Four Methods For Interviewing Characters
If you’re having a hard time getting to know your characters, you might want to try putting on your Oprah Winfrey hat and interviewing them. Sitting down at the typewriter for a chat with your hero or heroine is a great way to get to know them. Just pretend you’re the hero and type, “Hi, I’m Rhett Butler,” and let him start talking. Once you slip into the hero’s personality, it’s easy to stay in character as long as the interviewer keeps asking questions.
Ah, but there’s the tricky part. Where are those questions coming from? Unless you’re good at switching roles back and forth from the interviewer to the character, or have a friend standing by to serve as the interviewer, you may find it easier to let your character answer a list of questions already sitting at the top of the page. (One nice thing about characters is that they all seem to be great typists!)
You can make up your own questions in advance, of course. Or if you’re not quite sure what to ask once you’ve finished the nuts-and-bolts (“what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do for a living?”), you might want to use some of the following getting-to-know-you questions. You’ll notice that they don’t follow any logical progression, because when you keep the character jumping from one topic to another, you generally trick them into revealing more interesting things!
METHOD #1: TWENTY QUESTIONS
These take the getting-to-know-the-characters interview just a step beyond the usual “Tell me your name, birthplace, job, parents, etc.”
- If you had a free day with no responsibilities and your only mission was to enjoy yourself, what would you do?
- What impression do you make on people when they first meet you? How about after they’ve known you for a while?
- What’s your idea of a good marriage? Do you think that’ll happen in your life?
- What are you most proud of about your life? (If they answer with something other than a personal statement, like a business achievement, ask “What about on a personal level?”)
- What are you most ashamed of in your life? (Again, if necessary ask “What about on a personal level?”)
- If you could spend the day with someone you admire (living or dead or imaginary), who would you pick?
- Do you think you’ve turned out the way your parents expected?
- What do you believe about God? (If they believe in God, ask “What do you suppose God thinks of you?”)
- Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done? What would happen if you did it?
- What’s the worst thing that’s happened in your life? What did you learn from it?
- Tell me about your best friend. (If you think it might be interesting, ask “How did you meet? What do you like about this person? What do they like about you?”)
- What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to someone? Why? (“Why” is usually a good follow-up question to any response!)
- What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
- Describe your ideal mate.
- What are you most afraid of?
- What’s the most important thing in your life? What do you value most?
- What do you like best about yourself? Least?
- What do you like best about [the other character]? Least?
- How do you feel about your life right now? What, if anything, would you like to change?
- Are you lying to yourself about something? What is it?
METHOD #2: BASIC INVENTORY
Personal history (parents, siblings, history, backstory):
Physical appearance (age, looks, clothing):
Personality (pros & cons):
Characteristics (verbal expressions, habits when stressed, objects carried):
Perspective on sex and feeling about opposite sex: Emotional needs:
What?s this character’s (internal, external) goal?
Why does this person want that (internal, external) goal?
What flaw must this person overcome by the end of the book?
What strengths/talents/heroic aspects will help character achieve goal?
Why will reader sympathize with this person right away?
What attracts this character to the other?
What repels this person about the other?
What does character want from life?
What could character lose here?
What does character want to avoid?
What will this person have to give up in order to be with the other?
What does this person have that the other one wants/needs/lacks?
What does the other character have that this one wants/needs/lacks?
Why will they be better people together? What can they give each other?
(Note: questions for this inventory have come from a bunch of great writers over the years, but I?m not sure who contributed what. Among the contributors are Denise Domning, Connie Flynn, Tiffaney Isaacson, Stephanie Maynard and Pat Warren?if you see them, tell them thanks!)
METHOD #3: “GLOVES-OFF” QUESTIONS
These are the kind of questions you couldn’t ask anyone except a very close friend or counseling client!
1. What do you want?
Jennifer Crusie says to give them some time to answer this, then ask: Okay, but what do you really want?
Give them some time to answer this, then ask: That’s fine, but what do you REALLY want?
(Keep asking this until they reveal something that, on the surface, sounds pretty shameful?that’s what they’re hiding from themselves. And that’s what makes them human…we all want things we don’t like to admit, like “to be loved better than my sister” or “to show the world I’m more powerful than Joe” or “to get back at my mom” or whatever. Readers are gonna sympathize with this, and even if the desire doesn’t ever show up during the book, you’ll know what’s making the character tick.)
2. Say you’re using [other character] for something…what would it be?
3. What are they using you for?
4. How do you feel about that?
(This is a good question to throw in anytime they say something interesting. Other good ones are “Say more about that” and “Really?” I put *** by any response that seems worth following up on later, and continue the conversation/interview with those ***s next time I start up.)
5. Assuming you and [other character] work out your differences, what’s gonna keep you from living happily ever after?
6. Even though we hope they’ll never do it, for now just pretend it could happen: What’s the worst thing [other character] could do to you?
7. Why would that be so bad?
8. Why would you deserve it?
9. What’s the worst thing you could do to [other character]?
10. Why would they deserve it?
11. Why on earth do you want a relationship with this person?
By now they might be saying “never mind, I don’t”? in which case, follow up with:
12. Why haven’t you given them up already?
13. Assuming it would hurt, why would it hurt?
14. What does this person give you/do for you/complete in you that nobody else ever has?
15. What do you do for them/give them/complete in them that nobody else ever has?
And that’s it — we’ll assume that by now you guys are really rolling up your sleeves and talking more intimately than most people ever talk to a therapist. Have fun!
METHOD #4: FREESTYLE INTERVIEW (SAMPLE)
This is really like having a conversation with somebody you’d like to get to know better. You can do it before starting the book, or anywhere in the middle?just keep in mind what stage of the book this person is at. (If they haven’t yet met the love of their life, they can’t really talk about the relationship! )
Here, we’ve got a waitress who spent three giddy weeks with a golf pro before realizing she didn’t truly love him — then discovered she was pregnant. He promised to marry her, but instead left her in his family’s Scottsdale vacation home and phoned from Asia to say “I’m not coming back; you can stay there until next winter.” Unknown to Lucy or golfer Kenny, his older brother Conner (a workaholic attorney) was planning to get away from the office and spend six weeks in the vacation home — organizing a foundation that would relieve his guilt over the death of his son.
So before the book begins, before Conner ever shows up at the house and finds Lucy there with baby Emma, we sit down and chat with each character separately.
Conner, how do you feel about Kenny?
For a long time I wanted to knock some sense into him, you know? Instead of always covering for him. But I finally realized he’s not gonna change; he’s always gonna need bailing out…and I might as well keep on doing that. It’s easy enough.
And it lets you be superior to him.
Yeah. Good point.
But you still don’t think you’re capable of love?
I think if I were, I would’ve done it by now. I mean, I thought at first with Margie I could do it, I could love like anybody else. And then with Bryan– I mean, my God, if you can’t love your own kid…! I think it got left out of the gene pool someplace…somewhere along the line, I missed something.
How do you feel about that?
I don’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. What’m I gonna do, lie around feeling sorry for myself? Getting angry again? I’ve been through that, done it, skipped the T-shirt…I don’t need to go there again.
So why are you setting up this foundation for Bryan?
Because I’ve gotta do something. I’ve gotta do what I can do, and this is something I know how to do. Maybe I can’t love, but I can sure organize. I can delegate, recruit, administer, all that…I can do some good with that.
Okay, moving on… Was Kenny always center stage?
He was like the golden boy, all those years…my folks kind of saw him as the proof that our family wasn’t really screwed up. Here I am trying to hold it together and here he is, out there having a great time…he was the proof they needed. I mean, he probably wouldn’t see it that way, he’d probably say “Oh, Con was the one who kept everybody going, he was the one everybody counted on, leaned on, turned to…” (pause) I was the one everybody used.
So what are you gonna do about it?
Do? Nothing. There’s nothing TO do at this point. It was all over twenty years ago, twenty-five, whenever my dad died and– I don’t know, it was over before that, even. Day he took his first drink.
And I’m the last person who can throw stones, I know. It all kind of falls under “Shit Happens.” Shit happened, I survived… (pause) Bryan didn’t.
Tell me about Margie.
What’s to tell? I thought I loved her; she probably did love me…until she realized I didn’t really have it together.
Have what together?
The whole love-marriage-family thing. I figured I could do it, how hard could it be? You know, you don’t think that clearly when she’s all over your? Shit. I don’t want to talk about this.
Did you love her?
No, I didn’t! But I thought I did. Wishful thinking, I guess…I should’ve known I couldn’t do it.
Are you bitter about that?
Well, yeah. But there’s not much point going there. Everybody misses out on things, I don’t have much patience with people who gripe about missing out on piano lessons or a dad to play catch with or whatever…everybody misses out, that’s just the way things are.
After moving from Conner to Lucy and getting introductions out of the way?
Lucy, you’re on.
Cool. I get to be queen of the show, huh?
Yeah. I don’t think it’ll be that hard to get to know you, and I’m tired of talking to Conner.
He’s tough. He’s all closed in on himself; it’s hard to reach him.
Ooh, too bad. Want me to try?
You’ll get to later. He’s not gonna want to open up to you, either.
No problem. Just let me at him. I mean, he’s not a jerk or anything, right?
No…he’s just incredibly responsible.
You don’t sound too thrilled about that.
Well, no, it’s okay. I just didn’t realize I was gonna be rooming with somebody who always puts the lid on the toothpaste. Is he a pain about it?
I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.
Well, it’s not like we’re gonna be sharing a bathroom anyway. I don’t know how he’ll feel about Emma, though….
He’s gonna fall in love with her.
Oh, I like him already. Anybody who loves my baby? God, does that sound dumb, or what? He could be an ax murderer, but as long as he loves Emma…! Slap me before I get all sappy.
What’s the matter with being sappy?
Well, it’s not something people want to watch for very long. I mean, I’m crazy about her, I never knew I could love anybody that much…but even as I’m saying it, I know it sounds sappy.
Do you care what people think of you?
Sure. Of course. Not that I’m gonna change myself to be what other people want, but of course I care what they think of me. Don’t you?
Well, yeah. But you seem so much more free-spirited.
So? You can’t be both? I don’t mean I go around worrying about what people think of me, but it matters what they think.
Who doesn’t approve of you?
Aw, you name it. I had a baby out of wedlock, okay? That’s a whole lot of people off the list, right there.
Okay, moving on…what if Conner wanted to marry you?
Why would he? He’s rich, right? He could have anybody.
But say he fell in love with you.
Oh, now we’re back to Queen Of The Show. Sure, fine, if this rich guy who’s real responsible?is he great-looking? Shoot, he’d have to be if he’s Kenny’s br? Oh. Oh. I just got very heavy and slow. He’s Kenny’s brother. So no. Uh-uh. Forget it.
I’m not marrying Kenny’s brother. They come from the same family, right? Any family who could raise a guy like Kenny, no thanks?I don’t want any more Tarkingtons in my life.
What are you going to tell Emma about her father?
I’ve thought about that. I’ll tell her the good stuff. He was good-looking, for sure. And he was well, fun. Really good at golf, too; he worked hard at it. So I’ll tell her that. Anyway, if I ever marry somebody else, she’ll have a better dad right there.
Oh, sure, right. Like this rich guy’s gonna fall in love with me?
I guarantee you, he will. Because I designed you and him to be perfect together, and I’m the one writing the book.
I’m gonna be in a book? No, come on. Really?
(If the interview continued, Lucy would hear the answer: Yes, check your bookstore for “His Brother’s Baby,” coming from Silhouette Special Edition in July 2003. But who knows whether she’d actually go buy a copy?!)