If you’ve been around the writing world for awhile, chances are that you’ve heard someone refer to character interviews. To the outsider, that idea may seem a little foreign and definitely strange – the characters in our fictional stories come from deep within our own creative minds, why do we need to interview them? Well, for the same reason we ever interview anyone – to know them better.
There is no right or wrong way to go about an interview, but I’m going to share some of my favorite techniques for better understanding, empathizing and, eventually, sharing my characters with the world at large. The truth is, most of the information gleaned from this odd process probably won’t make it into the story. But whether or not your readers knows the information, it will ultimately make the book better.
Author to Author Questions:
This is the really basic rundown, yes, no, maybe kind of questions. Do you know your character’s eye/hair/skin color? Do they have tattoos? What religion do they follow? These kind basic questions may seem obvious, but they’re so obvious that we sometimes don’t bother to answer them. Keeping a full list of these seemingly surface questions will help you in many ways – you’ll better know the trappings of the character you’re writing, and you’ll have a comprehensive resource of all the important information to refer to later. I can’t tell you how many times I have to go digging through old drafts or prequels in order to find something as simple as eye or hair color. And, if it does change through the story, you can kiss your readers goodbye.
Author About Character Questions:
These are the more in-depth questions. These aren’t the ‘what religion are they’ they’re the ‘are they practicing their religion and how does it impact their daily lives and the events that take place throughout the plot’ kind of questions. Digging deeper can only happen once you understand your character’s basic traits, like hometown, first language and favorite food. From those surface elements, begin wondering why? Why does my character dream in Russian? Why do they cook their mother’s recipes, but refuse to call home? Consider this a true interview – the kind a journalist might do on an interesting source. The above points are the potatoes and carrots, but this is the meat.
Author to Character Questions:
Chances are, you’ll feel weird writing this one, but it’s a lot of fun too. Forget the above format – this isn’t question and answer time. This is full immersion in your character’s world. Consider writing this interview in prose format, with you, the author, sitting across from your character.
You aren’t just there for answers to your questions, you want to observe every element of their demeanor, speech and interaction with their environment. Are they happy to share and express their feelings, are they closed off and defensive? Do they bite their nails, twirl their hair, flick their lip ring or take a pie out of the oven? Using this time to observe your character in their natural environment is a great way to understand their ticks, behaviors and motivations.
Character to Character:
Take yourself out of the above scene, replacing the interviewer with another one of your characters, preferably one that makes your character feel something, be it anger, joy, lust or sadness. Observe the push and pull between them as you write the natural rhythm of the scene. Who’s asking the questions? Who’s actually answering them? How do they interact physically? Is the speech open or clipped?
This scene might find some use in your story, but more than anything you’ll walk away with a better of understanding of how your character manages uncomfortable questions or confrontation and how they deal with the people in their life – other characters in the story. For full effect, try this format with several of the most important characters.
So, where do the questions come from? Well, the short answer is you. If you’re looking for the kind of questions listed in the very first type of character interview, you’ll find them with an easy Google search. But everything after that is up to you as the writer, telling the story you most want to tell. In journalism, before approaching a story, we are told to write down the one question that will guide our reporting, interviewing and researching. It should be objective and open-ended. From there, we develop questions for our interviewees based on their experience and the kind of information we hope to glean from them.
Fiction is no different. Figure out the question your book is trying to answer, then look at the characters in your story and determine what kind of information you need to get out of them before the story can move forward. Once those questions are written down – and then answered – you will have a much more well-rounded person to write, something your readers will definitely notice. Is it weird – yes. But as an author, I am often deep in conversation with my characters, both on the page and in my head. We’re not known for being a bit of a nutty bunch for nothing.
Honestly, I don’t care.
There is no doubt in my mind that when my heroine and hero are arguing in my head on the way home from work or when I spend my run trying to outpace my fictional character running beside me, I am making my book better. I am taking two-dimensional characters off the page and giving them life, a realness that will drive the story.
Every writer has to find the path that works for them. Maybe interviewing your characters is just something that doesn’t work for you. But knowing the human or anthropomorphized element of the story is important. It’s fundamental. After all, journalism, fiction, or memoir, we will always seek the human element. ♦