Interviewing Your Characters
The trick to creating real characters is: Imagining them already real. You know they don't exist, that you are making them up-- but if you ever get too certain of that, you'll lose the magic of creation. Think of the characters as unique, multifaceted people that you know only a bit about, and set out to discover everything else.
If these characters were really real, you'd get acquainted in a variety of way, chief among them observation and conversation--watching and interviewing. I'm going to ask you to use these two techniques to discover -- to uncover-- one of your characters.
Now very soon, I'll be explaining character facets and requesting that you explain that about your character. That is, you'll be observing and describing. But let's start out with the character speaking for him/herself. Let's start with some free-writing—in the voice of your character.
Yes, you might already know your character well, or you might need still to discover character attitudes, responses, and values specific to your plot. We'll get to all that! Just now, let your subconscious do the work, the subconscious that already knows this character (because he/she is part of you too).
So... choose the character you want to become better acquainted with. Make it a major character-- the hero, the heroine, or the villain --- someone who has an essential effect on the plot. Work with that one character first, then apply this technique to others later if you like.
The interviews don't require much of you. Consider yourself the typist, and type what's being dictated to you by the character in your mind. Oh, yeah, I'm not nuts. I know the character doesn't really exist, that you're making it all up. But you already have the outline, and the substance is hidden up there in your subconscious. Free-writing will bring out what your mind has already made of this character, and also spark it to develop more.
And let the character talk for him/herself. Especially if you already know this person well, you might be tempted to direct the answer. Don't. If you direct the answer, you won't learn anything new. But if you let the character talk… well, who knows what you learn. (You are in charge, of course! If the character tells you something you don't want == "I am Luke's father." NO, YOU ARE NOT!!!!—just ignore it, or consider why the character would say such a thing.)
I recommend free-writing as one of the best ways to tap into your subconscious and break writer's block. It's easy to do. To free-write, just set a timer for three or five or ten minutes, copy down a prompt or a question, and then write freely about it. Editing isn't allowed; neither is writer's block. If you can't think of anything to say, write the last word over and over until you get inspired. Don't worry! It never takes long. Remember to transcribe whatever your subconscious sends you, without regard for spelling, grammar, or organization. Often it's the digressions from the subject that provide the most fascinating insights. When the timer rings, you must stop-- unless, of course, you're so inspired you want to continue!
And if you want, you can keep going. You can direct your own interrogation, designed for this particular character, complete with follow-up questions and cross-examination. (Yes, sometimes your own character is a hostile witness!)
With all this preparatory work, you might know your character well and have specific questions about what this person will do in response to the plot events. Well, just ask! Customize your own interview with specific questions that relate to this character and this story.
Here is a sample interview, which I did in the middle of plotting a novella. I ended up making a central scene out of something Nicholas describes in this interview, re-reading his wife's letters late at night. And I learned the source of his angst-- just by asking.
Customized interview with Nicholas Trent, a character in Allegra's Song, Alicia Rasley's novella, available now on Kindle.
(This interview was conducted when the characters and basic plot were established. They gave me better insight on motivation and conflict. BTW, this story takes place in 1816, hence the references to Waterloo. :)
Did you love Allegra when you married her?
Of course. We eloped to Scotland once when I was on leave, a week after we met.
You must have known right away, that she was the one for you.
Well, I knew she wouldn't still be available my next leave. Allegra was -- very popular. Still is. All the men wanted her.
And you won her.
(Shrugs.) I guess I did. I wasn't surprised when she accepted me. Not that I mean to boast. But -- well, it was clear that she returned my feelings. And it was just a matter of securing her forever, so I could go back to the fighting.
How soon after you wed did you leave?
A week. Hardly had time to get back to London before my leave was up.
Did you worry about her, when you left?
I did. I felt that I was deserting, you know. She had to face her family-- not that her parents cared, as far as I could tell. They were probably glad to have her gone. But her sisters-- well, they weren't so tolerant. The elder-- Maggie-- she looked at me as if I were some vile seducer, and an oppressor besides. Yvette was just a child, but she shook her head and said she hoped we'd be very happy, as if she thought it a lost cause. They're not so bad, my sisters-in-law. They accepted it, and me, without much fuss. But it was clear they didn't think I'd make Allegra happy.
Made her happy? (pause) I don't know. Occasionally. That's all, I guess. Maybe that's all we can hope for. She's happy usually, anyway. Just has that brightness, that pleasure in life. Always cheerful. It drives me mad sometimes, especially at breakfast. But it's better than the alternative.
So you think she is happy with you?
It's just been such a different sort of marriage. We'd spend a fortnight or a month together, and then be apart a year. It wasn't easy, but she handled it well. I have to admit I was surprised. She doesn't seem very strong, my wife. In fact, I've no doubt people think she's some frail beauty. But she isn't. She's got some-- I don't know. Some inner fiber. She bends but she doesn't break. There's something.... tough inside her. If she were a soldier, she'd be the one who always did her job, but always survived too. No useless heroics, but no desertion either. My mother told me once that I was lucky Allegra was the sort who made the best of a bad situation. I didn't like that, that marriage to me was something she had to make the best of, but I suppose with me at war, and all the worries, it wasn't really what she expected out of marriage.
What do you think she expected?
Oh, bliss. Ecstasy. To be together always, in total communion-- all that rosy dreamy stuff. It's not that I didn't want it too, but it just wasn't to be. That's the soldier's lot, and his wife's too, to live alone most of the time.
Did you want her to come to the Peninsula with you?
No. No. Maybe for myself.., but it would have been selfish. Would have been stupid. War is no life for a woman-- for a man either, I suppose. But Allegra-- I can't even imagine her there. She came to Lisbon several times to visit, and that was fine, but not on the battlefield. Oh, she's a good colonel's wife, don't get me wrong. My men admire her, think she's a beautiful lady. In fact, the younger troopers used to beg bits of ribbon from her and sew them on their uniforms, saying they were her sworn liegemen. And she was kind to them, with just the right amount of reserve, just enough to keep them worshipful. She's good with the officers' wives too, and the Beau-- the duke, I mean, Wellington— was charmed by her. One time she came to Lisbon, after Albuera, she played "The Strife is O'er, the Battle Done" and he wept. She knew just what he needed to hear. She is sensitive that way.
You must have been glad to see the end of the war.
Well, I was glad that the killing was done. Waterloo was... very bad. We'd always taken such care with our men, kept the casualties down. It was the French who were profligate. Those marshals--they didn't care if they lost fifty thousand men, as long as they could claim victory. But we never had the men to lose... until Waterloo. And we -- we let them be slaughtered, as if we didn't care about their lives after all. We lost twenty thousand, with the missing counted in, the Allies, in one day. In a year on the Peninsula, we wouldn't have lost that many. It's not anyone's fault, really, except that madman Bonaparte. And it was a great victory. But my battalion wasn't the worst hit, by any means, and we lost a couple hundred good men-- the Light Bobs are all good men. I've seen dozens of battlefields, but never anything like that. Even Albuera wasn't so bad.
The vision has haunted you?
I suppose. Stupid, isn't it? I'm a soldier; I'm used to death. It just seemed a bloody end to a good war, I never have felt quite right about it. But that's all right. We look to be in for a long siege of peace. No one would be foolish enough to challenge Britain now.
How has it been, this peace?
Dull. (Grins) Frankly, it's been dull. I'm still training the troops, and we parade and do expeditions, but it seems rather futile. My trainees get sent off to some colonial outpost, where they get to swat mosquitoes and occasionally put down an uprising. And I just send them off and train the ones that take their place.
But still, you must be glad to be home again with your family....
I'm glad to have time with Tim. He's a bit wild, as might be expected with me gone most of his life. But he's a good boy. Sweet-tempered, curious as a cat. He's in that phase now, when he wants to be just like his papa. That can't help but be gratifying.
And to be home with your wife, that must be fulfilling too.
I don't know. It should be.... Those first months are rather a blur. I wasn't wounded, except for a slash on my arm, nothing much, but I felt feverish all the time. Not really feverish, just blurred. I could concentrate on my duties, but nothing much else. As if I were in a fog. It was just so strange, being home. I grew up just west of Shorncliffe-- that's the training camp of the Light Division- - and so I slept there at the house, rather than staving in the garrison. It was my home, but it was so different from what I remember. My parents weren't there, that was the biggest change. They'd both died while I was gone. I knew it, of course, but I don't think I really understood it till I got home and they weren't there. And there we were, Allegra and I, in the master suite. My parents' room. It was... strange. I didn't like it. Foolish of me, I suppose. I couldn't sleep there. So I took to sleeping in my old room, down the hall, I'd visit Allegra, of course. Odd, isn't it, that I could do-- that, but I couldn't sleep there afterwards.
I don't know. Guilt? No. Not guilt. My parents got sick and died, it wasn't to do with me. But I couldn't get caught up with the time.
It's as if the whole world had moved on while I was at war. The house was redone, modernized. My parents grew old and died, and Timmy wasn't a baby any more, and Allegra— And Allegra?
She was grown. A woman. I hadn't really noticed that. She'd been just a girl when I married her. You know? Foolish notions. Stars in her eyes. She used to write these letters to me while I was away, and she'd dot her i's with little fat circles. The sort of things governesses tried to beat out of girls, you know. And I didn't really notice, but last week I was looking through all those letters, hundreds of them, almost seven years worth, and I realized somewhere about 1811 she stopped using those little circles.
Why were you looking through those old letters?
Looking for her. (Laughs) She's been gone for a couple months, up in London studying with some piano master. And I'd forgotten what she is like. I felt like it had been years, not months, since I'd seen her. I couldn't remember what she looked like. Oh, I could remember her in a ballgown, with her hair up, a portrait-sort of memory. But I couldn't remember her the other ways, like when she's frowning and biting her lip as she reads through a piece of music and imagines how it will sound. Or when she's feeling cross with Timothy, or when she's laughing with him. Or at night, in the moonlight, with her hair down on her bare shoulders. I couldn't remember any of those memories. So I read over her letters.
It must have taken a long time.
A couple days. But I could remember her better then, after I read them.
But you'd just been living with her for nearly a year. You should have some fresh memories.
I should have, but I don't. She was there, I remember that— in the house, at the dinner table, in the bed. And she made everything comfortable for me, which was pleasant— except I'm not used to comfort, and sometimes it was annoying, to have her keep asking what did I want to do. Did I want to redo my father's study, did I want to buy a few more mounts for the stables, did I want to go to London for the season. Did I want salt on my eggs. Did I want her to play me that new sonata she'd learned. Did I want to have another child. Did I want to be alone. That's all I remember, really, all those questions. I reckon she wouldn't have asked them, if she didn't want to know. But I was supposed to say yes or no, when— when I didn't really have an answer. So sometimes I said yes, and sometimes I said no, and she'd go off and do what she thought was best anyway. She's been doing that all along, making her own decisions. She had to, when I was a fortnight's voyage away. And she does it so well. She's grown up, as I said. She managed to do without me all that while.
So you didn't worry when she went to London alone.
Well, she wasn't alone. She had Timmy, until I sent for him, and that great-aunt of mine who never comes out of her room. I don't know why that makes everything proper, but that's how people are. Anyway, she was eager to study with this Martelli, and I understood. Her music is important to her. And so she asked me, do you want me to go, and I said— I don't remember. Yes or no, one of those two. And she did what she wanted to do, went her own way. That's the problem with us. We never needed each other. Oh, we thought we did, and each time we parted, I felt that need, sharp like an arrow, right in my heart. But we had to go on living, and we did, both of us. and so we just learned not to need each other. It hurt too much. So...well, she does well without me. She has her own interests, her own way. But it's time now, I think, for us to start needing each other again.
When did you realize that?
I came to London, and saw her note saying she'd gone to some house parts'. It made me angry, but it was for her sisters, and she is fond of them. Anyway, while I was in London some of us got together for the anniversary of Waterloo. Some of my friends, I think, hadn't had their uniforms on since the battle. I'm still serving, of course, so mine fit. But a few (smiles) had gained two stone or more, and the buttons wouldn't meet in front— in just a year. And there was one who lost two brothers in the battle, and he was laughing, and he looked at me and said, "Life's too short. A year's enough for grieving." And... I wondered how he knew, when I didn't. That's what this last year had been, a grieving. But it's done now, and I'm done with grief.
What will you do?
Get Allegra and bring her home. We haven't really started our life together, and I think it's time we did.
What if she doesn't want to?
Doesn't want to? Oh, well, she will. She's been waiting for me, I think. That's what all those questions were... Do I want, do I want. She was asking, do I want her? And now I hear the question, and I know the answer.
What if she's gotten tired of waiting?
Has it been so long? No, I don't think so. And if she has... well, I'll change her mind. We were mad about each other when we married. It's still there, even if she's forgotten about it.
ON YOUR OWN
Even all these different questions might prove inadequate at some point. Perhaps you know the character well, but need to determine how she will react to your big plot twist in the middle. Maybe you aren't really sure what romantic conflict you can put him into, or how you can get him out of the one you just invented.
That's where the self-designed interview comes in. In this one, you play two roles. You are the interrogator and the character. You ask the questions, and then, in the voice of the character, you answer them.
Start with a provocative question that requires something more than "yes" or "no" for an answer. A question that intrigues or annoys might help too. Then go where you need to know. If you're having a problem inventing a conflict, ask!
"What is it you're really worried about when it comes to this murder investigation?"
"What is it about Terri that scares you?"
Remember to shift into the character's voice to answer. Ask follow-up questions. And badgering the witness is allowed!
Give it a try. Just ask the questions, and let your character do all the work for a change.
Okay, ready? Here's a good opening question:
(Name of Character), how did you get yourself into this mess?
Here's a good follow-up question:
So what can you do to fix this?
So try it. Ask a provocative question, and follow it up with another question. And let the character interpret this whatever way. For example, maybe you're thinking the character will answer from the beginning of the book, but instead he/she starts talking about that scene in the middle you haven't written yet. Let it happen!
Then after he/she is done talking, go back and read it over, and answer these questions:
1. What unexpected thing did you learn from (character)?
2. How does this connect to an internal conflict or problem for this person?
3. Is there something in your planned book that this messes up?
4. Did you notice anything interesting about the character's voice or mood (like "she seems really defensive about moving away from her hometown")/
5. What is one plot or scene event this illuminates?