Kristin Cast Talks 'The Key to Fear' and Character Development
Updated: Jul 29
On April 30th, New York Times bestselling author, Kristin Cast, joined our marketing manager, Britt, live on Instagram to celebrate the cover reveal of The Key to Fear, her solo author debut. Here's what she had to say about the upcoming series, House of Night, her writing process, and more!
Britt: How would you describe The Key to Fear in three words.
Kristin: How do you describe anything in three words? Maybe cheese would be easy to describe in three words. But... relevant, thrilling, and adventurous.
B: I couldn't agree more with those three words, but I'm sure many of our readers would love to hear more.
K: This is something I'm not very good at. I can write the book, but I can't tell you what it's about in a concise statement. Can I read the back of it? I wrote the cover copy, but I wrote it with two of my author friends, my agent, and my editor. Anyway, here we go... For fifty years, the Key Corporation has defended humanity against a deadly virus that spreads through touch. Lovers don't kiss, or even hold hands. Personal boundaries are valued above all. Break the laws, and you'll face execution. Elodie, a talented young nurse, believes in the mission of the Key and has never questioned the laws that control her life. But Elodie is forced to break the rules when she sets out in search of a terminal patient who goes missing while under her care. From the outside, it seems like Aiden was given everything he could want from the Key--a purpose, an education, and a future. But Aiden knows more than he's letting on, and the dark secrets he's keeping could tear the Key's strict society apart.
When Elodie and Aiden's lives collide, the fallout will be devastating. What do you do when the brutal system that once kept you safe hunts you down? Run.
B: Where did the idea for this book come from?
K: I read Richard Preston's Hot Zone in middle school, I think. It's about ebola and it's this real gross pandemic spooky novel. And ever since then I've been a crazy nerd about pandemics and viruses and all that stuff. I really wanted to work at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and work in level 4 hot zones with scary monkeys and stuff. So I've been interested in it for as long as I can remember and when I had the opportunity to write my first solo YA novel, I said 'ok, I'm so passionate about this. This is what it's going to be about.' But it also had to include romance and saving the world because I like those things too.
B: And you've done them so well for such a long time. But as you said, the added pandemic element is new to your writing, if not your interests. Even still, reading the first few chapters had me wondering whether you might be clairvoyant. What kind of research went into developing this post-pandemic world?
K: Not only was it inspired by all the reading I've done - my library downstairs has a whole bunch of books about pandemics and viruses - but also... I started writing The Key nearly four years ago because I was at this pizza place, standing behind this young couple who were both on their phones, not interacting with each other. I thought 'what would happen if we weren't allowed to touch each other and the only interaction that was normal was through technology?' I didn't really research anything beyond what I knew for the pandemic aspect. I did more technology research into GenTech, what's happening right now in the world (cause that's crazy)... I smushed the two together and birthed The Key.
B: Hopefully that key opens some doors and some eyes. I'm sure it's interesting to be releasing this book amidst everything that's going on.
K: It's super crazy. That was one of the funny moments when I had my big call with all my publishing people. They were all like 'did you know?' Of course I didn't know! But it's insane. Like I said, that proposal was written four years ago but my first opportunity to write the book happened last year so it's just a very insane coincidence.
B: For me, one of the most lovely things about reading your books has been the way that you take the time to really develop the characters because of the elements you use to root the fantastical and scary in reality. How have you approached this book and its characters to create that relationship with your readers?
K: The Key is told from three different points of view. And I feel like I chopped myself into three different people. It was really a labor of love in that way. I took three very developed aspects of my personality and developed an entire human being around just that part of me and what I would do if this was the only personality trait I relied on. That's probably why you can connect with them so well. Because it's just me, but different parts of me. Authors always say that their books are their children but I very much feel that way with this because I did make it so personal. I wanted to take myself on this journey. It's very narcissistic now that I'm saying it out loud. Just look what I have done.
B: I think it's a really important part of the writing process to insert your own experience into something though. What's going to be special about something generic that's meant to fit everyone? Speaking more about the writing process... As you said, this is your first solo project. You've been working with your mom since you were 19. How has that process evolved over time with her and how has it changed your process writing on your own versus working on more of the editorial?
K: Of course, because with my mom I do a lot of the editing. I'm her first line of editorial defense. In the beginning... I don't want to say didn't know what I was doing but... I'm 33 now so however many years later. Now I'm like 'oh my god you didn't know what you were doing. Why were you doing that?' I was just a lot more inexperienced and my editorial abilities have strengthened, thank goodness. Now, when I work with Phyllis (my mom, but nobody can spell it so she goes by P.C.) I feel like I am a lot more able to give her meaningful critiques that she can take into other works versus things that are very specific to the House of Night world and how I would change one specific thing or character action. Now it's more like 'I hope this can help you be a better writer' type of messages. But when I'm writing by myself, I have to turn that part of me off. My editor actually just told me, since I'm having a really hard time writing the second book right now, 'just write a really shitty first draft. Write the shittiest first draft you possibly can. Do it on purpose just to get something down.' Because I have that editorial part of my brain that keeps telling me to redo it before I'm done.
B: With that process of writing on your own, are you more of a plotter or a pantser?
K: I have a very detailed chapter by chapter outline. My editor and I sit down figure out what happens in each of the 'acts' of the book, and then break those down into chapters, which characters should tell it... I cannot write a book without having a plan of what I should write because I don't write sequentially. I very rarely start on the first chapter and end with the last because a lot of those chapters are really hard. Action chapters in particular are really hard to write for me. I like them after they're done, but when I'm writing them they feel like hot garbage. I like to skip those and work on something else, but I can't do that if I don't have a whole outline so that I know where I'm going and exactly what I can do so it doesn't ruin the rest of the book. So definitely a plotter. I don't understand the pantsers. It frightens me.
B: What about those action scenes is more difficult for you?
K: I really like doing the feelings and figurative language and metaphor and what characters are thinking. It's very lyrical to me. But with action scenes, it's important that the reader knows exactly what is happening, action by action, not in a figurative way. I like writing figurative language and those prettier passages, and I don't feel as inspired by the tactile versus the abstract. I can do it, it's just not my favorite.
B: So what does that more figurative process look like with developing the characters from bits of yourself?
K: That's interesting for me. I can always tell by the time I've written two-thirds of the book, which chapters I did first or more recently by the characterization. Chapters written earlier are very base level characters. When I start, I know one thing about this character, the personality trait I base them off of, and as I'm writing, the absorb the world that they're in and blossom from there. I can see the second that happens because I feel like I connect with them more as I'm reading. So I have to go back and add in more detail. I can feel when I'm writing that maybe I don't know you very well. I know part of you, but you haven't revealed yourself to me completely. It's just a matter of getting to a certain point, going back and layering, reading again and layering... a lasagna book.
B: Which of your characters from The Key to Fear has been your favorite to write, and discover in that way?
K: Blaire. Stereotypically and in today's world, we would probably call her a bitch. She might be - you read it and see. She's the oldest of the point-of-view characters. She's really strong. She knows what she wants. And she will trample anybody to get where she's going. She gives me goosebumps. I love her so much and she was so much fun to write. And you can expect more Blaire in book two, but I'm not saying anything about that yet.
B: And who do you feel you relate to most out of the characters you've written?
K: That's hard because they're all part of me. I feel like it depends on my mood. Sometimes I feel like I relate to Blaire more, but on most days I think I relate to Elodie more. Elodie is more of me maybe 10-15 years ago - leaving high school and becoming an adult, and the hesitance that comes with it. I grew up in Oklahoma and I very much thought that there was one way you were supposed to be a woman. I'm supposed to be this kind of mother, this kind of partner... There are my roles and this is what I do. Elodie feels that way, and I very much felt that way when I was younger. I feel like I matured from Elodie, and got pieces of Blaire and Aiden and other characters.
B: Are there any more unlikeable female characters from other books like Blaire you've come to love?
K: V.E. Schwab's second book in the Villains series is amazing. She's an amazing author in general, but the women (Marcella) that she writes in the second book... it's very much their story. They're those women who aren't typically the likable characters and you're supposed to have this 'oh, you' reaction, but you love them. Like I said, it is their story. I would love to just rub it on my face and absorb the way Victoria's able to do that.
B: Has being a mom changed your approach to those unlikeable characters or your writing process?
K: First and foremost, I have to do my job on more of a schedule now versus when I feel like it. But when I'm doing characterization, I think I'm much more in touch with the emotional aspect of each of my characters. Before, I felt like I couldn't always connect with all them. I would sometimes feel disjointed when I was trying to work on any new projects. But I'm more in touch with my own emotions now, which has made it a lot easier for me to find the emotions of my characters and enhance those. They are important. Before, I feel like I tried to bury them, but now I embrace them.
B: Do you have any advice about character development?
K: I actually use television a lot and look for the types of characters I need for my story, especially when I don't know how to get there. I'll sit down with my pen or laptop and watch reruns, making notes about what characters say, what they do when they say it, and responses from other characters. Essentially a breakdown character analysis of the character I want to emulate. I'll stick those pieces together, plop them into my world, and now I have a framework, a skeleton to build off of.
B: And how do you come up with the character names? Do they ever change as you write?
K: The names rarely ever change. Once I start writing, that's who that character is. It'll only change if I realize that several characters have the same sound. I like to go to Unique Baby Names because I really like names that you don't hear every day. I also like names that reflect the personality. For a softer personality, I want something like Elodie - something lyrical that sounds melodious. And sometimes I need it to mean something so I'll find something like 'names that mean Olive.' Well that would be Olive, wouldn't it?
B: Does this mean that you used baby name generators for your son?
K: No! I did not. Actually, it's funny because when we were moving last year, and sorting through boxes and files, I realized that three years ago I created this character with my son's name. I had thought I'd magically plucked this name from the clouds and it was amazing. But I had already made a person with that name. Maybe I did use a baby name generator, I just don't remember it!
B: Well I'm sure some of our readers want to hear some House of Night updates as well...
K: So production is on hold currently, but I can tell you that once they start casting, there will be an open call for the vast majority of the cast members. Part of the script will be online for video submissions.
B: I can't wait to see how that all develops. Which House of Night book has been your favorite to write and reread?
K: They all squish together into one book for me, but from the Otherworld, it would have to be Forgotten. And from the original series, I think it would be Awakened - the one where Stevie Rae first meets Rephaim. I love the process of her falling in love with him.
B: I love Stevie Rae so much. Who, obviously would be listening to a whole lot of Kenny Chesney these days and always, but what would Zoey, Aphrodite, and Eric's Spotify playlists look like?
K: That's so hard because I feel like all my music is from the late 90s and early 2000s. But... remember Green Day and all the moody boy bands who sounded the same but were all very emotional? I think that's what Eric would have listened to before he became a tracker. Zoey's more difficult because I think she'd be a lot like me and listen to many different things... I go from listening to 90s rap (look how cool I am, I'll turn my bass up real loud because that's clearly not terrible) to show tune style, Ariana Grande, happier music - very pop-ish but occasionally moody. And Aphrodite! Why couldn't it be Damien because I know he'd be listening to the Spotify Broadway channel. Does Salt-N-Pepa have a modern equivalent? Cardi B! She'd have some extra sassy tunes.
B: Those sound like some pretty perfect playlists to me. What would Zoey, Stevie Rae, and Damien binge on Netflix?
K: I feel like they'd have to binge The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and talk about how that's not how you save the world. They'd be like 'oh that's not right. And we would know because we've done it several times.' I feel like they would even watch The Vampire Diaries and talk about how 'they aren't real vampires.' And I almost want to say Grey's Anatomy or something very dramatic with lots of seasons so they could eat a bunch of junk, drink brown pop, lounge all over the place, and just gossip about it cause... that's not what I do. But maybe they would.
B: You mentioned Vampire Diaries which leaves me wondering who your favorite vampire is.
K: Probably Spike from Buffy because he gets me all twitterpated. I'm gonna get all red. I just love him so, he's just amazing.
B: And who is your favorite character of all time?
K: It's like I've never watched or read anything in my entire life. My head's gonna explode. Um... I really love Olivia Pope from Scandal. I feel like if I could... this would be a different experience since she can just think of all sorts of smart stuff and kill you with words. She's amazing. That's my person, partially because I want to be her.
B: If you could be stuck in quarantine with one of your characters, who would you choose and why?
K: I would be stuck with Stevie Rae and Damien and Aiden. I feel like you need Stevie Rae to take you out of bummer mode. Damien would just be a lot of fun. And Aiden has such a positive outlook on life. You just need those positive people. I would like to just squish em so they can prop me up and make me feel like everything's going to be ok.
B: Seems like they might be helpful to have around when you're writing too. But without those characters by your side, how do you stay motivated to write while balancing life?
K: That's hard to do. Writing is so difficult because there's no one forcing me to do it. There's no one at my house telling me I have to write during certain hours or lose my job. Being self-motivated is sometimes like slogging through mud. I stay motivated by giving myself rewards. I have a planner where I write my daily goals and rewards. I put stickers all over it and use highlighters for different projects. It's about building a routine around writing. Right now it's more difficult than usual because usually if I'm having trouble getting motivated I can call my author friends and have them meet me at a cafe for writing sprints. A change of scene is always fantastic for boosting that creativity and giving you that little push. It's harder now, but I still try to do the same thing by writing outside, or the kitchen, or the basement, or the front yard, or in my car... Trying to switch it up when you feel yourself entering the dead zone or getting up and doing something like jumping jacks...
B: How often do you encounter writer's block normally versus now?
K: Normally it's easier because I do have such a detailed outline so I don't get blocked knowing what to write since I've already planned that out for myself. I don't have to stop and think about what's going to happen next because I always know what's going to happen next. Right now, the writer's block is manifesting more as a lack of motivation. Even when I'm highly motivated and am so excited because I love what I'm writing and want to sit down, I end up just sitting there dumbfounded. I know what I'm supposed to write but it's just not clicking for me. It's unfortunate because to fix it, I would go to this amazing coffee shop in my neighborhood called The Stacks.. I would go there, sit down at a table, and be surrounded by all these books from all these amazing authors. It made me feel so connected to the peoplehood of authors. Everything's weird now. So I guess, do some jumping jacks. I like to walk my dog.
B: Where do you look to be re-inspired when you're stuck?
K: Two places: People watching and television (another form of people watching). It probably sounds horrible that my hobby is watching television, but reading can often feel like a job to me. I used to read the majority of my books in my car, driving to wherever I would write for the day. Just standing in my kitchen listening to a book feels strange. But I love stories so much so having a chance to suspend my disbelief on purpose, deconstructing how writers move characters and hide it from the audience... they're all little case studies which I get to nerd out about a lot. I put my blue light glasses on, get my popcorn, and I get to watch a story.
B: So you're more of a TV person than a movie person?
K: Definitely. I love the long game. And I feel like more stuff can happen. There's way more drama for me in 20 episodes than in an hour and a half.
B: And now for the speed round... coffee or tea?
K: Tea, coffee's so gross.
B: Sweet or savory?
K: I like food. Any food.
B: Fantasy or sci-fi?
B: Mountains or beach?
K: Mountains cause I can't swim.
B: New release or backlist?
K: The majority of what I read is new releases.
B: Bookmarking or dog ear?
K: Dog ear! It shows that you were there. It's the evidence that I read this book and just destroyed it!
B: Board game or puzzles?
K: Board game cause I'm gonna beat you.
B: And what board game are you playing these days?
K: My favorite, and the one I'm playing the most is Life, which I guess you can win, but it's not quite so competitive. I really like Monopoly, like I'm 74 or something... But I like that you can take all the houses and when someone lands on your spot you could be owed millions of dollars! I really like destroying people in games. That's what my friends have to look forward to.
B: So if you weren't an author, you'd be destroying your neighbors' bank accounts?
K: Today, I think if I could never be an author again, I'd be a web designer. I feel like it should be something cooler like a zookeeper or something, but I'd be a web designer. I love creating things and that immediate gratification of changing one thing and making the whole page better. I would say that I'd be working in level 4 hot zones at the US Army Medical Research Institute of infectious diseases like I talked about before. But when I was in college, though I didn't graduate, I went to the professor in my first biology class because I was having a problem. He was an old white guy and when I asked for help, he told me I should major in English instead. Because I'm a girl, I guess I couldn't be a scientist. So from that point, I believed that I wasn't smart enough to be a scientist and gave up. But actually, if he hadn't squashed that dream all those years ago, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. So thank you, angry science professor cause who's laughing now!
And I really want to say how much I appreciate your support since I've been a part of a duo for so long. On my last tour with Phyllis, we were at a library and an audience member asked me if I thought there would be many people to buy my book, writing without my mom. I didn't know how to answer that. I don't know how I'm going to be received by myself. I just try to write the best book I possibly can and it really makes me very happy and squishy that so many people are here for me and excited about The Key to Fear. I'm very appreciative.
B: Well this book deserves to be read. It's truly incredible. The characters are wonderful. The plot had me on the edge of my seat. And you can pre-order it now if you feel so inclined.