Create Great Characters Using What You (or Your Spouse) Know

by | Writing | 6 comments

“You write about what you know, and you write about what you want to know.” —Joyce Maynard

Image courtesy of njaj at

Image courtesy of njaj at

I wrote Calculated Risk mostly from what I, or my husband, know.

With curiosity and research, we can learn much about a subject. But often:

It’s easier to create a character when we know personally his job, personality & interests. Click to tweet.

The main characters in Calculated Risk are good examples. They’re extreme opposites. Nick is an analytical actuary, and Cisney is an expressive marketing rep.






 Why I could make my characters believable in their jobs.



  • As a retired health actuary, I know actuaries evaluate the financial risks of insurance companies.
  • I worked twenty-five years with male actuaries. I observed many are intelligent, analytical, introverted, private, poor communicators, and a bit weird.
  • My husband, John, is a retired actuary. I know he’s smart, wants to be right, and is decisive.


  • I worked with marketing reps. They tend to be expressive and friendly.
  • I observed marketing reps with clients. In their desire to please clients, they sometimes agree to things they’re unsure they can deliver.
  • I saw how actuaries and marketing reps get along.
Image courtesy of kasahasa at

Image courtesy of kasahasa at


  • While many actuaries are poor communicators, many marketing reps only think they’re good communicators. I played up this observation between Cisney and Nick.
  • I recalled actuaries’ and marketing reps’ odd behaviors and wrote similar incidences.

These were fodder for humor.

Why I could make Nick and Cisney believable in their personalities.


  • One personality test labeled me an expressive analytical. An oxymoron. Very distracting for me. I knew these traits would be distracting for Nick and Cisney. So I coined, opposites distract.
  • As an expressive analytical, I could get inside Nick’s analytical mind and into Cisney’s expressive nature.
  • Plus, analytical introvert John was the role model for Nick.


  • Nick dislikes his mom relating stories or people asking questions about his private life. Cisney eats up drawing answers from him and hearing stories about him.
  • An actuary at work often thought so long, I’d almost burst to fill the silence. His eventual answers were excellent. Nick has long but productive thinking moments that drive Cisney crazy.
  • As an expressive, I sometimes speak before I think. This was perfect for Cisney, causing her problems with Nick.
  • Sticky notes pepper my office. Cisney lives by them. This quirk amuses Nick.



Why I could make Nick and Cisney believable in their interests.


  • John listens to 70s tunes. He likes chess and thinking games.
  • Besides charts and numbers, I love to be creative and make people laugh.
  • I’ve studied the Bible for years.
Image courtesy of Supertrooper at

Image courtesy of Supertrooper at


  • Cisney calls Nick’s 70s music doo-wap songs. He’d like to correct her that “doo-wap” is a 50’s or 60’s term.
  • Cisney prefers classical music. On Nck’s family’s grand piano, she plays “Flight of the Bumble Bee,” the piece my German flute teacher flaunted.
  • After she’s jilted, Nick’s biblical knowledge gives Cisney a new perspective.
  • Cisney likes eliciting laughs from Nick to enjoy his dimple.
  • The chess game John helped me write prods Cisney to see Nick in a new way. You’ll have to read Calculated Risk to find out how.

Calculated Risk by Zoe M. McCarthy

How have you used what you KNOW in creating characters?

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  1. Marcia A. Lahti

    I just finished Dee Henderson’s Undetected and wondered if she might be a security risk. How could she know so much about the procedures for the command of a nuclear submarine, and the capabilities of the subs themselves. Details, details details. She also created a genius character, who was in college as a young teen and has trouble maintaining relationships, giving us a glimpse of the challenges a mentally gifted person might experience. I wish Dee Henderson would write a book on how she researched her novel. I find I KNOW so little.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Yes, Marcia, we do have limits on what we KNOW. When it comes to what goes on inside a character, it’s certainly easier to draw on our ready-made personal knowledge. Some people can research so well that they then do KNOW. I can research how to build a cabin, but to know how the builder feels and relates to others is harder to KNOW. But I’m finding for the story I’m working on, I can fill in blanks by reading 1st hand accounts of people who do KNOW the subject and how they faced it.

  2. gkittleson

    Zoe, thanks for your take on character building. I also contemplated Marcia’s response, b/c I think simply living longer adds to our arsenal of KNOWledge. At least, it certainly has for me. For example, I used to be far more judgmental, but having gone through certain experiences in the past twenty years, am more able to embrace what someone might be feeling as they slog through a situation.

    This is also maybe where talking with people (interviewing) comes in. When I was working on a pioneer story, I asked someone how to skin a large animal, and he was so pleased to be able to explain. His expressions told me a lot about what it would feel like firsthand. Thanks for this post.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      So true, Gail. Age does teach us, changes us, and adds much to our knowledge. And if we’re brave, we can go back in how we felt at the time of younger days to write younger characters. Of course, technology makes younger folks see things a little differently, but the basic feelings, I think, are the same. I laughed at your skin-a-large-animal story. I’ve been doing that lately around here on how to “can” venison. I KNOW first hand how much your expert enjoyed someone being interested in what he could do.

  3. writercatherine

    One of my favorite resources is Tieger’s Do What You Are, which connects professions with Myers-Briggs personality types. Many libraries have this book.

  4. Zoe M. McCarthy

    Thanks for sharing this resource, Catherine. I had not heard of that one.

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