Kyle Mills: Don’t Ignore Characters When They Speak To You


The life of a novelist can be a little strange. We spend our days in a fantasy world of our own making, adopting alternate personas, talking with people who don’t exist, and spinning endless “what if” scenarios.

In order to write from the point of view of any given character, I have to employ a bit of applied schizophrenia and become that character. If his or her personality is a lot like mine, it’s fairly easy. But if it’s very different, making the jump into their mind can be a challenge.

When I wrote Burn Factor, I had to write from the point of view of a sadistic serial killer protected by the government. It’d take me a half an hour of walking around my office to get into his head and then another few hours at the end of the day to get back out of it. Not surprisingly, Burn Factor wasn’t just the first serial killer book I ever wrote, it was the last. Spending an entire year inhabiting a psychopath was a truly awful experience.

One of the most interesting aspects of characters becoming real to me is that they can be harder to control. Sometimes they absolutely refuse to follow my carefully crafted outlines. Mitch Rapp has been particularly rebellious, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because he’s Vince’s creation and not mine? Whatever it is, he has a way of surprising me.

Lethal Agent

In the upcoming book Scott Coleman asks Mitch to handle a celebrity security detail for him. Obviously, this is not the type of gig our favorite CIA assassin would normally take on. In my outline I had him refusing the job.

Then, as I was writing the scene, I got to the moment of his refusal and Mitch fell silent. Instead, he became focused on the fact that Coleman had always been there for him—even when the job description included the phrase “and then we’ll probably all die.” It turns out that Rapp’s distaste for that kind of a job is eclipsed by his sense of loyalty. Suddenly, I found myself trying to figure out how the most dangerous man in the world would get on babysitting a singer and his supermodel girlfriend.

Not so well, as it turns out.

Red War

There’s a scene in Red War where Rapp finds a bunch of Russian soldiers at a house in Latvia. They’ve already killed one of the owners and it looks like they’re going to kill his wife. In the outline, Mitch walked away from the situation. It was just another example of the horrors of war, and getting involved had the potential to derail his mission.

In the end, though, he couldn’t do it. Maybe because one of the kids in jeopardy was around Anna’s age? I’m not sure. What I do know is that the Russians take a beating and Mitch finishes the day with a Latvian family unexpectedly in tow. Not ideal in light of the attack choppers bearing down on his position.

Order to Kill

At one point in  Order to Kill, Mitch finds himself in an unfamiliar position—a no-win situation. It involves a young woman named Laleh living in an ISIS-controlled city in Iraq. The situation is desperate and Mitch is racking his brain for a way to save her.

In the midst of all that, they ended up sleeping together. Despite all the work I’d done pondering and outlining that scene, I never saw it coming. One minute their relationship was all business and the next they were in bed.

That one still surprises me. And it still haunts Mitch. This was perhaps the most visceral moment of helplessness in his long career. In a way, Laleh has come to represent all the innocent people he hasn’t been able to save over the years.

 A little crazy? Probably. But it works for me…     

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