The Secret to Creating a Cast of Characters

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How important is the cast of characters within a book?

I have been gnawing on this question for some time, especially after I’ve read a book or seen a movie or television show featuring a group of people of whom I have grown fond and become attached, which is not the same. I just finished binging “Last Tango in Halifax” (I know, I’m late to the party) and found myself experiencing a familiar emotion. What was I going to do without being able to tune in to Gillian destroying herself while frolicking with countless scoundrels on her dilapidated sheep farm? I’d grown fond of Caroline and her restraint while dealing with aging parents, foolish children, and an endearing but ridiculously weak ex-husband. I frantically searched for “stories like Last Tango in Paris,” hoping there was one more season I hadn’t discovered or a series that would fill the void. No luck. I recognized that I was feeling a loss and began grieving.

            I remember when “Schitt’s Creek” came to an end. A ridiculous show with an unbelievable premise with characters so exaggerated, no one could relate to them. But they grew on me, just as they grew as characters. I loved Moira and David, and eventually Alexa. When Patrick entered David’s life, I was as pleased as a mother might be. He was so grounded and gave balance to David. How was it that I began to think of these fake people in familial terms?

            The answer is because of good writing. The individual characters drew me in, but it was the relationship between them that made them feel real and important to me. Great characters who interact with each other on a relatable human level made the story important to me. I became invested in what happened to them.

            There are many crime novels where writers have done this so seamlessly, readers don’t realize they have been coopted. Louise Penny is a genius at this. Inspector Gamache, Reine-Marie, Jean-Guy, and even Ruth and her silly duck have become like family to me after more than a dozen books and I’m sure I could navigate Three Pines without a map. The same goes for Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series. I share Lynley’s frustration, amusement, and his fondness for Barbara Havers. Without spoiling the plot, it took me a long time to forgive George about Helen (I skipped her book explaining it, I was so angry). I think you could say I was attached to the cast of characters. I could go on and on listing writers who have created casts of characters who become like family to their readers.

            But how do they do it, the writer in me longs to know. How does a writer create fictional characters who become real and begin to matter to a reader? How does a writer create relationships between fictional characters that make them come alive?

            I think I know the answer. I uncovered it while writing the Sabrina Salter series set in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The first two in the series were published traditionally but the series was not renewed. I was disappointed but went on to write other books. Yet, I felt a loss, a nagging desire to continue the story of Sabrina, her sidekick Henry, her boyfriend Neil, and her dog, Girlfriend. I heard from readers who told me they wanted to know what happened to them. I wanted to know what happened to them. I cared about my characters and needed to tell their stories. I felt like my characters mattered to each other, which kept me awake at night. I was haunted by their unfinished stories, their untold secrets, and their incomplete lives. I began writing the series again because I cared about them.

            If the writer doesn’t care about the people she creates and invites into the heart of her readers, they will remain within the pages of a book when the last word is read. When the writer misses her people, she can be pretty sure her readers will.

            Dear writers and readers: What cast of characters impacted you? Did you miss them?

C. Michele Dorsey is the author of Oh Danny Girl and the Sabrina Salter series, including No Virgin Island, Permanent Sunset, Tropical Depression, and Salt Water Wounds. Her latest novel, Gone But Not Forgotten was published by Severn House in July 2023. Michele is a lawyer, mediator, former adjunct law professor, and nurse, who didn’t know she could be a writer when she grew up. Now that she does, Michele writes constantly, whether on St John, outer Cape Cod, or anywhere within a mile of the ocean.  


  1. So true! We felt bereft when we came to the end of What We Do In The Shadows. For weeks! We were very sad we couldn’t watch the idiotic vampires in Staten Island again until the next season. Same for Good Omens and The Sandman.

  2. What an interesting and thoughtful blog, Michele. I haven’t forgiven George either. I loved Helen so much. That brings up another question: can a writer write a beloved character out of a series? What motivation would she have? Anyway, it’s the characters that keep us reading (or watching).

    1. Connie, if you mean can a writer do what Elizabeth George did, I think the answer is yes, but not without some serious consequences. Although when she was at Crime Bake, George said she knew she angered her readers but felt she had to do it. It’s definitely risky. I think the motivation might be that the story needs a jolt and there’s nothing like death to provide that as we murder mystery authors know!

  3. When you’re writing for the first time on a serious level (not just for yourself and friends), it’s a scary path. But I found that I so believe in my characters, their conversations and actions happen so automatically, it was almost like I was in the same room with them, eavesdropping. Then a couple of my Beta reader’s came back with the same comment…”When is the next one?” . Another told me, privately, that one of the very emotional scenes between my protagonist and her deceased Father’s husband made her cry! Yikes. I am deeply hoping this means I may be on the right track with my crew. Wish me luck! ; )

  4. Michele, you are so right. We become invested in good cast when they are well-written. I agree Last Tango was so well done. Now I am hooked on another Nicola Walker series, Annika. I was devastated when she “left” Unforgotten.

    I’m fond of Martha Grimes’ Jury series and Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey series.

    Another series whose cast is superb, and the writing excellent, is Astrid. It’s in French with English subtitles. Astrid is a crime division archivist who is on the spectrum and recalls everything she’s read. She finds patterns in information others miss and her author created a wholly original woman. The ensemble are all well-drawn, but Astrid and the detective who mentors her are both standouts. I get it on my PBS station.

    By the way, that Eliz George book you didn’t read was my least favorite of her books…

  5. My favorite ensemble is in EMMA. More so than any other Jane Austen novel. Maybe because there isn’t anyone truly dislikable.
    For TV, of course, Seinfeld and Friends.
    Enjoyed the post very much.

  6. I think the chance to revisit casts of characters you love is the reason series are so popular. I’m always happy to settle back with a new book in a beloved series to see what’s happening in their lives. One of my favorites right now is the Country Club series by Julie Mulhern. They’re light and fun, but very engaging.

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