by Linda Rodriguez
Lately, 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.
Some 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.
When 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.
When 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.
I’ve 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.
Right 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 Secret—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 http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com