One of the lessons I’ve learned about developing characters is to use interviews to develop characterization instead of using a dossier of lifestyle questions. Now I’m not saying that character dossiers aren’t perfectly valid ways to get to know your characters, but for me the interview method works better.
I know, I know. All the writing books say you need to know your character. Many offer sample questions or templates that help you to think about these things so that you can consider how these telling details impact your story. Stuff like what are their physical traits, occupation, social status, type of house they live in, the kinds of clothes they choose to wear, how much money they make, their hobbies and food preferences. I culled a lot of these character-building questions into an (I kid you not) an 11-page table. I spent a lot of time filling out this template for my several of my main characters in both TATTOO and FATE. The problem (for me) is that while I learn a lot about my characters (by using this process), I don’t really know how they think or why they made those choices in their life.
Halfway through my FATE manuscript, I got stuck on one of my main characters, and nothing in the character profile could help me figure out this guys’ motivation. Sure, I knew his favorite color, and the fact that he was a Zen Buddhist who didn’t like bananas and wore tidy whiteys instead of boxers, but none of the profile questions told me how he thought. I didn’t have a voice for him.
So I decided to start interviewing my characters. I developed a few basic questions to guide the conversation, but the responses are freeform, and backstory is encouraged. I want to know WHY these characters feel this way. This is where the character (in voice) writes a few paragraphs about whatever comes to his/her mind. No boundaries, no rules. Just write. I’d been resistant to this exercise until I tried this. It works for me. I found a unique voice for my character. I’ve come to trust this process to help me develop unique vioces for all my main (and even some of my secondary) characters. This is not an original idea; although I went back to my books and tried to find where I got it from, I couldn’t pin it down to single author.
These are the 4 questions I ask my characters in the interview:
1. TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELF. WHAT MAKES YOU SPECIAL?
2. TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FAMILY AND EARLY LIFE: HOW DID YOU BECOME SO SPECIAL?
3. PLEASE TELL US WHAT DRIVES YOU: WHAT IS IT THAT YOU WANT MORE THAN ANYTHING, AND TELL US 3 or 4 REASONS WHY YOU WANT IT SO MUCH?
4. AND WHAT ARE THE BARRIERS / PROBLEMS WITH ACHIEVING THAT GOAL IN THIS STORY?
I find that these questions put me into my character’s head far more effectively that filling out the answers to a lot of specific detailed questions. To me, the most important question of all is the last question, but I don’t let my character answer it until the previous three have been explored. The last question tells me who some of the other main characters are and helps me develop those scenes of conflict. More importantly, this exercise helps me get into my character’s head, and talk about his passions and frustration, thus sharing his emotional arc with me. I’m often able to use actual text from these interviews into my story. This creative process almost always takes me in surprising directions, and by the time I’ve done it for my core characters, I’ve got a pretty meaty, organic cast.