The Interview: Discovering Your Character From The Outside In
The Interview: Discovering Your Characters From The Outside In
One of the things I occasionally find myself struggling with, as a writer, is characterization. Making characters distinctive can be enhanced through a few tricks — for example, dialogue idiosyncrasies — but those are only enhancements.
Characters have to be fundamentally different people if they are to be believable, much less relatable. Sometimes this can prove to be problematic, particularly for young writers just starting out.
So today I’m presenting a technique for fast-tracking each character’s individuality. One of the best ways to discover each character also happens to be one of the best ways to get that initial grasp of real individuals: through an exhaustive interview.
But how do I do that? What questions do I ask?
The same questions you’d ask if you were to interview a real person, of course. If you wanted to get to know a real person, it would be tough to just sit them down and start firing off questions at them — but that’s the nice thing about the imaginary folks who live in our heads. They have no choice but to oblige us (even if they do protest, and I encourage you to let them do just that.)
But rather than force feed you questions, I’m going to do one better: I’m going to give you an example.
An Interview With Rockford James Dylan
Interviewer: Mr. Dylan, thank you for taking the time to join us this afternoon.
Dylan: Don’t see as I had much say in it.
I: May we have your full name for the record?
D: Rockford James Dylan. Rock to my friends. You call me Mr. Dylan.
I: I must apologize for the inconvenience. I’m sure you’re a busy man, and I assure you that we’ll take only as much of your time as is necessary. What is your occupation, Mr. Dylan?
D: I’m a… hold it just a second. I ain’t the kind to apologize, but maybe I was a little rough. You got a job to do, same as I do. Ain’t right to be cold at you for doin’ your job. My job is sort of a tangle to explain.
I: Thank you, Mr. Dylan. Please take your time. Our readers are curious.
D: Officially, I’m a private cop. Used to be a proper copper, a Deputy out of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. There was a… a thing I’d rather not talk on.
I: What was your childhood like?
D: Rougher’n some, better’n others’. Never met my mama, figure she died early on. Man what sired me — wouldn’t insult the word of ‘father’ callin’ him that — he lit out when I was about ten. I made my way by thievin’, but I hadn’t much talent for that. Got caught by a fella called Nundahar Saviprakesh, who was himself a cop out of the Scottsdale P.D. He and his Missus took me in and raised me, and he got attached to the MCSO soon after as a Deputy. Guess I followed in his footsteps.
I: So you’re a private detective now. Are you working on any interesting cases at the moment?
D: Well, yeah. That’s why I was sort of brief with you a minute ago. Got a client right now who’s sort of hard pressed to have me about her business, and if you got an eye full of her, you’d know that means a thing. Big redhead. I don’t know as she’s got a short fuse, but she ain’t built so’s findin’ out she has would be the cutest thing I ever saw.
I: Thank you for your time, Mr. Dylan.
D: You been considerate with it. I change my mind about somethin’ — you call me Rock.
Interview Versus Narrative:
While that’s only a brief example, there are some things there that I think should be pointed out. First, allowing your character to “talk back” to the interviewer (which is just you, the writer) is crucial to “decanting” the character.
Character interviews, in fact, are not primarily (or even essentially) about “the facts.” As a writer, you’re not Joe Friday. You want the facts, of course, but you could fill in the blanks for those (and you should, but separately.)
The purpose of interviewing your character is not facts and figures, but discovering who he or she is, as a person. This is achieved through attitude as expressed through dialogue.
But why an interview, you ask, as opposed to just throwing them into the story? Because in the context of action and interaction, the character is not in as focused a mental spotlight as he or she is in an interview. That spotlight distills the character in your mind, imprints the persona to the name and brings that character into solid individuality.
And allowing the character to “argue with” you, the interviewer, further establishes that individuality and isolates it from your voice, as the narrator of the story.
Now that you know what a character interview is for, and roughly how to conduct one, get to it! Comment with your links to interviews with your own characters, if you are so inclined.
Thanks for reading, thanks for watching, and as always: Do good work, and be good to yourselves and each other.
If you’ve enjoyed this post — and I very much hope that you have — consider making a donation in the amount of your choice.