How are your story ideas born? For me, it all begins with a character. Maybe it’s someone I see at a mall, or at the airport. Perhaps it’s someone in a car next to me at a traffic light. The list goes on and on.
Next comes “I wonder.”
I wonder why he is smiling? Why is she crying? What makes him clutch so tightly to that steering wheel? Where is he going? Who is going to meet her at the airport?
With such curiosity in the beginning, your character’s story might flow like ice melt in the spring. But lines or pages into your story, “winter” often comes too soon as your ideas once again begin to freeze.
I’ve shared many of the techniques I’ve used to “thaw the frozen stream” in my book, Creative Characterization. But my favorite method is “Interviewing Your Character.”
Characterization is only one element of fiction. But, in my favorite stories, other elements—plot, setting, and conflict—are seen, felt, touched, heard, even tasted through the characters. Therefore, an author must know her characters as well, if not better than, the “real” people in her life.
So, how do you get to know your characters–make them tell their secrets? I’ve used two different techniques:
Interviewing on Paper
- Write down several questions you’d like to ask your character. (Suggestion: Use the list below to start a conversation with your character, rather than a Q&A session.)
- Close your eyes and imagine sitting with the character. Imagine the setting—the sights, sounds, smells.
- Write down the conversation as it happens in your mind.
- As your character talks to you, pay attention to his “voice” not only in dialogue, but also internalization. Write in that voice.
- This is not a time to edit or censor, but to gain knowledge. Don’t lift your pen from the page or your fingers from the keyboard.
Interviewing “In Person”
- Find a friend, relative or fellow writer to interview you as you portray your character.
- “Become” your character. Assume her personality, including her voice. If she’s a child, speak as a child. If she’s from the South, speak like a Southerner.
- Your interviewer can start with a few questions listed below, or ask something he’d like to know, especially if he’s familiar with your story or character.
- As best you can, remain in the persona of your character. Try dressing as your character!
The deeper you get into the role of your character, the more you’ll discover about your character and how he or she sees the story.
Here are a couple of questions to get you started. Try to start a conversation, rather than firing off questions like in a Q&A session. As in real life, you’ll learn more in a conversation.
- Tell me about something or someone who made you angry or happy.
- Who was your greatest teacher?
- Tell me about a time someone teased you as a child.
- If you had one day left on earth, who would you want to spend it with?
- Tell me a secret, either about yourself or someone else.
- Who would you like to thank and for what?
- If you could be a fly on the wall, where would that wall be?
- Who do you need to forgive?
Though I have many other questions in my book Creative Characterization, try to come up with your own questions, too. I created my list of questions by thinking of things I’d like to ask friends, family and even strangers to get to know their secrets. (I rarely have the courage to ask some of these questions of people in “real life,” but you can ask your characters ANYTHING, right?
I’ve used interviewing many times with my stories or novels, but my favorite instance–the time I learned the most–was when I interviewed Nobu, a character from my historical fiction, The Red Kimono. If you’d like to read the interview, click HERE.
You’ll learn many new, exciting and perhaps, surprising things about your character (and story) through this “conversation.” However, you probably won’t (nor should you) use everything. Still, the more of your characters’ secrets you learn, the better you’ll know how he sees the world. This knowledge will lead to deeper and richer characters and stories and therefore, will keep your readers turning the pages.
NOTE: I’ll be teaching the interview method and other characterization development techniques with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pen at this year’s Ozark Creative Writers Conference October 11-14. Come enjoy the Ozarks in autumn—the perfect setting to share and learn with other writers.