If you write fiction, you’ll probably agree with Robert Peck’s assessment that fiction is folks. He wrote a book by the same name. In it he suggests that before you type “Chapter One,” do your homework and get to know your characters thoroughly.
Many other writing experts give the same advice, but how do you do it? James N. Frey in “How to Write a Damn Good Novel” gives these suggestions:
► Write a biography on your main character(s)
► Have your leads journal—write about their life and how they feel about it.
► Imagine you’re a psychotherapist intent on understanding the character lying on your couch.
“Find your character’s ruling passion,” Frey says. In other words, “what drives them.”
My critique partner, who comes from a military background, takes a different spin on the interview process. She imagines herself as airport security. She orders each of my characters to turn out their pockets and she runs each piece of luggage through high-tech scans. Then she and her virtual commandos escort “said character” to an interrogation room to discuss each found object.
“Explain the purpose of this object,” she commands. “You’re carrying it because?” Her grilling unearths a wealth of information. (I’m certain she missed her calling.)
In “GMC, Goal, Motivation and Conflict,” Debra Dixon recommends another interviewing technique. She asks her critique partner to interview her as she plays each character. Dixon says, “Spend time developing your characters beyond their physical aspects. Ask that important question: Who is your book about? She advocates getting your characters to answer these four core questions:
1.) Who are you?
2.) What is your goal? (What do you really want?)
3.) Why do you want that goal?
4.) What is stopping you from achieving it?
Pinpointing your character’s nature, goal, motivation and conflict is a good start. Now you can also ask:
5.) What skills do you have?
6.) How do you handle anger?
7.) What, in your view, are your admirable traits?
8.) What don’t you like about yourself?
9.) What are your pet peeves?
10.) What makes you uncomfortable?
11.) What do you fear?
12.) What past experiences shaped who you are today?
13.) What makes you laugh?
Questions 5-13 are adapted from a huge selection of character-defining questions found in “Building Believable Characters,” by Marc McCutcheon. Of course, there are a lot of other questions you could ask, but these are the basics.
So, have you used an interview technique to discover your characters? I’m curious: What other questions have you found helpful?
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