April 22 – 28: “Does ‘character-driven’ mean the plot should be simpler or more complex?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5With regard to novels, when we use terms like “character-driven” does that mean the plot should be simpler or more complex? This week we’re joined by ITW Members August Norman, T R Kenneth, Cathy Ace, Caitlin Starling, Jerry Kennealy, Lisa Towles, Gary Haynes, Rachel Caine, Elisabeth Elo, Nicole Bross, Lynn Cahoon and Laurie Stevens. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss it!


T R Kenneth has long been focused on the Nazi regime and Reinhard Heydrich in particular, who was a main architect of the Holocaust. In A ROOM FULL OF NIGHT, the author takes the reader from modern flyover America to deep inside the darkest reaches of the Third Reich where everyman hero Stag Maguire is forced to confront the shadowed corners of human infamy. She divides her time between London, Singapore and the U.S.


Lynn Cahoon is the award-winning author of several New York Times and USA Today best-selling cozy mystery series. The Tourist Trap series is set in central coastal California with six holiday novellas releasing in 2018-2019. She also pens the Cat Latimer series available in mass market paperback. Her newest series, the Farm to Fork mystery series, released in 2018. She lives in a small town like the ones she loves to write about with her husband and two fur babies.


Cathy Ace’s latest novel, The Wrong Boy, is her thirteenth. Luckily for her it’s also her first ever Amazon #1 bestseller. Why not write a psychological suspense standalone, even though you’re known for an award-winning series of traditional whodunits, and another featuring cozy British PIs? She migrated from Wales to Canada at the age of forty, where she now lives on, and tends, five rural acres – aided by her green-fingered husband and green-pawed chocolate Labrador.


Gary Haynes studied law at university before becoming a commercial litigator. He is interested in history, philosophy and international relations. When he’s not writing best-selling thrillers or reading other people’s novels, he enjoys watching European films, traveling, hill walking and spending time with his family.



Nicole Bross is an author from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where she lives with her husband, two children and one very large orange cat. When she’s not writing or working as the editor of a magazine, she can be found curled up with a book, messing around with her ever-expanding collection of manual typewriters or in the departures lounge of the airport at the beginning of another adventure. Past Presence is her debut novel.


Jerry Kennealy was the recipient of “The Eye,” the 2017 Life Achievement Award by the Private Eye Writers of America. Jerry has worked as a San Francisco policeman and as a licensed private investigator in the City by the Bay. He has written twenty-five novels, including a series on private eye Nick Polo, two of which were nominated for a Shamus Award. His books have been published in England, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Spain. Jerry lives in San Bruno, CA. with his wife and in-house editor, Shirley.


Originally from central Indiana, thriller and mystery author August Norman has called Los Angeles home for two decades, writing for and/or appearing in movies, television, stage productions, web series, and even, commercial advertising. A lover and champion of crime fiction, August is an active member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and Sisters In Crime (National and LA), and regularly attends the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference.


Elisabeth Elo is the author of FINDING KATARINA M., just out from Polis Books and described by Booklist as a “heart-stopping saga,” and NORTH OF BOSTON, chosen by Booklist as a Best Crime Novel Debut: 2014. Elisabeth grew up in Boston, attended Brown University, and earned a PhD in English from Brandeis. She worked as a children’s magazine editor, a high-tech marketer and product manager, and a halfway house counselor before starting to write fiction.


Caitlin Starling is a writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction of all flavors. Her first novel, THE LUMINOUS DEAD, came out from HarperVoyager on April 2, 2019. Caitlin also works in narrative design for interactive theater and games, and is always on the lookout for new ways to inflict insomnia.


Laurie Stevens is the author of the Gabriel McRay psychological suspense series. The books have won twelve awards, among them Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011 and a Random House Editors’ Book of the Month. Kirkus calls her newly released THE MASK OF MIDNIGHT “A taut thriller with complex characters and an unforgettable villain.” Laurie is an active member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime.


Rachel Caine is the New York Times, USA Today, and #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling author of more than 50 novels. She’s known for the Stillhouse Lake series in thrillers.




Lisa Towles is a crime novelist living in northern California. Her 2017 thriller, Choke, won a Distinguished Favorite IPPY award and a NYC Big Book Award in the thriller category in 2018. Her other books, under the name Lisa Polisar, include Knee Deep, Blackwater Tango, The Ghost of Mary Prairie, and Escape: Dark Mystery Tales. Her short stories have been widely published in literary journals and she was a journalist and art reviewer for many years.



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  1. I don’t think it means they should, necessarily, be either. I’ve written a series of eight Cait Morgan Mysteries, which have been likened to “Agatha Christie set in the modern world”. As such they are, as one would imagine, puzzle-plot books – the classic shape of a whodunit, with multiple bodies and suspects, and a final denouement where the killer/s is/are revealed. So, plot-driven, rather than character-driven, and there’s no way they could be accused of having simple plots. My WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries are definitely character-driven, featuring five core female characters whose lives drive the books as much as the several cases upon which they work within each volume. Again, not simple plots by any means. And my most recent psychological suspense standalone is really pretty convoluted – as the genre requires. Maybe that says more about me as a writer – that I prefer the complex – than it does about the sub-genres in question, but I would say a simple plot can work well if it’s written well, in the same way a complex one can, be the novel character- or plot-driven.

    1. Cathy, I’m in the same camp with you. I do love a balance between plot and character–with the character’s journey interacting very strongly with the plot. Neat! Your books sound fantastic, and I’m off to place orders!

  2. I find you need to build space into your plot to allow the implications of various plot events on the characters to be fully explored. That might mean reducing the complexity of the plot in terms of events, but in terms of reader experience, the plot may remain complex in terms of the twists and turns the characters take in navigating the plot.

    The Luminous Dead has a fairly straightforward plot on paper (girl goes down into cave, survives in cave, tries to escape cave), but it’s all the interactions Gyre and Em have that complicate that straightforward plot and drive the action, the danger, and the triumphs of the characters.

  3. I think that all of my 25 novels are character driven and the characters reactions to plot events is what matters. In my private eye books, I like to use first person, the intimate “I am a camera” feel. Maybe it’s because as a young reader I was drawn to Raymond Chandler.
    In my thrillers, I like third person, perhaps because I feasted on Ian Fleming’s books when I was getting into reading. Third person gives you more freedom, you can move the camera around.
    In every book, there have been times when I wished I could switch from first to third, or vice-versa. There have been successful first and third person narration books. I’m tempted to try it. But basically it all depends on the writing- getting the reader to turn those pages, no matter how simple or complex the plot is.

  4. I don’t think character-driven necessarily needs to relate to complexity, and many of the books I love have both character- and plot-driven elements. Here’s my take: plot-driven is a story where a character falls down a rabbit hole and spends the entire book trying to escape and find their way home (Chronicles of Narnia, The Matrix, etc.). And character-driven books, typically 1st person, rely more on VOICE than action. In these books, you disappear into the main character and essentially become them, looking at their world through their eyes, feeling what they feel, etc. These stories are more emotion-driven, chronicling the transformation and wisdom that results from suffering and survival (The Secret Life of Bees, The Beet Queen, Montana 1948).

    Most of my books are plot-driven, standalone thrillers, except for The Ghost of Mary Prairie, which is a 1st person narrative of a fifteen-year-old boy in rural Oklahoma investigating an unsolved murder that leads him back to his own family.

    One of my favorite crossover books is Smila’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. It’s a deeply personal, emotionally-charged thriller about a woman from Greenland investigating the death of a young boy. It’s plot-driven because of the events that push and pull Smila down the path of the story, and character-driven because of the depth of personal impact these events have on her well-being, her past, present, and future.

    Eager to hear other points of view on this interesting topic!

  5. I think if you want to write a character-driven novel, you have to give your characters some complex things to face in order to really develop their personality for readers. People tend to have simple responses to simple problems, so it’s hard to really dig into the inner workings of a character in a believable way if they don’t have some serious issues to deal with. That doesn’t necessarily mean cliffhanger after cliffhanger or something new blowing up every six pages, but, especially with thrillers, a character is going to show who they really are as the adversity they face increases and the tension piles up.

    I consider Past Presence to be a character-driven novel, since it’s told in a first-person narrative and the story centres around why Audrey and her ability to see people’s past lives is uniquely equipped to solve the murders that have started to follow her. If it weren’t for the exceptional situation she’s been put in, however, readers would never get a sense of her true character, so for that reason I think a complex plot is a must.

    1. Hi Nicole, You make some valid points here, and I definitely agree that adversity can reveal a character’s true nature and cause them to change. Your book Past Presence sounds intriguing, I will check it out!

  6. I think the character-driven novel is far more compelling than the plot-driven one. Character is nuanced, multi-faceted and memorable. Plot, on the other hand, is one dimensional. Plot also should come out of character, not the other way around. In my thriller, A ROOM FULL OF NIGHT, the characters are what I focus on. While the plot does twist and turn, I use it to put David in front of Goliath. I like a lot of plot, don’t get me wrong. But the only way you’ll care about a book is through the characters.

    1. TR, I think you and Cathy have touched on the most important element in this discussion – CARE. Peril, adversity, and challenges will always push things along and get readers to turn the pages to find out what happens next. But the ultimate goal is to have them read the entire story through to the end, and they need to care about what happens to our characters to make the required time investment to do that. The problem is that care takes time to establish.

      I watched the film Edge of Darkness last week (based on a British TV series) and was really impressed that it got me to care about the two main characters in 5 minutes.

      1. Thanks, Lisa. Care does take time to develop and when you’re focused on plot as you are with thrillers, it can become quite the tangle. But all our most beloved stories through the ages are because we cared about the characters, and, for good or bad, saw ourselves in them.

  7. As Cathy brings up, a classic whodunit is all the better with red herrings galore, twists and turns, and lots of plausible villains. We love to solve those kinds of puzzles. In a psychological thriller, however, a character’s personal issues will create adversity, and that alone may be enough of a vehicle on which the plot can run. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t put in twists and turns, I enjoy implementing them in the plots of my books, but it’s our jobs as authors to make sure that waters don’t become too muddied.

  8. I think that given the available space of an average-length novel and the general desire for at least a nod to the chosen genre (or lack of it, in the case of literary fiction) that it is inevitable that a more character-driven novel will place less emphasis on plot. There will be exception to this, of course. But in my experience, a thriller will be more concerned with plot than character, which does not mean that the characters in a thriller should be anything other than complex and at times contradictory. Literary fiction, or literary thrillers, for that matter, tend to be more interested in the workings of the mind, the internal chatter, than, say, an action thriller, which may also incorporate several sub-plots. It’s just the way it is. It is difficult to have both. But I’m not saying that a novelist definitely has to make a choice; rather I’m saying that doing both in one novel may make for a dish with too many ingredients for most people’s taste.

  9. I’ve written a lot of different kinds of stories; most of them with me end up being more character-driven than plot-driven, though I have some notable exceptions. When I wrote Stillhouse Lake, I deliberately set out to make it a thriller with a strong, complex plot complemented by strong, complex characters. But while the plot is certainly there, I feel that in Stillhouse Lake the key to the success of the story lies within Gwen’s character and her internal struggle. I’m trying to keep that same dynamic and balance through all of this series; it’s a delicate balance, but I really enjoy having the plot turns and her emotions resonate together and elevate each other.

  10. My books have been referred to as “literary suspense.” I take this to mean that I explore character and setting as the complex plot is unfolding. I don’t want to have to pick one aspect of the novel over any other. They’re all important. I strive to create characters who are human, unique, and flawed–but ultimately courageous, as they have to be to “win” over all the things the plot throws at them. I also try to create plots that are unusual and suspenseful.

    In the endless debate over what’s more important, character or plot, I think I have to come down very lightly on the side of plot. I believe that the main reason people read is to find out what happens next. But coming quickly on the heels of that question is the second most important issue for the reader: How much do I care what happens next? And that depends very much on who is involved in the unstable situation the story is describing, and what’s at stake personally for that character. I think that whether the character is “likable” is not nearly as important as whether the character’s dilemma is one the reader can clearly understand and thinks is important. I don’t identify with Hamlet; I don’t really like him very much. But I think it’s pretty important that he figures out how he’s going to handle the situation with his mother, his uncle, and the ghost of his deceased father. As the scenes proceed, we see how character becomes destiny. Great stories, I think, perform a sort of magic trick where character and plot seamlessly merge into a single unique and unforgettable story.

    1. Yes, Elizabeth, I agree – we have to care about the characters caught up in the plot, and the seamless blending of plot and character are critical to the overall reading experience.

  11. While I enjoy the occasional whodunnit cozy or procedural, I can’t imagine writing a story I don’t consider character-driven. (That’s not a knock on cozies or procedurals, many series find ways for their recurring characters to evolve over time and throughout each story.) Years ago, I was struck by a concept in James M. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery of the intersection of two things (and this is a rough paraphrase, apologies to Mr. Frey): Why this story is important to tell and Why this person is the hero the story needs.
    Sure, it could simply be an investigator’s job to look into a murder, but I think it works better when that investigator is particularly affected by the event, related to something in their past or present life. As far as complexity, the plot can feed that story however it needs – whatever it takes to rock our hero’s world so they experience a major realization and change.
    For the second Caitlin Bergman novel, I’m building a religion, a multi-state conspiracy, and a series of forest fires – all so Caitlin can forgive her birth mother for giving her up for adoption.

  12. August, that’s great– “religion, multi-state conspiracy, and forest fires so Caitlin can forgive her birth mother” (obviously something on her mind!) Let’s light a fire under this discussion. I’m curious to ask the rest of you, in your series of character-driven novels, I’m assuming, like Caitlin, the character has something to work out; a journey that flows/melds into the next book. Does that “journey” drive the character in the subsequent books or do you create a whole new set of circumstances that drive the character?
    In my Gabriel McRay suspense series, Gabriel is on a psychological healing journey from a childhood abuse. The criminal case he solves in each book triggers whatever point he’s at in his recovery, which ultimately (sometimes perversely) helps him move forward. So, he is driven by the same need (recovery) in each book, but the plot provides the varied scenarios. Can someone chime in?

  13. I’m torn. Strong characters need a strong plot. And we’re not writing literary fiction where we can get away with a lot of character specific focus without strong plot. Maybe I’ll just say it depends on the genre you’re writing. For me, I want both.

  14. It looks like we’re in some basic agreement about plot and character needing to go together. In other words, in a good story, a character and what happens to him or her are intimately linked. The character’s actions are based on his or her personality and emotional needs, and to that extent the character actually creates the plot. But the situation characters face in a story pull out of them facets of their personalities, so in a way the plot allows characters to develop. They create each other, sort of.

    I don’t think it really matters which aspect the author starts with. You can start a story with a unique character and build a plot around them, or you can start with a few plot elements, and bring a character into that situation. But once the story gets going, character and plot will inevitably start circling each other. Suspense comes from both aspects: first, from not knowing what will happen next, but also from not knowing the character fully and not knowing how he or she will change.

    I find that I can’t write a character until I know what they need on a deep emotional level. Otherwise, I don’t know how they’ll behave.

    It’s interesting to read these comments from fellow authors. I’m very curious to know how you all make this interplay work in your books!

    (In case you haven’t noticed, I’m still trying to figure out how/when to say “he or she” or “they” in a sentence. You’d think I’d know that, right? 🙂

  15. I think you’re right, Elisabeth, when you say that the plot and character will start “circling” each other. It is inevitable. Whether that makes for a complex plot or a simpler one depends on that circling. I think of the Tell-Tale Heart, the plot of which is pretty simple (yes, I know it’s a short story, but it still has a plot and it is pretty darn character-driven). You’ve got the police there, which creates suspense as part of the plot, but you’ve got this arrogant guy in denial of his guilty conscience. Just two factors, really, that create a classic, classic story.

    1. Absolutely this – the characters create elements of the plot by their dynamism, and external plot triggers changes for the character that then go on to create more plot, etc etc. It shouldn’t feel like the characters are cardboard cutouts acting out a storyboard – they need to be part of the plot, not just moved around by it.

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