Following a Character into a Book

by Linda Rodriguez
I’ve been intensely making notes for a new book in bits and pieces
of time left over from other commitments. That’s a fairly common
thing around here. Several times a year I follow a character into a
short story or book. After the first draft is finished, I still refer
to the much more I know about that character from writing that first
draft as I revise and edit and edit, still following those characters
as I chip away whatever doesn’t matter to them or what doesn’t
fit. In a way, you could say that I spend most of my professional
time chasing after characters, and you’d be correct.

people have the idea that plot is the be-all and end-all of the
mystery writer, but I see it as story. I can write a book based on a
clever plot with all kinds of surprises and twists, but if the reader
doesn’t care about the characters or if the actions taking place
don’t ring true for the characters, it’s no good. And yes, I know
there are books like this that are published and sometimes very
successful, but I still think it’s really story we need in the
mystery, a story where the actions rise organically out of the
characters and their motivations, where we care about the characters
and what they’re trying to do because we know why it’s so
important to them to succeed in their attempts.

I’m looking for story, I start with character. As I start to know
that character better, she or he leads me directly into story. A nice
complex, twisty narrative with surprises and suspense comes from
following all the major characters as they lead me on their path
toward their goals in the story and come into conflict with each
other or help each other or, sometimes, both.

I run into problems with story as I’m writing a book, I go back to
the characters involved with the aspect of the story that’s giving
me a hard time. I sit down and have them write their situation,
feelings, and problems with the story’s direction in first person
as if they were writing diary entries or letters to me to tell me why
they won’t do what I think they should do. Always I find that
there’s something I’ve overlooked with that (those) character(s).
I’ve been trying to steer the plot in a direction that’s false to
the character(s), and I have to learn more about each character in
order to find out the direction the story needs to go.

always been glad I take the time to do this, even as I whine about
taking that time in the middle of a book with a deadline facing me.
Often it leads to big changes—once I even had to change the villain
into a possible love interest—but it always makes for a stronger,
more vital story. And that’s what I’m after.

now, I’m chasing another set of characters into a book that I’ve
tentatively set up to go one way, but I know that, as I get deeper
into this story following these characters, I may find we’ve gone a
different way into a whole different and much richer story. It’s
the ultimate adventure, following a character into a book.

Linda Rodriguez’s Dark Sister: Poems
has just been released. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel,
based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native
American Poets Visit the Middle East
, an anthology she co-edited,
were published to high praise in 2017. Every Family Doubt,
her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief,
Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will
be published in 2019. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every
Hidden Fear
, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last
and her books of
poetry—Skin Hunger
and Heart’s Migration—have
received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin’s
Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International
Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices
& Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and
Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good
Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has
been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP
Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter
of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers
Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International
Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and
Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at

2 replies
  1. Storyteller Mary
    Storyteller Mary says:

    Caring about the new fictional friends keeps me reading, and after reading a good book, like yours, the characters live with me afterward. Thanks for the extra work that makes that memorable magic happen.

  2. Linda Rodriguez
    Linda Rodriguez says:

    Thank you, Mary! Perceptive readers like you are the reason all of us writers work so hard.

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