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At a Florida Writer’s Association mini conference a few years ago, I walked into a session midway through.
I wasn’t late or rude; I was surfing.
That is, spending a few minutes in each session to get a feel for the class itself and the relevance of its topic to my needs. Not the stuff in the water with waves and the… long oval board thingy.
Maybe the “Dialogue” session looked good but I didn’t need to work on that skill, and the “Outlining” session looked dull but was actually hugely insightful.
How would I know if I didn’t get a sample of each?
And since the sessions were scheduled simultaneously, I could not be in each.
So I popped in and out – which actually is rude – to see what was what.
Surfing, as it were. Or sampling.
By the way, you should definitely go to a FWA conference, if for no other reason than to gain my valuable insights in person. I’ll be presenting at this year’s conference.
The benefit of having multiple topics discussed at the same time in different rooms is, if you don’t need one, there’s another one you’ll benefit from.
So I walk into what appeared to be a rather blasé topic – and was immediately enthralled.
In fact, I was in the middle of a text conversation with Allison and I quickly sent a message along the lines of, “I gotta go. This session is brilliant.”
The session leader, a writer for many years who makes his living writing (23 years for a newspaper, has ghostwritten fifteen books and edited more than 200 manuscripts), was delving into interviewing your character.
I had never heard of such a thing.
He grabbed my attention right away because he was asking each attendee things like, “What is your character afraid people will discover about him/her?”
What is their secret?
What would cause them to absolutely want to die if people knew?
I was hooked.
We all have secrets.
Maybe that bounced check to the pizza place in college is yours, but we have have stuff we’re afraid people will find out about us.
Yes, you do.
You have lopsided boobs or you fart in your sleep or you take a lit-tle too long in the shower sometimes. But yes, you have some secrets you do NOT want the world to know.
And so does your character.
That, my friends is brilliant.
It changed my view of writing.
Amazing plots twists.
Amazing, I say.
And so do my readers.
Now, the session leader was not the first to think of interviewing your characters, and despite my constant badgering, he would not reveal the source of the questions he used – but rest assured, he added a few to whatever list he referenced.
But lo these years later, it bugged me to see other people struggling to create interesting characters OR HOW TO HAVE THOSE CHARACTERS REACT in a situation.
This list helps with that.
YOU need it, not your reader.
DO NOT make the mistake of laying this all out like the stats on the playmate of the month.
No, no, no, no, no.
Write it down, but don’t put it in your story. YOU need to know this, your reader does not. (Occasionally you may need to drop a bit of it in here and there, but it’s not an info dump.)
YOU need a reference. This is that. The reader needs consistency. This will help.
And, like outlining (an example of that amazing tool that you won’t use, is HERE), most of you won’t do it – and will find yourselves:
- stuck later or
- with characters that don’t ring true and don’t connect, but worse than that, ARE DULL.
See, an outline helps you get to The End. That’s tip #1.
Your brilliant idea will certainly launch you. Your inner Shakespeare will drive some drama. But if you don’t know where you want to go, you probably won’t get there.
As in, a terrific ending everyone loves as opposed to a story that you are stuck staring at, wondering why you have writer’s block and can’t finish.
Outlining and having AN ending is how to avoid NOT ending, also known as The Story I Can’t Seem To Finish.
Don’t even start that I can finish my stories crap. Most of you can’t, and lack of outlining is why. Pantsers. Hah! I laugh in your general direction.
Outlining does not stifle your creativity. It directs it.
And of course, the outline doesn’t go into the pages of the story. At least, not directly.
Now, I didn’t start into all this to tell you the benefits of outlining, although if we picked up a second valuable lesson along the way, good for us. Rambling has its benefits.
Interviewing Your Story Characters is a terrific way to open your mind to possibilities.
As you read this list, you’ll roll your eyes at a few, BUT THEN YOU WILL GO, “DAMN, THAT’S A GOOD QUESTION, I LOVE THAT!”
Yes you will. That’s Tip #2.
I will accept your thanks later.
See, gang, I pass along what I learn. Some stuff you already know, some you’ll learn here, but as the great Allie Potts said, you can learn this stuff anywhere but you like coming here to learn it because of me. Or something like that. I’m not going to look it up. That’s basically what it was, I’m sure.
So when I have an AHA MOMENT, you get the benefit. It’s like I’m doing your work for you. Which – get off your butt, slacker. You can contribute occasionally.
Here’s a list of questions you should use to interview your characters. Skip the dull ones like “Name” because you probably know that, but read through them until you see stuff that makes your inner writer tingle.
That’s the gold, dude.
Again, answer the questions, but don’t necessarily put it in the story; know if for how your character will act/react/be motivated/be afraid in the story. Interview your characters, and interview yourself about your characters.
Get read for your writing to go to a whole new level.
Questions compiled from me, also from “Interview Your Characters” March 22, 2011 by Crystal Stranaghan, “Novel Writing: 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters” by Brian Klems for Writer’s Digest December 10, 2014, and “30 Questions to Ask Your Main Character” Posted on January 13, 2014 by Carly Watters
And if YOU have a terrific question to ask a character, list it below!
(You need this info for consistency, so might as well write it down. Don’t want a brown eyed protagonist accidentally being described as green eyed halfway through the story. Yes, I’ve
done seen that.)
- Body Type:
- Facial features:
- Skin type/tone:
- Interesting physical characteristics:
BONUS TIP: I usually create a list/separate file called “Cast of Characters” showing who they are married to or who they are related to. It avoids confusion but it’s also easy reference for me later in the story if I’m on chapter 25 and need to remember somebody’s name from chapter 3 – and it takes about ten seconds each time I add a character.
Look how many there are in Poggibonsi (a story many of you would say had about 3 to 5 characters):
- Mike Torino, the main Character
- Mattie, his wife
- Sienna their 4 year old daughter
- Sam, Mike’s assistant in Atlanta
- Alberto Romano, Mike’s Italian liaison
- Julietta Verona, Mike’s new assistant in Italy
- Dr. Jan, an ex-girlfriend of Mike’s who does his last minute physical instead of his regular doctor
- Grady Jackman, Mike’s sex crazed work associate at Creative Capital
- Marge “the old woman” Harriman, aka Large Marge and Margie Girl
- Henry Harriman, Marge’s deceased husband and co-founder of the firm
- Cole Zimmerman, the bad guy who sabotages Mike’s surveys results
- Kenny, a young guy who did Mike’s survey work
- Joanie, Mattie’s mom, Sienna’s grandma
- Tammie, mother of one of Mike’s daughter’s friends
- Angela, Tammie’s daughter
- Mrs. Norton, Sienna’s teacher
- Jeannie Haskins, Mike’s flirty neighbor
- Larson and Cardewig, VP’s at the firm where Mike works
- Jennifer Smith head of legal department were Mike works
- Carmine, the cab driver in Tuscany
- Omalley /Almiera – the tavern owner in Tuscany/Poggibonsi
- Deidra and Alex, Mattie’s friends who divorced after 20 years of marriage
- Mrs. Conley, Mike’s eighty-five year old neighbor
- Alberto’s family (wife, 5 boys, 2 girls)
- Marcella, Alberto’s wife
- Marco age 26
- Carlo 24
- Gina 21
- Peter 18
- Paolo is 8
- Mrs. Mestacucci, works at the bank
- Franco Bellesandro di Marcuzzi, the bank manager
There are a few others…
Do you probably need all that? HELL NO! But if you do, it took ten seconds each time, and it’ll save you a TON of time (hours) searching through your MS looking for the preschool teacher’s name when it gets referred to in chapter 25. Trust me. Hours. Write it down.
(Important in some stories, not too important in others, but your should know this stuff):
- Where and when were you born?
- Where have you lived?
- Schooling? (KNOW this. It affects how people speak and occasionally how they act. Smart, intelligent people without what they consider enough schooling often feel a bit inferior. THEY SHOULDN’T, but often they do. Others will go to lengths to show how smart they are.)
INTERVIEW QUESTIONS FOR CHARACTERS
(This is the good stuff. Ask yourself these question about each character. Also, for some you should ask the character and answer – honestly – as the character.)
- What is she obsessed with?
What is your character afraid people will discover about him/her?
- Biggest fear?
- What is the best thing that ever happened to her? The worst?
- Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to her?
- Biggest secret?
What is the one word you would use to define her?
- What do they like to wear?
- How do they like to socialize?
- What was their role in their family growing up?
- What did they find terribly embarrassing as a kid?
who does this character respect most in life?
- What was their first best friend like?
- What are their hobbies?
- What annoys them?
What makes them laugh?
- Are they a dog or a cat person?
- What makes them embarrassed as an adult?
- Do they drink alcohol? A lot?
- What do they feel most passionately about?
who do they REALLY wanna be with in the story?
- What trait do they find most admirable in others?
- Do they want a job that helps people or a job that makes money?
what do you notice first about a person of the opposite sex?
- Are they a leader or a follower?
What scares them?
- What are their long term goals? or what is their dream?
- What are their bad habits?
- Who was the love of their life?
- What are you keeping a secret?
What are you lying to yourself about? To others?
- Is there anyone in your life that you are attracted to?
- What scares you about this person?
when scared/confronted, this person does X (runs, fights, deflects, stabs confronter in the throat)
- What do you think he/she can do for you that no one else can?
- What does this person know about you that no one else does?
- What parts of loving come easy to you ? Hard?
What would cause them to absolutely want to die if people knew?
- When you walk into a room what do you notice first? Second?
- How would you change the world? The things around you? The people around you?
- How do you learn best?
what will you do to achieve your goal in the story? How far are you willing to go? Lying? Stealing? MURDER?
- If you had one wish, what would it be?
- What do you like best about yourself?
- What do you like least about yourself?
are your closets organized or unorganized?
- sorry, that one just kinda slipped in there while I was looking for something.
- What do you like best about your best friend?
who does your character 100% trust implicitly in this story? When the chips are down, you go to X – who is X?
- What do you like least about your best friend?
- What do you think other people think of you?
What’s your greatest source of joy?
- What are you especially proud of in your life?
- If you could change anything about your life what would it be?
Tip #3. Okay, so the third tip is this: know this stuff but don’t write it in your story. Not directly. If Ron is afraid of spiders, yes that’s gonna be obvious – eventually – and you’ll need to foreshadow it, but he shouldn’t walk around all day saying, “Gee, Harry, I hope we don’t see any spiders tonight when we start searching for the Chamber of Secrets!” Besides, Ron really is afraid of not achieving and being seen as a failure; he wants to gain respect and standing like his older siblings.
Knowing what he’s really afraid of, the stuff inside, is what motivates him and creates his internal character that we don’t always see but do always feel. And he ended up with Emma Watson’s character in the story, right? Hermione. So there’s that.
His secret. The one he’d (initially) die from embarrassment if anybody knew.
Your turn. What questions can YOU think of to ask a character in a story? List it below!