Playing With Character Interviews

Mastermind-chairYou are unlikely to recall my wail of despair a few months ago regarding making the switch from non-fiction to fiction. Just in case you have been fretting on my behalf however, it’s sort of going ok, thanks. And I’ve had an idea. I don’t actually know yet whether I’m a plotter or a pantser so I have been trying to work with a few ‘rules’, to see where they lead me. If they go nowhere, I will stop trying to plot and begin to just pants. Which is kinda rude if you’re a Brit. Where was I? Oh yes…

I was reading RJ’s brilliant post about story bibles last month and followed her trail back to Arline Chase’s post about character creation. I dutifully set about fleshing out my people in the manner described. I set up a spreadsheet, honestly I did. It had all the stuff on it that you need to know about your people, their motivation, their challenges, their appearance, childhood, food choices, the lot. And I sat and looked at it for ages. I put two characters’ names into the right spots and stared at the empty boxes. It felt like those awful ‘comprehension’ exercises that people in their late 50s who were educated in the UK may recall. You read a passage from a book, which you might have quite enjoyed, but then you had to spoil all that by proving to someone else that you understood what it meant.

So, my characters remain a little underdeveloped. I have actors in mind for a few of them, another one is based on the pal who is helping me with my research, and they all have voices in my head, but that’s it. Until last week. Something happened to make me realise I might be able to let them tell me about themselves.

I did sort of know that writers interview their characters but I’d not actually given it much thought before. As a non-fiction writer, I have either already interviewed my characters or they aren’t speaking to me any more and I have had to disguise their name and hope they no longer read books. But I think this could be my answer to the blank character sheet dilemma.

My inspiration happened thusly. I maintain the website for a group of writers who recently undertook a joint blog hop. The hop was organised by Fabulosity Reads, who suggested it would be fun if each participant put a character interview on their blog for the day of the hop. This is how I managed to read my first character interview… Jackie Weger interviewing the not-a-hero pilot from her latest book.

As I read, I realised I was in on the kind of back-stage musings that you get on those DVD extra bits. This was officially fun and not homework. I therefore plan to interview my people. Maybe they will tell me in their own words where they went to school, what they like for breakfast and how they choose their clothes. Maybe they will also tell me what their motivations and challenges are, during this tale that is still unfolding.

It may help that the story, my first piece of fiction, was inspired by two voices. The yarn came to me while standing in line at the grocery store, listening to the chatter of the woman at the checkout. She made me smile. I memorised some of her phrases to note down when I got home. Hearing her voice suddenly made me realise that an idea I’d hardly known was in my head could be a book, and that she was going to be its heroine.

The voice of the hero had slotted into place before I’d paid for my shopping (he was behind me in the queue) and the notebook I now carry with me everywhere (just in case it happens again) is full of his tricks of speech, too. The next characters populated a little more slowly but they all have voices and little else, possibly a byproduct of too much time spent listening to BBC talk radio.

So, I shall interview them all and see what happens. I will of course, use Arline’s outline to help formulate the questions and I might have a go at asking them what they think of each other. I know that a number of you like to interview your characters, so my question is, have you tried using this technique to round out a person while you are still writing?

And if so, did it help?

Author: Carolyn Steele

Carolyn writes websites, copy and nonsense about emigrating. She also occasionally ambles off to do something daft in case it’s interesting enough to write about. Her latest book grew from the blog Trucking in English, and you can learn more at her blog and her Amazon author page.

40 thoughts on “Playing With Character Interviews”

  1. Carolyn! I think when a Brit goes pantless it is called ‘going commando.’ I happened to be in front of Buckingham Palace when the wind lifted a guard’s skirt–lovely commando! I panster my books. Which means if I find out something late in a chapter, I have to run back to hint at it in an earlier scene. Works for me.
    That character interview you mentioned is the first I’ve ever done. But, I wouldn’t know what interview questions to ask in front of the book. I seem to know more after THE END.

    JackieWeger

    1. Lol, I’m imagining the scene. Actually this post came of out me forgetting to ask you at the time whether your interview had been ‘before or after.’

    2. That’s exactly what I do. If a character does something later in the book, I go back and hint at it in an earlier chapter. I just can’t write straight through, get to the end and say finished!

  2. What on earth is a ‘pantser’ when it’s at home? I can’t find it in my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Or is it an American word?

    1. Those who write “by the seat of their pants”, extemporaneous rather than from charts and formal plot outlines, etc. Also, people who sneak up behind people and snatch their pants down as a prank, but that’s probably not what’s being mentioned here.

  3. Interviewing your characters is a great idea. I don’t do it formally, but once I can “hear” a character’s voice, I let her/him talk in my head, tell me things, or talk to other characters. After a while I feel I know them really well.

  4. Yeah Rich, whatever works. Personally, I always wonder why it’s a good idea to spend a lot of time writing everything other than the book, though I sometimes do some charts to keep things straight, like if there are a lot of characters whose interaction is involved.
    I think you have to be careful about compiling character dossiers and report cards and all that. One thing it might do is suck out some of the creative surprise that drives writing about them. It might also be something to divert yourself from writing.
    A few years ago this was one of the usual writing fads that swept through forums and sites. You’d see these lengthy questionaires about characters. What is favorite color? How many socks in their drawer. What’s in their left pants pocket. Who’d they vote for. Innie of outie. Whatever nonsense people could dream up. Pretty much pointless. I would say that this doesn’t help “know” a character any more than doing such a list would help you know your friends or lovers or co-workers.
    And while you are doing this for all your characters, there are other people out there writing novels.

  5. I am a pantser, or at least was for my first book. I did a little more planning for the second, but now feel that i must do quite a bit of plotting for the third and final one in my series, to tie up all those mysteries and loose ends! I’ve read posts from authors who do indepth plotting and it seems that their actually writing goes very quickly then. I’m looking forward to trying this. I tried doing a character interview and a spreadsheet as you mentioned and failed miserably at both… 🙂

    1. I’m not alone then, failing miserably could well be on the cards. I have a feeling nothing will go quickly either way Dianne. Thank you for dropping by!

  6. Character interviews have worked well for me. I don’t do a formal sit-down, unless they’re being particularly recalcitrant. We chat, or I’ll just start typing the answers to the questions I ask. Keeping the communication open is my goal. Good luck and keep at it, Carolyn!

    1. When my characters are as real as yours Laurie, I’ll have achieved a major goal. 😉 I now have an image of you turning a spotlight to them and telling them off.

      1. Oh, I’d never do that, for fear they’d stop talking to me! And I’m grateful cars have windows or else I’d get some funny looks for chatting with them while I drive.

  7. I love where you say you were “standing in a grocery store line” listening to a woman chatter. SO MANY of my book ideas have been sparked in just this manner. I love eavesdropping! lol

    Oh, and I would heartily recommend Wendy at Fabulosity Reads. The book tour she organized was fabulous!

  8. I was scheduled to interview my police detective, Karen Seagate, this morning, but she called and said she caught a case. Promised to get back to me. I don’t expect to hear from her. She’s a pathological liar.

  9. I’ve seen those character sketches, too. None of that works for me. Guess I’m not disciplined enough for outlines or charts or in-depth character analysis. I let my characters develop as I write. Once I saw Charlie Cooper take off his shoes and socks, roll the socks up (along with his watch) and place the lot inside his shoes, place the shoes inside his duffle bag, precisely fold up his pants legs to the knees, fish an umbrella from under his seat and then step out into the rain, I knew he’d be the kind of guy who “ordered” the cans in his pantry. From then on, Coop blossomed into this Neat Nancy who prepares his meals from recipes off the backs of soup cans.

    I say whatever works for the individual writer is the right way to go about it. To each his own . . .

    BTW, Mike, I also loved your response.

    Sharon Pennington

  10. I see the point in having a “bible” of sorts where details are there for continuity, but a lot of that kind of stuff just happens as you write, I think.
    As a Kiwi, and thus more British than American, it takes a while to get used to trousers being called pants. The worst is panties for underwear. Shudder….

  11. Um, guys? What is the purpose of putting a link to your blog in your comment? There’s already a link to your blog at the very top of your post.

    Anyway, back on topic. I’m with Lin on this, I think. I’ve only occasionally done a character interview, and mine were much like Laurie’s — just a conversation, not any sort of grilling. I do make a chart to keep track of my characters, but it’s not exhaustive, and I doubt I would do it at all if I wasn’t writing a series. And I call myself a plotter, but my outlines are pretty generalized. In my current WIP, the ending I actually wrote is pretty far afield from what was in my outline. 😀

    I do think this endlessly-detailed preparatory stuff can become a writing project of its own — and a good way to delay actually sitting down and writing. But that said, if it works for you, and you get a finished book out of it, go for it. 🙂

  12. When I start a new project all I have is a file full of post-it notes, articles I cut from the newspaper, and an outline. I attack the writing and don’t do too much prep. I end the time at the computer when it makes sense, but I’ll think about what would be the next logical part of the story. That is how I cook,follow the recipe at first, and then do what I want. It seems to turn out well.
    It is very helpful, however, to see how other writers work and to consider an alternative.
    Thanks for the great post. 🙂

  13. Like most here, I’m happier to let the character develop as the story does. I can always go back and add in some hints earlier on, but the thought of doing an in-depth psychoanalysis of the characters beforehand sounds like way too much work and way too much constraint, both on me and them. But then I’ve never been disciplined. I wasn’t a flower child of the 60s for nothing!
    And Carolyn–I LOVE your narrative! Whether you go with fiction or remain with non-fiction, keep that voice. It is priceless.

  14. Great post, whcih I enjoyed reading. I’ve never tried to interview any of my characters but I might give it a go. Can’t help feeling some of my characters might be a bit antsy. Iqbal: “What do you mean, what do I like to do in my free time? You invented me, you ought to know all the answers.”

    1. My attempt to reply to everyone individually seems to have been hit with a gremlin, so I’ll try one long thank you for all the interesting comments. Laurie, when my characters are as real as yours I’ll have achieved a major goal. Donna, it was a quite a shock when it happened! Mike, still laughing, Melissa still blushing. Mary and Linda, thank you, Lynne, I could end up agreeing with you yet. lol Lois, post-its will be my next trick.

  15. This is such a great idea, Carolyn. I’ve never done it, but I think an interview with a character could add some good depth. When you’re coming up with an interview, you’re always looking for interesting and unique questions, so it’s a great way to learn things about your character that might add depth, but that wouldn’t come up in the writing of your story.

  16. Whether or not you find this helps drive your characterization, it can be a promo/discovery stunt. A good, honed, interesting interview posted around might generate interest in your book

  17. I listen to my characters’ voices all the time; the idea of actually interviewing them sounds interesting but a bit alien. My characters are like the people I’ve known throughout my life: you can think you know them but you only find out what they are really like by seeing how they react in real situations; and that’s how I get to know my characters.

    Great post Carolyn.

  18. Ok, This is definitely an author’s discussion. I’m a reviewer but I love doing interviews. Character interviews are much harder than interviewing the author. But, I love the fantastic answers I get back. Readers love these character interviews. It feels more like an interactive experience. Great blog post!

    1. So happy to get a reviewer’s perspective, thanks Julie. I’m thinking I might actually have a go at a ‘before and after’ to see what changes. Now I’ve started looking for character interviews I’m getting hooked.

  19. Great article Carolyn. My first main character was me, so it was easy to write, and I made most of the other people in the book relatives and friends as well. But when I got to my second book, and had ran out of personalities to mimic I kind of panicked. Fortunately, as I started to write, the characters’ personalities just seem to flow naturally. Missed out doing the character interview when I was in the Fabulosity blog hop, but did one before and it was fun. Loved giving my character “life.” Thanks for sharing.

  20. I love to find out about other writers’ creative processes. It’s amazing how many ways people channel, express, and work through the creation of characters. My process always seems to start with a hook that intrigues me. How the characters react to the situation tells me who they are, and I go from there. They tend to surprise me quite a bit. I’m afraid if I wrote a character outline, they’d laugh at me and say, “Seriously, lady? You want us to do WHAT?” But I have a lot of admiration for writers who can develop an outline and stick to it. I’d be hopeless at that.

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