posted on January 16, 2020 by Donnell Ann Bell

Putting the Character in Character

By Donnell Ann Bell

One of the hardest things for me to do as a writer is to create characters. Some authors have told me, “Oh, my character came to me fully formed.” Others say, “Oh, I do character interviews to find out what makes him/her/them tick.”

Me? I ask my characters, “Who are you?” and most rudely shout back, “You’re the author, you figure it out.”

Not helpful. Makes me want to stuff them in a drawer until they can play nice.

Still, I can have an amazing plot, but if the characters don’t come alive, then my book is nothing more than words strewn on a page. No matter what genre you read, books are all about emotion, and characters bring emotion to life.

What’s more, without strong, relatable characters, readers might give a book a try, but they will just as quickly put the book down.

So, because I need characters in a book, and because my characters are stubborn and won’t talk to me, I cheat.

Yes, you heard it here first.

If my protagonist is in law enforcement, I interview members of law enforcement. If my protagonist is an FBI agent, I interview FBI agents. If my killer is an insane whack job…I interview mental health professionals and read books. (I fully admit I don’t interview whack jobs). By using these techniques, I find my muse comes to life and the characters cooperate.

In Black Pearl, my November 2019 release, I came across a new problem. I wrote my first female police officer. One would think, oh, that’s easy, you’re a woman. Au contraire, this character really dug in her heels. She had the nerve to call me, her creator, a fraud.

What did I do about it? I went to some fellow authors who in their past careers were law enforcement: Kathy Bennett, Phyllis Middleton, and Robin Burcell. I interviewed them and asked them about their experiences. These women were beyond helpful.

I took those results to my female police officer character. But instead of saying, “Great job,” she said, “You’re getting warmer. You need to know more. You need to get inside my head.”

Because she’s not real and I couldn’t shoot her, I did a lot of groaning and pacing. Then another idea came to me. I’m a graduate of citizens academies for my local police and sheriff’s office, so I marched into the Gold Camp Police Station one morning and asked the woman behind the glass partition if I could do a ride-along.

“Of course,” she replied and pulled out her clipboard. “Fill this out.”

I hesitated. “Thank you. I will. However, is there any chance I could do a ride-along with a female police officer? And is there any chance she could be a field training officer?”

The woman blinked. “Will there be anything else?”

I thought about it. “No that about covers it.”

As events turned out, there was a female field training officer in the Gold Camp Police Station at that very moment. The receptionist paged her; she came out to the front desk, introduced herself, said she was too busy to accommodate me just then, but two weeks later we did a ride-along on a twelve-hour shift.

She was amazing. Professional, smart, everything that Kathy, Phyllis and Robin exuded in spades. I saw how she conducted herself with the public and listened to her comments in private. Further, she helped me brainstorm my character, and one remark she made hit me with such force, I took her at her word. “Please don’t make her a slut. We don’t get where we are by not being professional and smart.”

I went home after that shift and did my character outline and that’s when my character told me her name. “My name is Allison Shannon,” she said. “I come with plenty of baggage, but I’ve risen above it.”

I’ll close by saying, I’m intensely proud of Allison and she’s one of the best characters I’ve ever created. But as you can see, I didn’t create her alone. She’s a mix of some very remarkable women I admire. She’s working in a man’s world. She’s tough, she’s formidable, but vulnerable at the same time, and she’s waiting to tell you her story.

I’d love to have a drawing for readers who comment today. I’ll give away two copies of Black Pearl, and I’ll ask Writerspace administrators to draw names.

Thank you for being with me today.

~ Donnell





Donnell Ann Bell

Donnell Ann Bell

Donnell Ann Bell is a two-time Golden Heart® finalist who previously worked for a weekly business newspaper and a parenting magazine before turning to fiction. Her debut novel THE PAST CAME HUNTING became an Amazon digital bestseller, reaching #6 on Amazon's paid overall list. DEADLY RECALL, her second-single title, reached #1 as an e-book on Amazon's paid overall list. Additionally, BETRAYED and BURIED AGENDAS have been Amazon e-book best sellers. Traditionally published with Bell Bridge Books, BLACK PEARL was released in November, 2019, and she's back to work on book two of the series. To learn more about Donnell or to sign up for her newsletter, visit at

41 thoughts on “Putting the Character in Character”

  1. Avatar Nicole Laverdure says:

    Looks fascinating to read! I love that the main character is female. I’ve read a book by this author and loved it. Thank you for this giveaway. Interesthing facts to know!

    1. Avatar Donnell Ann Bell says:

      Hi Nicole, thank you! Which book did you read?

  2. This storyline sounds captivating and I’d love to read it. Thank you for the chance!

    1. thanks for commenting, Jeanne. Good luck!

  3. Avatar Taylor R. Williams says:

    Sounds like an amazing book – thanks for the chance to own it.

    1. Thank you, Taylor. I’m biased, I’ll let you be the judge. Good luck!

  4. Hi Donnell! I love this story about creating your protagonist. I’m really looking forward to reading your novel, Black Pearl, now. 🙂

    1. Hi, Francelia for your lovely comment. Good luck!

  5. Donnell, I am fortunate to know you, and you just get more brilliant with each book! I love your approach to research and your determination to get it right. I’m glad your characters are stubborn. Your readers–including me–get an amazing book at the end of your hard work.

    1. Avatar donnell says:

      Barbara, ditto my friend. Your railroad police protagonist is up there with one of the best writers currently in existence. I’m in awe!

  6. Avatar Chris Bailey says:

    Thank you for sharing how much work it really takes to create a compelling character.

    1. Chris, particularly this character. She’s amazing. When I did the victims advocacy for my local sheriff’s office, one of the deputies dressed in this huge pillsbury dough boy costume and asked the advocates to come at him… self defense course…. He kept shouting at me, “You’re such a girl.” I am. my protagonists aren’t. Good luck

  7. Avatar Vicki Batman says:

    I love the book! And OH MY, you do lots of research. Hugs, vb

    1. thank you, Vicki! So grateful.

  8. I love your process, Donnell. It just goes to show you, fictional characters ARE real!

    1. Avatar Donnell says:

      They are, Becky and we breathe life into them! Thank you for stopping by!

  9. Avatar Shannon says:

    If you’re novel writing is as good as your blog post writing, the book is going to be great! I’m a fan of Kathy Bennett! Love her work. The ride along must have been amazing to do. Definitely something to draw from for years. Do you ever see that officer around town?

    1. Ah, thanks, Shannon. I love Kathy Bennett’s writing. Have you read her latest? A Deadly Blood Moon. She’s amazing. Thanks for stopping by and good luck!

      1. Avatar Donnell says:

        by the way, Kathy Bennett will be on my blog tomorrow on Help From My Friends Friday

  10. I highly recommend this book and all the others by this author. Her characters and plots are 5-stars every time. Black Pearl is outstanding!

    1. Thank you, Loralee! I’m honored that you yourself, a wonderful writer, would say such things. Happy New Year!

  11. Thank you! My characters are stubborn, too and this will help in the future!

    1. Excellent, Patricia. I’m not a natural when it comes to character. I can come up with plot, but character, oy! Thanks for stopping by.

  12. Avatar Phyllis Middleton says:

    I’m not in the drawing, just saying, but I love your work. I was happy to help. 😉

    1. Avatar Donnell says:

      Phyllis, thank you. How could I write a character when the women I know in this profession are exemplary. I appreciate all the time you invested in creating Allison. Does that make you a god mother of some kind? xoxo

  13. Avatar Rachael Dahl says:


    She sounds incredible, and I love that she made you work for it. What an interesting way to build a character. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Rachael. It is interesting and my process. Boy, my characters are mean to me. Good luck in the drawing!

  14. Donnell
    I love that you did a 12 hr ride along! Good for you! I was a police officer 36 years ago when male officers thought it was “the thing” to put a dead fish on the engine block or my car on a hot day shift (12 hr shifts too), or put decapitated duck heads in my locker, or rig up a mini camera in the one washroom. I was the only female officer so they weren’t going to spring for a new washroom for me, and it was three floors up to the “ladies” room where the female admin staff had a washroom. That was the least of the unpleasant things they did to make me know I wasn’t welcome in a man’s world. And I appreciated your resource’s advice about not making her a slut, because being professional and smart was the only way I survived although the sexual harrassment was unbearable. Things still go on these days, I know it’s not a cake walk for any female officer in LE but I had zero union support back then. Wonderful that your department had a female TO!

    1. Laurie, thank YOU! You were the first to open the doors for other women in law enforcement. I read a book about the first women in the FBI. Amazing that in all walks of life there are barriers. Thank you for being so strong, so professional and knocking down walls.

  15. I love that you listen to your characters and heed their advice. When you were told you were “getting warm” you figured out what the next step needed to be and took it.

    My bet is that your extra effort paid off in all kinds of good ways.

    I’ve always loved your stories, Donnell, and I imagine this one is exceptional.

    1. Thank you, Peg! Happy New Year!

  16. Avatar flchen1 says:

    Great to meet you, Donnell! I haven’t had the pleasure of reading your work before, but I’m intrigued, and love how much you’ve researched! Looking forward to getting to know your stories!

    1. Hi, there. flchen1, if you do, I hope you enjoy. Good luck in the drawing!

  17. Wonderful post, Donnell! Congratulations on BLACK PEARL! Can’t wait to read it.

    And loved this so much. > “I ask my characters, “Who are you?” and most rudely shout back, “You’re the author, you figure it out.”

    1. Is that not normal, Cynthia? Do your characters not yell at you? 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  18. Avatar bn100 says:

    interesting character info

  19. Avatar Leslie says:

    Wow! That’s in-depth characterization. I can’t wait to enjoy.

    1. Thanks, Leslie, I hope if you do you enjoy! Happy New Year!

  20. Avatar Ani says:

    Catching up and making notes Thank you Donnell

  21. I admire your persistence about getting into your character’s head by using firsthand research. I’d be afraid to go on a ridealong. You never know what might happen. I remember when I researched about one of my books, I did call an officer friend and he gave me some information about guns so I’d not make an idiot of myself when describing the wrong kind of gun that did the wrong sort of thing. If I don’t know someone personally, I use the Internet now. However, characters are what make a book worth reading so it’s best to get into your make-believe character’s head as much as you can.

    1. Morgan, ride alongs are the best way to get inside an officer’s head IMO. provided you get one who likes to talk. Generally, the higher ups only give officers who like to talk requested ridealongs. Citizens Academies are also great. As well as Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy. Thanks for commenting on my article.

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