Thursday, September 13, 2007

Interviewing Your Lead Character: 13 questions to ask before you begin your story

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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  1. This is a very good tool for "learning" more about your characters. I started having mine write first person letters, to the same end. Funny the things they reveal when you least expect it. :)

  2. I'm writing a novel myself and will use those tips. Thanks!

  3. Great tips! And once you get to know your characters that well, they start yelling at you and insisting you write it THEIR way. ha!

  4. I'm a writer and you're speaking my language. The Discovering Story Magic triangle is the BEST I've found so far. But then again, I can ALWAYS find a new idea or new thing that will make my characters deeper, or more believable, or more compelling. I think the best advice I've heard is "Put your butt in the chair and just write." Now if only I could follow it!!!
    If you're interested, I'd be curious to know your take on my new writing blog. No one knows it's there...although it's easy to find. But no one besides another writer would care about my 3 measly posts on POV. Most people say, "POV? What's that?" But it's a passion for me, so I write posts just because it's fun. But I got thinking the other day...what if another writer reads this and thinks it's a bunch of hooey? After all, I'm just an unpublished editor...what do I know? I enjoyed your TT!

  5. Starchy, I know what you mean about those bossy characters.

  6. Sniz,
    Yeah, I should get my butt in the chair and stop commenting on blogs. Oh well, thanks for stopping by.

  7. Happy TT back at you No Nonsence girl.

    And thanks for visiting Nancy J. Bond and believer in balance!

  8. I've never heard of the interview technique before. I've done character study stories and character questionnaires, but I haven't tried the interview. Neat idea.

  9. My character sheets are much skimpier than yours. I do GMC, plus the basic information about a character. If they're a major character, they have an arc and I usually know their background (skimpy again) and kind of what their black moment will be.

    Once when I was stuck, I sat down with pen and notebook, and started writing first person in my character's pov. Anything the character wanted to talk about. Before I got to the end of the page, I knew what the next scene would be.

  10. I gave my two main characters diaries.The lead male character called it a journal. Characters are fun to meet.It's almost as id they're real!