and how to do it.
Thursday evening, 7°F and starry
Listening to ELP, Take a Pebble
As a writer, you may find yourself stuck at certain points in your story. Maybe you know that things go from point A to point C, but you can’t figure out what point B looks like. Maybe you know that a certain thing happens but you’re not sure exactly how it happens. Or one of your characters does something that doesn’t add up, and you can’t figure out why.
Here is what not to do. Don’t go to your favorite writers’ group and ask the other members “Why would my character do this?” or “How exactly could this have happened?” or “What’s a plausible reason for my character to say/think X?” While other writers can explain the difference between active and passive voice, or show you how to properly use a semicolon (or mount a silly argument against semicolons) it’s always better to get your story specifics straight from your characters.
Why you should interview your characters
It’s their story. That’s right, their story. Not your story. (If it is your story, then it’s not fiction and this post doesn’t pertain to you.)
Because it’s their story, sometimes you may not be clear on what happened. Or you might think you know, but every time you try to write it the way you expect it to happen, the characters refuse to cooperate.
Nobody understands their story as clearly as the characters living it. When you’re not sure what happened, or how it happened, or why it happened, you really ought to ask your characters.
I have been thrilled, stunned, and delighted by my characters’ insights into their stories, as well as their grasp on the motivations and proclivities of their co-stars. There is really nothing like getting a character to open up and talk to you. It will enrich your story in ways you can’t imagine.
How to interview a character
A character interview is a form of freewriting. This means you need to resist any urge to edit as you go. Open a new document and start asking the character questions. If you or your character are uncomfortable, begin by asking questions you already know the answer to. This will get your writing flowing. Once the character opens up, ask him questions you don’t know the answer to. Let your character reply at length, without interrupting him. The initial questions don’t necessarily need to pertain to your story. The point is to get the character talking.
Like a good journalist, stick with open-ended questions.
Once your character gets talking, don’t correct him and don’t argue. He knows himself and his story better than you ever will. Respect that.
It’s ok to say, “I really thought things happened this other way. Can you tell me how it actually went down?” Always go for clarity on what happened, even if it doesn’t quite fit your vision of the story.
One of the most productive questions you can ask goes something like “I don’t understand why (or how) X happened. Can you explain it for me?” At this point, sit back and free write. Let the character go into as much detail as he wants to, even if it seems irrelevant, frivolous or tangential at the time. It’s also helpful to question how they feel about other characters or situations. Again, let it rip.
In any case, your characters are going to give you far more interesting, surprising and authentic answers than the folks in your writers’ group—who don’t even know your characters—could ever hope to supply.
Dealing with the reluctant interviewee
Asking for an interview is no guarantee of getting one. There are always characters who will clam up. For these situations, it can help to open a new document, write them an invitation to be interviewed, and let them know what you’ll be asking about. Then set things aside until the appointed interview time. Sometimes a reluctant character needs this formality and a little extra time to think things over.
When a character refuses an interview
This doesn’t happen because you “can’t” do a character interview. It happens because some characters will not agree to be interviewed. That’s ok. In this case, do one of these things.
- Invite another character to the interview and let the refusing character sit in. If the second character is someone they don’t tend to agree with, all the better. They may open up to defend themselves or argue their point of view. Write it all down and you’ll get the information you’re looking for.
- If that doesn’t work, try interviewing them with a character they trust. That may help them to open up.
- Dismiss the refusing character and interview another character. If that character refuses, keep going down your list of characters until you find the one that squeals. There is probably at least one informant in every story.
- Don’t be shocked if a minor character you interview tries to convince you it should really be his story. This is normal. They all think it’s their story.
Don’t forget to say thank you
As the interview draws to a close, be sure to thank your character. At the very least they’ve given you their time and with any luck, they’ve provided some insights to help you get their story back on course. Always show your appreciation, even if the character ultimately didn’t cooperate.
Extended dialogue method
If you find it uncomfortable to do character interviews, or if your characters flatly refuse to participate, an alternate method is to create an extended dialogue between two characters within a scene.
Either start a new scene or get into an old one. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the scene or situation you’ve been stuck on. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be.
If you’re worried about messing up your manuscript, just copy and paste what you need into a fresh document (or, if you’re like me, you may use a “sandbox” document as a catchall for playing around with character interviews and other experimental messes). Get two of your characters talking to each other in the scene. Let the conversation flow and do not edit it. Go ahead and include actions and gestures that come up, as these can reveal quite a bit. Don’t worry about the scene dragging or the dialogue going off on weird tangents. Just let it flow until you’re satisfied that you have the information you need.
The key is, go long. You can (and should) shorten the extended dialogue once you have the information you need.
It’s lazy to simply ask someone else to provide you with ideas for character motivation, or plausible explanations to get past the roadblocks in your story. Character interviews and extended dialogue are methods of digging deeply into your story. The more you do this, the better you will get at creating characters who feel like real people to your readers, rather than paper dolls being moved by clumsy hands from scene to scene.
An important difference between well-rounded characters and a flat characters is that well-rounded characters have a story to tell. They will help you to tell it for them if you give them the chance.
CC0 Public Domain image by PatternPictures via Pixabay.