Crafting Characters – The Interview

One of the most important (and often hardest) things to do as a writer is to create a cast of believable, 3-dimensional characters. Without characters that a reader can relate to and enjoy, your novel is never going to work. You could have an amazing plot, dramatic conflict, an awe-inspiring world, and a unique voice, but without real characters to populate your work, you may as well not bother.

So, how do you craft a believable character?

  • Choose the right name.
  • Create a personality.
  • Give him/her a face.
  • Provide him/her with a problem or choice during the course of the story.
  • Let him/her grow and change.

In this post, I’m specifically dealing with the second point: creating a personality.

While there are many ways to do this, a method that’s often worked for me is to sit and do an interview with my character. Not only does this provide me with a lot of information about the character’s life, values, and background, it can also let me see his/her attitude and demeanour.

So how do you interview a character?

Start with a series of questions. The ones I use are in bold below, but you’re welcome to make up your own if these don’t suit, or if you can think of better/more interesting ones. But it’s not enough to just answer the questions.

Think about an interview with a real person. The way they speak, their expression, their body language – all of these things tell you just as much about them as the actual words they say. So from here, I sit down and write out the interview as a short story. I’ll give you a couple of examples. These are the two main characters from my previous novel.

Marcus is sitting in the back corner of the tavern. He’s wearing a hooded cloak, with the hood drawn closely about his face. He’s clearly trying to be inconspicuous, but in a place like this, his clothing actually draws more attention to him than if he’d been dancing on the tables. He smiles as I approach and offers me a seat.

“Thanks,” I say. “Are you ready to get started?”

“Sure,” Marcus says. He seems happy to see me, and to be taking part in the interview.

“Do you like your job?” I ask.

He smiles again, this time in wry amusement, although I get the impression that it’s directed at himself rather than at me. “I don’t really have a job,” he says. Then he adds, “Unless you consider being a trainee thief a job. In which case, I’m not very good at it, but I do like it.”

“Do you have any friends or significant others?”

He’s still smiling, but his eyes look sad at this question. “Yes,” he says more quietly. “Raven. He’s been my friend for a long time.” He looks around the room, as though searching for his friend, and then looks disappointed to find that Raven hasn’t miraculously materialised.

“What is your idea of success?”

It takes him a moment to answer this, as though his mind was still on the previous question Finally, he says flippantly, “Being alive at the end of the day?”

“What do you hate?”

“I don’t hate anything,” he answer quickly. “I mean, what is there worth hating? Hate doesn’t change anything.”

“What do you do in your spare time?” I ask.

He grins again as he answers, “Practice. I don’t like falling off roofs.”

“What did you have for breakfast?”

Still grinning, he answers, “This morning? Let’s see…” he pauses to think about it for a moment. “Smoked ham, kippers, bacon, quail eggs, blue cheese, peaches, and bread. Oh, and coffee, of course.”

“Did you ever have a pet?”

He shakes his head with a laugh. “A pet? What would I do with a pet? I had a companion for a while as a boy, but he was sent away when I got too attached to him.”

“Do you believe in luck?” I ask.

“Of course!” he answers. “If Raven hadn’t rescued me when I fell off that roof…” he trails off, and the haunted look returns to his eyes briefly. Then he finishes, “Well, it would have been bad.”

“What is your favourite scent?”

He smiles, clearly recalling a particular fragrance. For the first time, he hesitates considerably before answering, “I don’t know.” He’s a very bad liar.

“What is the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?”

“Strange?” he repeats, his easy grin returning. “What do you mean by ‘strange’? I once saw a dog being chased by a cat. Does that count?”

“What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you?”

He shrugs. “Besides falling off a roof?” He grins to himself for a moment, and then his expression grows more serious, and his eyes unfocus as though he’s looking at something far, far away. “I remember being told the prophecy when I was seven. And I remember my father sitting me down when I was 13 and explaining that I would be killed on my twenty-first birthday so that my brother can be the greatest king Wysteria has ever had.” He pauses and focuses back on me. “But that was over seven years ago, and I don’t really think about it anymore.”

His good mood is gone, and he scans the crowd again as though looking for someone. Then he looks back to me, and his toe is polite when he says, “Was that everything?”

I leave him where I found him, but now his mood matches his cloak, and the patrons of the tavern look more inclined to leave him alone.

 

Raven isn’t there when I arrive, so I make myself comfortable at a table. He walks into the tavern just as I take my first swig of ale. He spots me and heads over. He doesn’t wave or smile. He doesn’t look like he wants to be there. When he reaches the table, he adjusts his chair so that he can see the entrance while he’s talking to me. “Let’s do this,” he says. He’s obviously here under protest, and I wonder who convinced him to come.

“Thanks for coming,” I say. “Do you like your job?”

He looks at me steadily. “Do you even know what my job is?” he asks. When I don’t answer, he continues, “I don’t like being a tinker. Or working for mages. Sometimes I like being a thief. Happy?”

“Do you have any friends or significant others?”

Again, the steady look. “Yes,” he says simply. When I don’t immediately go on, he adds, “Who they are is none of your business.”

What is your idea of success?”

“Success?” he repeats, his eyes narrowing a little. “I came here,” he waves his hand to indicate the city around us rather than this particular tavern, “to be a mage. Little did I know that you can’t do that if you don’t have the right breeding and the right money. So now I make a living as a tinker and a thief. Does that sound like success to you?” He frowns and shakes his head. “It used to be that my idea of success would have been to make it into one of the mage towers. Now,” he shrugs. “I guess my idea of success is being able to afford to buy enough drinks to forget what I used to want.”

“What do you hate?”

“Mages,” he says simply, with no hesitation. “And nobles. Especially royalty.”

“What do you do in your spare time?”

He laughs bitterly. “Spare time? Only the nobility have spare time, and they mostly spend it sleeping with other people’s wives. People like me don’t have spare time.”

“What did you have for breakfast?”

“Ale,” he says, his eyes challenging me to make something of it.

“Did you ever have a pet?”

He smiles, and this time it seems to be genuine. “Yeah, when I was a kid I had a puppy. It used to follow me around everywhere. I loved it so much.” His face hardens. “But it died.” He doesn’t provide an explanation, and I’m not game to ask.

“Do you believe in luck?”

“No.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because if I did,” he says, peering towards the bar and signalling to one of the wenches to bring him a drink, “then I’d have to admit to being the unluckiest man to have ever lived.”

“What is your favourite scent?”

He smiles a little as he answers, “Lavender.” He doesn’t explain further.

“What is the strangest thing you have ever seen?”

Raven shrugs and rolls his eyes. “I don’t even know where to start. The dregs are pretty strange. So are the mage towers. So is the street after three-night bender.”

“What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you?” I ask.

The girl brings over his drink, and Raven pays for it and then downs in one long swallow. Then he looks back to me. “We’re done,” he says simply. Then he stands and heads for the door. I won’t be getting the answer to my last question.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Crafting Characters – The Interview

  1. You make such a great distinction, pointing out it’s not enough to know the answer; you need to know how the character reacts physically and emotionally to the question. Very astute, Jo. I haven’t interviewed a character in a long time, but maybe that’d help me visualize my protagonist better.

    • Thanks, Laura. I find it’s particularly helpful when I’m having trouble working out the goals and back story of a character. Plus, it’s fun.

      (It’s can also be a form of procrastination, of course. But at least at the end of procrastinating, you have something that may actually be useful to your writing.)

      • Jo, I think we procrastinate in similar ways! And at least in first-draft writing, I find this kind of procrastination, where the book is on your mind but you’re moving sideways instead of forwards, is as important as charging ahead into the next chapter.

      • I know – there’s worse procrastination than research and character development. Still, neither of those things actually get the words on the page… 🙂

  2. I see the value of this, particularly in the question of body language. I have one character who, if I tried to interview her, would sit and glare at me, her arms folded, until I gave up; and another who would probably just shoot me — which I guess is a form of body language. I have one character who would love it, of course. I’d probably never get her to shut up.

    As I say, I see the value, particularly if a character is not coming together, but it’s not how I work and it feels somewhat intrusive to me. Characters reveal themselves slowly, and some aspects they never reveal. A major character in my second novel didn’t reveal her sexuality until the last page. It’s not something she would talk about under most circumstances, and she wasn’t in a relationship at that time. I had an idea of her preference, but didn’t know for sure until it was revealed in the story. I have two characters who were abused growing up, and the details haven’t come out because they don’t talk about it (and they wouldn’t talk about it in an interview either).

    I just wrote a scene last week that’s on a related topic, as a young college intern on a newspaper has an idea about interviewing a notorious mass murderer…
    http://jansleet.drupalgardens.com/content/quiet-people-part-twenty-eight

    Some characters are really best not interviewed, I think. 🙂

    • I couldn’t agree more. Some characters you just need to leave to their own devices. (Yes, shooting is a form of body language!) I don’t do this exercise with every character in my writing – usually just the ones that I’m having trouble with, or the ones that I find interesting but are never going to have the chance to shine (because they’re seriously small bit-players). Or sometimes I just use an interview as an interesting way to overcome temporary writer’s block. Or procrastinate. 🙂

      One of my favourite parts of the exercise is the questions where you know the character is lying, or when the character gets aggressive or sullen. To me, that reveals more about the character’s true nature than a series of one-line answers.

  3. Daniel Donche

    Pretty good tips, I notice that very few people interview the character correctly. I don’t really need to beat a dead horse here, because you already have the idea. I just think it’s cool that you wrote essentially the same article that I just wrote earlier this morning! (http://dandonche.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/character-creation-exercise-for-fiction/) I’m going to read some more articles now…

  4. Pingback: Crafting Characters – Where Did I Come From? | The Happy Logophile

  5. I have never tried interviewing my characters before. I usually just write up a seriously long history of their life. I feel like this would be a lot of fun to do!
    Thanks for the idea 😉

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