You know you need to get to know your characters as 3-dimensional people, not cardboard cut-outs placed strategically around a set. Sometimes that is easier said than done. How can you get to the heart of a new character, time after time? How can you keep this guy from being too much like the hero of your last story?
Let me introduce you to the concept of conducting character interviews.
Interview a Character: 10 Questions
1. Tell me about your family. Find out about siblings, parents, money, etc. Keep asking questions about the various parts until you feel you’ve found some good background stuff.
2. What do you really want out of life? Sometimes it’s hard to dig this out of a fictional character, but as an author, we have to know our characters’ goals before we can shape a story for them.
3. Why did you choose your career? This will give you information about their high school and college years. What is the character interested in? What drives them?
4. What keeps you from achieving your goal? Answers to this question are a great source for tossing conflict into the story (but don’t tell you character that or s/he might clam up).
5. Have you ever been in love? How did that work out? I write romance, so this is a very important question. Even if you’re writing a thriller, though, it’s good information.
6. Where do you live? Is it the best place for you? Answers you’re going for here relate to both the town/region/country but also to whether they live in an apartment or a sprawling ranch house, etc. You’ll also get an idea of whether your character is a neat freak or. . .not.
7. What’s been your favorite travel destination? Where would you like to go? What’s stopping you? This can tell you a lot about priorities as well as socio-economic standings.
8. What do you like to do in your spare time? With whom? Let’s dig into some hobbies here, as well as friendships. Into watching hockey on TV alone at home? Getting together with twenty friends on the beach for a barbecue?
9. What is your biggest fear? Snakes? Failure? (But shhh don’t tell your character why you want to know.)
10. What does God mean to you? As an author in the Christian market, knowing my characters’ faith standing is a vital part of the story. Even if you’re writing general market fiction, though, it’s good information as it helps form your character.
As you can see, each of those ‘questions’ is merely a gateway.
Use stream-of-consciousness writing. If you feel like the character is balking or telling you you’ve asked a personal question, just write the answer down anyway—such as it is—and keep going.
These topics can be handled in any order, and some will take you down much longer rabbit trails than others. But do set aside an hour or two per major character and work through the process. I think you’ll find your characters much richer with this method.
- Create 3D characters! 10 Questions to Ask in an Interview: click to tweet
- Writers, how do you get to know your characters? By interviewing them, of course! click to tweet
Want an example of a balking character? Here’s a sample section out of a much longer interview. See what can be learned from even an uncooperative character?
*Note, I don’t actually write ‘author’ or ‘character’ when I’m writing the interview. It’s pretty obvious which is which with simply a new paragraph or hard return. I’ve added the attributions for your benefit.
Author: What about inside? You’ve talked about an exterior goal of creating awareness of nature as God made it. What about a life goal for you on the inside?
Character: Sheesh, woman, aren’t you done yet?
Author: Nope. Just answer.
Character: An interior goal. Hmm. I don’t know. I just live my life, try to be a good person, go to church when I’m not on tour, try to make a difference in whatever small way I can.
Author: Do you want to be happy?
Character: Well, of course. Who doesn’t?
Author: Are you happy now?
Character: I don’t know about happy. I’m content, most of the time.
Author: What would make you happier?
Character: Seriously, aren’t you about done meddling? I don’t like talking about this stuff. It makes me feel rather naked in public.
Author: If I’m going to write your story, I need to know how I can help you meet your goals.
Character: I’ve heard about you writers. You put characters through a lot of turmoil first, and don’t always give them what they want at the end. No thanks.
Author: Oh, so you’re a reader?
Character: What of it?
Author: What kinds of books do you read?
Character: Mostly nonfiction. Give me facts, not some fictional fantasy.
Author: So you’re not an expert on fiction, which I happen to be. I need to know what makes you tick. What will make you mad, happy, peaceful–
Character: I can tell you what makes me mad, is people poking in my business.
Author: Alrighty then.
What do you think? Have you ever tried interviewing your characters? Did you find the process useful. . .or not?
(Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)