Tools for Novel Writers: Character Interviews for, well… Character

Woman interviewing a guy in a ponchoThe Character Interview

Today’s topic… character interviews! They’re very useful! True! I hate character interviews! Also true!



Nutrition label with factsCharacter Factoids

I wrote a post a while back called “I Completed a Character Interview and didn’t Scream Once.” It’s about a method of defining characters that involves completing a long list of descriptive items.

While this was a useful process, for a writer like me (no smart cracks starting “Yeah, like a…” and ending in something rude, please), the process has its limitations. When I tried this for a new character, I had a shell of factoids, but not a living, breathing person. Working through the method for an existing character was helpful for record-keeping, but it didn’t give me a better idea of who she was.

After working on my not-so-great American novel for a while, I’ve found that a performing a nuts-and-bolts character interview is not a bad way to start out. It at least gives you something to work with and keeps you from making the oft-told error of giving Jane blue eyes on page 10 and brown eyes on page 75.

Character SouloidsSouls

On the other hand, if I want to know anything about the depths of a character – goals, heart’s desires, shaken or stirred – they have to live on the page for a while and interact with the story world around them. The facets of a character’s personality are born of my own subconscious and they take a while to come out. I am well aware of the excellent craft tomes that suggests methods for eliminating, or at least, abbreviating this process; I am reading them and ever hoping to improve. In fact…

I just finished reading one of those crafty books, Writing Fiction for Dummies and there’s a bit in there about character interviews I am finding very helpful. It’s the idea of determining a character’s values, ambitions and goal. These three points are infinitely more important than weight or mother’s paint color preferences. They get to what makes a character tick, which is a large part of what drives a story. And if you know one or two aspects, you can back up or go forward into the others. For example, if you know a character’s value is financial security, that might lead to his ambition to make lots of money and that ambition to his goal of being a corporate CEO.

After I’ve lived with a character on the page for a while, I still don’t necessarily have a conscious notion of what his values, ambitions, or goal might be, but what I do have is somebody I can have a conversation with. (All that time talking to imaginary friends is finally paying off.) Once that conversation gets under way, the characters speak for themselves. I do give a prod or some direction here and there, but mostly I just let them jabber.

Demon maskExample

Now I’ll bore you with an example. It’s part of the interview with my main bad guy, Gilles de Retz, a damned soul so bad he volunteered to be converted into a demon.

N: I need to know what you want, Retzy.

D: What I want? Is this not the thing obvious? De Retz must rise! De Retz must rule! It is the natural way.

N: The natural way? What are you talking about?

D: There is the natural order and of this are the people who are better and who must rule. De Retz is such a one, perhaps above them all.

N: How do you know you’re better than everybody else?

D: It is a thing one knows. How do you know that you are a narrow-eyed, pinch-faced idiot? You just know, oui?

N: Let’s do a quick check.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Mais oui!

N: Is there a conflicting value, I wonder?

D: I am very loyal to my great Lord Satan. Of all creation, he is the only one better than de Retz.

N: Really?

D: There is the good chance of this, at least.

N: That’s good That would give you a conflict between wanting to rule everything and being the loyal second banana.

D: What? De Retz is not a banana, nor any fruit!

N: Okay, simmer down. It’s just an expression. Let’s do this again.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else. Loyalty to Satan is paramount because he is the only being greater than de Retz.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else. Make Satan the primary ruler.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Here you have l’essence de de Retz, monsieur. I would not have thought you capable.

N: Okay, thanks, Retzy. I think.

I use the example of de Retz because he was relatively easy and so his interview was short. I’ve found so far that the good guys are more complex, which I think (hope) is good.

Put a Comment in the Weird Robot Head BoxComment box with mannekin head

I’m sure I’ll be learning and sharing more about all this as time goes on. Please leave your own genius thoughts on character interviews in a comment.


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