What aren’t your characters telling you? (And what aren’t you asking them?)

A few months ago, I was talking to a friend who is trying to write a story. She has characters, plot and setting in mind. She even has a few scenes mentally scripted out.

Overall this lady has a start to a book. The difficult issue at hand is starting the process of writing itself. She knows the characters in passing, but not well enough to get in their heads and let the words flow out.

So I shared with her a tip that the Allied Authors of Wisconsin shared with me: Interview your character.

I thought it would be easy enough. Just imagine yourself in a room with this other person and ask them questions. I’ve done it before, and it works great.

Then, a few weeks ago, we were eating sushi and talking about life. I brought up her book and asked how it was going. Miserable, she confessed that she had gotten nowhere from the last time I talked to her. Apparently, she put the heroine in a room, and the gal just crossed her arms, refusing to talk.

“OK, what did you ask her?” I asked.

The questions were complicated and required the character to relive painful memories or detail out descriptions of her life — things that would be hard for any person to adequately answer in real life, especially to a stranger.

It was at that point I knew that something I thought would be simple had been taken to a level of complexity I never anticipated.

“Don’t start with the hard stuff,” I suggested. “Get her to open up with the easy things.”

“What easy things?” she asked.

And I started to list off some simple questions.

  • What’s her favorite color and why?
  • What does she like to eat?
  • What does she do in her spare time when at home alone?
  • Whom does she talk to?
  • Does she read? If so, what?
  • What kind of music does she like?
  • What’s her nickname, and who gave it to her?

This progressed into more detailed questions. However, the restaurant was closing, so we made a promise to meet on the weekend, and I would help her through the interview process.

That Sunday we started with her heroine and the male counterpart. The questions were simple at first, like the ones from earlier in the week. Eventually, they became more detailed, more personal. The very cores of the characters were examined, and painful past events, guilty feelings, and revelations that my friend had never known about her characters came to light.

In four hours we did more than what had been accomplished in the prior months.

Now this is not to say I am a miracle worker. I am not. This gal could have done the whole process on her own. The problem was overthinking the solution and making life far more complicated far too quickly.

Long story short, here are some things you may want to keep in mind when starting an interview with a character:

  1. Start out with easy questions — topical things that help you flesh your character out.
  2. Then get into more detailed questions. “Why,” “when,” and “how” are fantastic vehicles to dive deeper into a character’s psychosis.
  3. Ask the tough stuff once you have a better impression of who the character is in your mind. Even the little details that seem superficial can mean a lot.

For example, her character loves to watch classics movies and movies from the ’80s because that was what she used to watch with her parents before they died. Why is this important? The character is holding on to her past too tightly and is trying to remember all the good things about her childhood while punishing herself with the same memories.

This information came from the questions “What do you like to do in your spare time?” “Why do you do this?” “How long have you been doing this?” and “What do you feel when you do this?”

As a side note, if you have multiple characters and one refuses to talk…stop the interview. Move to the next character. You may find that you learn more by asking your other characters for their impressions of the silent one. Later on, go back with that uncooperative character and tell them what the other characters’ impressions of him/her are. You may find your silent partner starts talking.

If they don’t, well, silence can be golden. Maybe you learned more about that person than you ever thought you would, even with a “failed interview.”

Also, although the process might be unfamiliar, never feel stupid about this process. If need be, write up a list of questions and have someone else ask them instead. Then you can answer for that character.

Personally, I prefer to just sit in the room of my mind and not only listen to what the character is saying, but what they are doing and how they look. Body language is a marvelous thing, even imaginary body language. Your characters may have various tells and quirks that they don’t even know they have. One character of mine, Zander, likes to chew on his hair. He doesn’t realize he does this. How do I know? I watched him do it while interviewing him.

As you progress, you may want to have characters that are close to each other sit in subsequent interviews together. Their speech patterns, their body language, and even their interaction can be valuable.

For instance, when I did this with Zander and his sister Gwen, I realized that Gwen would lightly smack Zander’s shoulder when he started chewing on his hair. She never said anything, but it was how she reminded him not to do that. Gwen and Zander are both introverts, but while Zander shrinks inside himself and lets his sisters do all the talking, Gwen will force herself to be a happy and gregarious person. But they only take on these roles when they are together.

It can get complicated, but starting simple can take you further than you think. As the saying goes: you must learn to walk before you can run.

Alexia Lamont contributed this article.

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3 responses to “What aren’t your characters telling you? (And what aren’t you asking them?)

  • David Michael Williams

    Glad to know I’m not the only writer who chats up my characters!

  • Jack Byrne

    A valuable technique explained clearly; thanks for a great post.

  • Thomas P. Ramirez

    Hey, Alexia,

    Enjoyed the piece. Have never done this, but certainly worth a try. Among the many novels I’ve written, I’ve allowed the plot carry the character/s and introduced their quirks where and when such became necessary.

    Tongue in cheek suggestion: Would find it helpful if you were to prepare a formatted sheet citing start-up questions, and then have it morph into the more personal, identity-revealing questions. An example that might be passed out at an AA meeting. I’d like to see just how you do it.

    Warm ones,

    TOM

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