Questionable Characters

The talented Jo Eberhardt introduced me to the idea of a formal Character Interview as part of the drafting process. After several months of trying it, I have been converted to using them.

Unlike some writers I tend to outline my stories before I start writing, so I usually dealt with issues of character motivation as part of that rather than finding myself wondering what a character was like part way through; therefore I rarely suffered from having no idea what a character would do next. However I also more usually write short stories where an outline is closer to a draft. So, as I was outlining a novel at the time I decided to try interviewing the major characters after creating the outline to see what effect it had on writing the first draft.

I used the same questionnaire as Jo. Despite an initial irritation at the syntax and grammar – or maybe because of – I quickly discovered a useful expansion of my outlining technique; whereas I might know what the characters were going to do and say, and why, answering questions as them created a reference for how they spoke and thought. This made filling in the dialogue easier as I did not need to consider the specifics of dialect as well as content.

pantsquestionnaire_zpsb846286c
Some questionnaires are more specific than others
(©Jason Eppink – CC BY NC SA 2.0)

After a successful trial I decided to play with the idea to see whether interviewing before outlining would help in creating a more character-driven plot; so I took an initial idea and interviewed the key characters. For the first few steps of the plot it gave me a strong picture of where the idea was going, then one of the main characters turned out to not feature and the plot needed a new character as both protagonist and narrator. Each series of interviews advanced the plot but produced a further group of detailed minor characters; I was in danger of creating an entire universe for a single story.

I then decided to go to the other extreme and interview characters after writing a first draft. Characters that had been key to the plot during outlining gained little – although it did produce a favourite food for the protagonist. However, where it did help was a minor character who turned out to be a large part than expected; the questionnaires set a common level of detail for major characters which helped with knowing how much depth to edit into earlier appearances to neither over emphasise nor undersell their importance.

So the interviews definitely added to my previous process. Repeating them for other stories I confirmed that, for me, the best time to interview a character seems to be after I had created the plot around them but before I had finalised it.

Going forward I intend to try interviewing minor characters who expand into major characters when it happens rather than waiting for the draft to be finished.

Do you formally interview your characters? Do you use the same questions each time?


Related articles
Becoming a Storyteller: Plotter vs Pantser, or, Did Stephen King really just call me a Dullard? (dlfwriting.com)
The Age-Old Question (insideliamsbrain.wordpress.com)


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6 thoughts on “Questionable Characters

  1. Thank you Dave, for the insight on character interviews to further plot and add distinct voices to actions and dialogue. I’ve been told on occasion that my character’s voices “sounded the same” and I’m working to improve them. This interview method should help resolve the problem in future.

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