Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ten Steps Toward a Good Character Interview

In case you don't already know these two, it is my pleasure to introduce Leah Bright Maxwell and Trevor Aldrich Logan. Leah is the protagonist of the middle-grade historical fantasy I'm working on, and Trevor is the shy neighbor boy of Leah's Aunt Becky. The two share a commonality: each has lost a parent. A third character is about to become a member of what Leah sardonically calls the "Dead Parents Society."
     When I was about a hundred pages into the story, I realized I didn't really know Leah and Trevor all that well, so I decided to take the advice of fellow Hoosier Ink writer Ramona K. Cecil and interview these characters. After all, I'm an experienced interviewer, having written for two newspapers for nine years. All I had to do was apply the same techniques I used to interview mayors, judges, quilters, blacksmiths, E.R. medical staff, politicians, drugstore proprietors, old farmers, and boxers.
     Below are ten guidelines for interviewers interested in getting to know their characters. Following the guidelines, I've included the interview with Trevor. He surprised me the most.
  1. Find out as much as you can about your subject. Research the settings of time and place. If your character has a special hobby, interest, or line of work, learn about it. Obviously, you can't research what you don't know about, and your character may very well reveal something along these lines through the interview.
  2. Set the interviewee at ease. When I'm interviewing a living, breathing person, I'll engage in some small talk and ask some innocuous questions before entering into the heart of the interview. I may even talk a little about myself, perhaps telling something a bit personal, so the interviewee will feel comfortable in telling me some personal things.Your interview with your character should flow naturally, so a little small talk may help with that.

    (At this point, I'm taking a little break to tell you that at first this may seem awkward--interviewing a fictional character as if he were sitting across the table from you sipping chai. I understand that. Fact is, your character should be so real to you that you can almost smell the onions on his breath from the sandwich he had for lunch. You're a writer. Relax. We have a special license to be crazy upon occasion.)
  3. Take careful and copious notes. This does two things. It captures your thoughts and records them, and it slows the interview down so that both the interviewer and the interviewee can gather their thoughts.
  4. Take time to listen--really listen. Allow time for the character to say all he can regarding a particular question. Wait. Listen to the silence. Is he on the brink of saying something more? What's holding him back? What are his facial expressions? His gestures? Does he seem nervous? Perturbed? On the brink of tears?
  5. Ask follow-up or probing questions. You can't do this if you've not listened closely, if you're too busy thinking of the next question, or if you assume you know the answer. You have to deliberately listen to hear.
  6. Show genuine interest in what your character is saying. 
  7. Study to remain neutral. If your character reveals a reprehensible act or motive, instead of shutting him down, let him talk. Encourage him by saying something like, "Yes, go on. What thoughts went through your mind when...?"
  8. If you have questions about an answer, repeat to the character what you heard. "Did I understand this correctly?" you might ask. 
  9. Interview all significant characters. It may be helpful to take on the role of your characters--play act--answering as each character would.
  10. Allow your characters to be real. Don't try to impose a preconceived personality or behavior on him. Prepare to be surprised. You will end up writing genuine, round characters.
Interview with Trevor
With Notes

Me: What is your name?
Trevor: Trevor Logan.
Me: Middle name?
Trevor: Aldrich. It was my grandpa's name, but everyone called him "Al." I didn't know what his middle name was. I had to look up the meaning before I'd agree to use it.
Me: Trevor Aldrich Logan. That a good, solid name. Do you know what the Aldrich part means?
Trevor: Yeah. Spear wielder. Like a soldier, I guess. Like my dad. And my grandpa. Until I asked this, I knew nothing about his grandpa.
Me: Is your grandpa deceased?
Trevor: Yes. So is my dad.
Me: Oh, no. I am so sorry. How did he die? Your father, I mean.
Trevor: He was a brave warrior.
Me: Oh?
Trevor: He died in Iraq. He . . .
Me: I know it is hard to talk about. You don't have to . . .
Trevor: No. I want people to know, because I'm proud of him. He threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies. I already had decided that he died in Iraq, but I didn't know how. The interview filled in that detail.
Me: Oh, Trevor. He was a very, very brave man.
Trevor: My grandpa died shortly after we heard about Dad dying. Mom says Grandpa died of a broken heart. Didn't know that, either.
Me: What about your grandma?
Trevor: She lives with us. Actually, we live with her. It's her house. She and Grandpa built it a long time ago. The front part used to be a little gas station, back before Grandpa decided to retire. So it's kind of an odd house, with old gas pumps still out front.
Me: It has character.
Trevor: (laughs)
Me: So how did you and your mom—what's her name?
Trevor: Wilhelmina, but no one calls her that. She's called "Willie." I hadn't known this before.
Me: I can understand that. So how did you and your mom come to live here? Where did you live before?
Trevor: We lived in North Carolina. After Grandpa died, Grandma called Mom and said, "Wilhelmina, why don't you and Trevor come to Indiana and live here with me? We'll take good care of one another." So we did. This all was news to me. If I hadn't decided to interview Trevor, I wouldn't have known.
Me: She's your father's mom, isn't she?
Trevor: Yeah.
Me: Are your other grandparents, your mom's folks, still living?
Trevor: Yeah. They live in Illinois. Close to the Mississippi River.
Me: The grandma you live with, what's her name?
Trevor: Fern. [News to me!] I like that name. The woods around here are full of ferns and I think they're really pretty.
Me: I like ferns, too. Have you met the girl who is spending the summer up on the hill?
Trevor: With Miss Becky? Yeah.
Me: What do you think of her?
Trevor: I don't know her much. She's from Chicago, so she's probably uppity. Of course, he's talking about Leah, and this is early in the novel.
Me: "Uppity"?
Trevor: Yeah. You know. Snobbish. I think her dad's a college professor or something like that.
Me: Her name is Leah. You and she have some things in common, you know.
Trevor: Like what?
Me: Well, she's only a little bit older than you. And she has lost a parent. Her mom died in a car wreck. She was hit by a drunk driver.
Trevor: That's sad, too. Seems to be a lot of that going around.
Me: Do you know Miss Becky well?
Trevor: Yeah. We go to the same church. She was my Sunday school teacher when I was in third grade. I like her a lot. I go up to her house a lot. She lets me help her in her garden.
Me: Don't you have a garden at your house?
Trevor: Yeah. We all three work in it. But I really like to grow things and take care of them, so I help Miss Becky, too.
Me: I would think that would keep you pretty busy.
Trevor: Yeah. But I like to be outdoors, so it's fun for me. My dad did, too. He was a woodsman. He taught me all sorts of things about the woods and how to survive out in the wild. Like Brian in Hatchet.
Me: Oh, so you've read Hatchet.
Trevor: Yeah. It's pretty good.
Me: Do you read a lot?
Trevor: Not really. That was a book we read in school. Mostly I read to find out stuff. You know. Not made-up stories. Books about nature, an' stuff like that. My dad used to get me them kind o' books just about every birthday. I have a bookshelf in my room—well, it's part of my bed—that Mom calls my Lewis and Clark shelf. You know. After the explorers?
Me: Yes, I know. I've heard of them. So what kinds of books are on your Lewis and Clark shelf?
Trevor: Dad got me a lot of books about how to identify stuff. Trees, wildflowers and medicine plants, birds, mushrooms, butterflies, insects, snakes, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, dragonflies. . . you name it. It's prob'ly in one of my books.
Me: I might not be able to name it.
Trevor: Then we'll look it up in a book.
Me: Those are important things to know.
Trevor: Yeah. I know the woods around here real good. Are we about done?
Me: I think so. Unless there's something else you'd like to tell me.
Trevor: Nope. I want to go see if I can help Miss Becky.
Me: Thanks for talking with me.
Trevor: You're welcome. See ya later, alligator!
Me: After while, crocodile!

Now, it's your turn. Do you interview your characters? Which ones do you interview? Have you learned new and amazing things through the interviews? Please share your experience with our readers.


  1. Thanks, Sharon, for sharing this. I read about this technique in a book I'm working on (The Art of War For Writers by James Scott Bell) and am going to do it myself -- this was a great inspiration. Thanks again.

    Editing note -- I would put comments on the interview in parenthesis, because it sounds like Trevor is saying it. For example --

    Trevor: No. I want people to know, because I'm proud of him. He threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies. I already had decided that he died in Iraq, but I didn't know how. The interview filled in that detail.

    Just thought that would help.

    Have a blessed day.


  2. I like this idea very much. Thanks for sharing the technique.

    I haven't interviewed my characters in such a manner, but I know them well...I know and understand their wants, needs, their dreams, and desires of the heart.

    I think it comes after spending a year (or two) with them. Having the interview is a good idea to document the character, incase you put the book on the shelf for a time and start a new one. When you come back to will be fresh again.

  3. Yes, Loree, that's another very good reason to have a more formal, written interview.

    Also, I find it easy to project my own personality onto my characters, and this holds me accountable to hold my character to his or her own personality. It serves as a reminder as I go.

    Write on!
    Because of Christ,

    Since I did this interview with Trevor, I've thought of other questions I would like to ask, but I wanted to present the original version for this article.

    Thank you for you comment.

  4. Jeff,

    Thank you for commenting. I really enjoy doing the interviews. I begin with an established list of questions, but I'm willing to chase a few rabbits along the way, if the character takes off.

    The parentheses would work for the comments, also, but I hoped that by using a colored font would do the same thing. [I probably would use these brackets, rather than traditional parentheses, though.]

    Write on!
    Because of Christ,

  5. Eek! I just realized that Blogger did not keep my colored notes, so they DO look as though Trevor said them. Sometimes Blogger makes blogging a real challenge. Sorry!


  6. Jeff, I do see colors for the different Sharon's notes using Safari..

  7. I do interview my characters. I also find pictures of them online and create a "lapbook" for all my characters and how they know each other. It makes them extremely real to me, and hopefully, I can make them as real to my audience. This is the fun part of writing, I think!

  8. My name link wasn't working up there. This one will.

  9. Karla, thanks for reminding me to mention that the pictures of Leah and Trevor are from my collection of pictures I gathered to look at as I write. That really helps!
    Write on!
    Sharon Kirk Clifton