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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tell Me Your Secrets

I believe we get to know our heroines, heroes, villains and secondary characters as we write them. We spend time with them – hours and hours – and if we’re lucky, they reveal more of their inner selves to us. By the end of the first draft, we usually have a good idea what makes them tick. But what happens if we don’t? I like to interview the one I’m having trouble understanding.

When I say interviewing, what I really mean is having a conversation with my character in every day language. Some people have forms they complete for their heroes and heroines that ask questions such as, “What does the character want from life?” or “What flaw must the character overcome?” If I’m not talking directly to my character, this becomes a cognitive exercise rather than a creative excursion, and I often start to block.

For me, the important piece is not to think about what I want to ask or to consider my answers. The process is more free association and stream of consciousness. No sensoring. I have these discussions in my head when I’m driving, going for a run, cleaning house, grocery shopping, etc. And when my hero or heroine reveals something intriguing, it’s invigorating. Typically, I don’t write down my conversations with my characters, but recording the following interview was part of an assignment for a class. Therefore, I have some examples of how the interview goes for me. I start out with asking, "What do you want?"

First part of interview (Interviewer questions are in bold)

What do you want?
To travel the world, have an adventure.

What appeals to you about travel?
Well, you know, to see the world. Get away. Have a change of scenery.

You said to get away. What is it you’d like to get away from?
I don’t know. I’ve rarely left my aunt and uncle’s estate in the past decade.

How do you feel about their home?
I like it, I guess. It’s nice. I have some good memories.

Any bad memories associated with the estate?
Oh, sure. One of the worst, I suppose. I was here when I learned my parents died. I came for a short visit then never left. Everything changed for me.

Skipping ahead:

Sometimes people associate travel with escaping, that if they get away, everything will be different. Do you ever think about things being different?

Of course!

What would you like to have different in your life?
Well, I know I can’t have my parents back, but I wish I could have my life back like it was before they died.

How was it different?
I don’t know. More laughter, I guess. And we were together. We had fun. I had somewhere I really belonged.

Do you ever think about having your own family?
Sometimes. I’d like it really. I’ve thought about having lots of kids and having a house filled with noise.

Skipping ahead:

What qualities would you like in a husband?
Well, he’d have to let me be myself. I can’t live any longer forcing myself to be someone I’m not. I can’t be meek or quiet about everything any more. I can’t take it. I’d rather live far away in a foreign land than go back to that.

But what if he allows you to be yourself?
That would be good then.

You don’t seem so sure? What’s going through your mind?
What if I do find someone like that? I could fall in love. We could have children and then what?

I’m not sure I follow.
Well, what if my life was perfect? What if I had everything I wanted? My life was perfect at one time, but then bam.

Skipping ahead:

Are you afraid if you find happiness you will lose it again?
Wouldn’t you? You know what scares me? What if I’m not meant to be happy? What if the entire purpose of my life is to experience tragedy? Maybe I’m one of those people who everyone else can look at and be thankful for what they have. What if that is my purpose in life, to make others happy they don’t have it so bad? I don’t think I can do it. I can’t lose anything more.

Interviewing a character is simply one tool in getting to know your character. What do you do to better understand your characters?


  1. Great questions to ask our characters, Samantha. I do this sometimes. It's a fantastic technique because you can do it anywhere. Just be careful if you have a major revelation, not to blurt it out loud. I've done that a time or two. My children are probably looking at straight-jackets for Mother's Day gifts.

  2. Great topic, Samantha. I have a few things I do, but I'm one of those people that has to write it all down as I go.

    To start with, I develop my hero and heroine side by side, filling out basic information for each of them that slowly builds to deeper aspects of their characters. Usually, from this exercise, I get the beginnings of my plot.

    Then as I write, I allow them the freedom to deviate from what I initially planned for them. Sometimes they do a little bit--other times a LOT. If I come to a point where I get stuck, I sit down and interview them like you suggested above.

  3. Clarissa,
    If you have been watching Project Runway, you would know straight jackets are in style. ;) I too have been guilty of blurting something out or else laughing. That makes people look at you funny too.

    I write a lot of things down too. I have lists all over the place. I rarely refer to them, but writing it out helps me to organize my thinking. I especially need a visual when figuring out timelines.

  4. I like this idea. Characters are just like real-life people. It's fun to discover everything about them.

  5. Loved the flow of the interview. I have one particular character I need to get to know better. Normally characters reveal themselves to me as I write them and it has never been a problem, but I do have one particular lady that is a little too mysterious at the moment. Can't wait to try out the recording to see how it works.

  6. Candyland,
    Characters are just like real-life people. Isn't that the truth? I think that's what I love about them. Thank you for commenting today. :)

    I'd love to hear how it works for you.

  7. That's really cool, Samantha!

    I haven't ever interviewed a character (well other than for a fun blog). They just seem to take over and tell their own story. I just channel them. That sounds crazy, doesn't it?

  8. Lydia,
    That doesn't sound crazy at all to other writers. I don't interview every character. Only the ones I'm having trouble understanding. The most logical action might be to change the character to someone I understand better, but the character is who he or she is. I like that they are different from who I am or behave in ways I would never behave. Otherwise, all my characters would be smart-mouthed goofballs like me. :)

  9. My husband is getting used to me jumping out of bed when he's almost asleep to quickly write down a revelation my character whispered to me as I settle in for sleep. The quiet of night is a great time for thinking about characters but it does seem to get in the way of my bed time. Great list of questions - I think I might just jot some of them down. :oD