has always been a special focus for me — so much so that I used to imagine myself writing plays for the stage.

I am blessed to be working with three royalty publishers. Romantic comedy and romantic suspense are among fourteen completed novel manuscripts and four completed novellas. 

Besides fiction, I’m co-author of two non-fiction monographs (about librarianship) with a royalty publisher, plus a signed chapter in another book and a signed article in a specialty encyclopedia. I’ve also published articles, book reviews, and over 120 poems; my writing has won nearly 40 awards, including several in national contests.

As a newspaper photo-journalist, I published about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos.

Before I worked nearly 30 years in the field of librarianship, I was a decorated veteran of the U.S. Air Force (including a remote tour of duty in the Arctic, at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland).

Married, I’m the parent of two and grandparent of six.

2 thoughts on “How Do I CAST My Story?”

  1. Good article, Jeff. I’m like you, more of a pantzer than a plotter. And the same holds true with my characters. I start off with a character that has the problem which has to be fixed by the end of the story. But I don’t write down everything I know about the character, as I’ve heard people say you should. I give my characters their traits and personalities as I go through the story. Whenever I mention something about that character, I write it down on a profile page. If he or she uses a certain word, I jot it down as part of their vocabulary and occasionally drop it in the dialogue as I go.

    I can’t imagine laying out exactly what a character is going to be like before the story. We all change depending on the circumstances in our lives. Yes, eye color is a definite that would not change unless the character wore colored contacts, and there are some other features that should not change, but the rest?

    The only plotting I do ahead of time is when I ask myself, “Okay, Sharon. Where do we go from here?”

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