Writing Wednesday: Character Interviews

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This is my first Insecure Writer’s Support Group post, and I’m very excited! It is also a post for my own weekly feature that I call Writing Wednesday. So let’s get to it!

WW

In my writing past, I remember hearing other writers talk about their characters haranguing them. Complaining about their lack of page time, about unpleasant things that happened to them, or about who knows what else…but they always seemed to be complaining. I remember always being a mixture of jealous and certain that those writers were making it all up. While I didn’t believe that it was very likely that their characters just jumped into their thoughts out of nowhere to start talking to them, now I can see the plausibility—the writer might have been thinking about their story at that time, or just letting their mind wander in general. And now, I have seen the amazing benefits of talking to my characters.

There are likely many different ways people refer to this phenomenon. For me, it usually involves a discussion that is led along by me asking questions of my characters. Thus, I use the term “character interview.” And understand that the way I go about having these discussions with my characters are by no means the only way to do it. It is what works best for me, and you should definitely figure out what works for you (if this method works for you at all).

I will dispense with the history of how I came to utilize this technique in my writing, and just explain how helpful it can be. In the different stages of writing (which I would break down into dreaming, planning, writing, and revising), character interviews have been most useful to me during planning and revising stages. During the dreaming phase, you likely wouldn’t even have characters very clearly in mind. If you have enough to start talking to your characters about, you might be more in the planning stage. During the writing stage, well…you’re writing. Unless you run into a block and decide to stop and hash it out, you won’t likely be stopping the prose to have a chat.

So now you may be wondering how to start. Or what kinds of things to talk to or ask your characters about. Usually at the point that I decide it’s time to start one of these discussions, I am struggling with some kind of plot hole, or a question about how to proceed in a scene, how to get something to happen that I really want to see happen in the story, how to fill out a story, or even which character should actually be the protagonist or main character in a story. And then I literally just pose these questions to the characters I think can help me the most, and go from there.

The next question might be how you know which character(s) would be the best to talk to for the questions you have in mind. Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes it requires thinking outside the box. Earlier this year, I was struggling to rework the plot of one of my books, which has a murder-mystery element to it, and when I wrote the first draft, it came out incredibly weak. I had a long conversation with the main character of that book, but still couldn’t figure out what I was missing in the middle of that story. I was considering setting it aside for a while, but decided to talk to a different character instead first—the antagonist. By the time I was done (a week and a half later), I had not only filled in that saggy middle, but realized that this person was not the main antagonist. Such a productive interview!

Now for the tangible question—where/how to conduct the interview. I’ve done them multiple ways—all in my head, recording myself audibly in some way, typing the conversation on a computer or my Neo, and writing it in a notebook. I don’t recommend doing it only in your head unless you have a great memory; I prefer to be able to look back on it somehow later. I recorded myself with a headset and Audacity one time, but decided that listening to the conversation later was just too weird, so I’m not doing that again. Typing it out works, as long as you make sure to clearly designate who is saying what. My preferred method is to write the conversations out longhand, though, and even a step further, I like to use a different color pen for each person talking (including myself). It makes it so much easier to read over again later, which I do a lot. Plus, I really like the tactile element of writing by hand.

A few more tips about conducting these interviews:

  • Give yourself the freedom to explore without worrying about accuracy. I have had interviews where, by the time I got to the end, things we discussed at the beginning were obsolete, because the plot took a turn during the discussion. That’s okay.
  • I use the term “interview,” but often I don’t ask questions for a while, instead just carrying on an actual conversation. But since the basic idea behind this (for me, at least) is that the characters know more about their story than I do, because it’s their story, I am generally coaxing the truth out of them.
  • If you have more than one character involved, they might start talking to each other, instead of you, and that’s okay too.
  • Don’t get too caught up in the nebulous world your characters are inhabiting for these interviews. They are outside of the time and space bubble of their stories. And yet, I find that it helps me to think of the times that I interact with them as a continuation of time in itself, and even reference back to previous discussions (like having one character say I’d just yell at him again if he told me his theory about something in particular, because yes, I’d gotten frustrated with him in a previous interview).
  • It might feel weird at first to do this, because of course you know these characters aren’t real, but they really can feel real. And in truth, if you don’t think of your characters as their own people (rather than just part of you), then maybe they won’t come across as real to the reader.

If you think talking to your characters might help you with your own writing, but still aren’t sure how to start, pick a character that you think might have some helpful insight, and just start out by asking, “What do you think of the story so far?” or “What would you change if you could?” You might be surprised what comes out.

In case anyone is interested in what most of my interviews looks like, below is a picture of the beginning of one of them, the one I mentioned above with the antagonist of the murder-mystery story (and an example of one where what I wrote at the beginning became incorrect by the time I was done). Purple is me, red is the antagonist. It took me to the end of the page to get past her refusal to help (which was totally true to her character), but after that, I immediately started to gain insight into the story. I’ve blocked out a few spots due to possible spoilers. Also, I use erasable pens, which are just amazing!

character interview

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18 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: Character Interviews

  1. I have a background in theater, so of course that influences the way I think about this. I tend to think of in terms of a director dealing with actors. A good actor will say “I don’t think my character would do this” or “I think it makes more sense for my character to do that.” And a good director will listen to those ideas and figure out how to work them into the production.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This does make sense! And I have had characters tell me that I’ve been wrong about them in my writing or in my pre-writing. I have a feeling my characters behave better for me than actors working on a production. But that’s just because I do still have control over them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t interview my characters often, but when I do it helps me a great deal and shows whether I truly feel comfortable with their stories. Another exercise I did years ago was a letter writing exercise in which the lead character writers the author a letter about their role in the book and whether they like it, what they want to see changed, or what they like the most. The first time I did that exercise, my character came out quite a bit stronger than she had been in my draft, so it really helped me strengthen her when I went back to the draft.
    Happy Writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s very similar to how my first-ever character interview went. My secondary main character in my first novel told me about how he saw things, and about the motivation behind some of what he did. Before that, he’d just done them because I said he did. I think that was when I first began to see him as a real person, rather than a name on a page. Hopefully he is now a stronger character because of it! Thanks for commenting!

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  3. Another way to connecting with your characters is to role-play them: I’ve gotten together with my daughter who is also a writer. I plucked one of my many characters and role-played them in a chat window with my daughter’s character. As we both slipped into our respective characters, we became them. Five hours sounds shocking but it wasn’t enough time! Needless to say, my daughter felt ready to tackle her story as she was feeling out of touch with her character. (Her character is Loki, mine is a musketeer’s daughter. LOL. It worked.) It was so fun!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s such an awesome thing to do to help out another writer (and even more so that it was your daughter)! Since character interviews are just me talking to myself, there’s more predictability there about where the conversation is going. It would add a whole new dimension to have someone who is not me responding, and I can definitely see the benefit. That’s definitely an idea I’ll have to keep in mind for if the right circumstances arise someday.

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  4. I may try this approach the next time I’m stuck on a character. With my current WIP, as I was doing character sketches, I wrote a few paragraphs for each major character, telling the story from their point of view. I found that approach quite helpful for making sure each was the hero of their own story and for getting into their twisted little heads.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Getting into characters’ heads is exactly what is important. Even the not-main characters, and in some cases, especially the not-main characters, because they’re so often neglected. I like the idea of having each character tell the story from their own point of view, giving yourself a chance to see the distinct mindsets of each one. When I’m trying to better understand a new (or just minor) character, I will often do some sort of free writing from their perspective as well, give them a chance share their voice.

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  5. Hi,
    I talk to my characters all the time and have been doing it for years. It is a natural experience for me and very useful. I also do character profiles which go a little deeper than character interviews.
    Welcome also to IWSG. It is nice having you aboard.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it is good to explore the depths of the characters in other ways as well. I actually use character interviews at least as much to hash out plot and motivations as to learn about the characters themselves. But it can be useful for both. Thanks for commenting! I’m so happy to be part of IWSG!

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  6. What a great topic! I don’t ever interview my characters. I stay completely out of their way. If I’m stuck, I turn to daydreaming (with laptop next to me) and imagine them in different scenarios; scenes that won’t ever makes it into the book but that give me deeper insight about their qualities, motives, etc. I play these scenes like movies in my head. I imagine every. single. detail. When bits of dialogue jump out at me, I jot it down. It gives me a lot more to work with.
    I also do this exercise before falling asleep every night. I pick a scene from my novel and lie there imagining it playing out until all the details of it come into focus. I find it really helps me stay connected to my characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really glad to hear you mention thinking through a scene while you fall asleep, because I do that a lot too! I have hit on some ideas that might not otherwise have come to me during normal writing that way. It also keeps me sane if it’s one of those nights where it just takes me a long time to fall asleep.

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  7. Welcome to the IWSG, Kristi! I really enjoyed your post. I’ve never thought of interviewing my characters. Usually I hear them talking to each other, and sometimes they hijack my story and take it in a different direction which is revealed through their dialogue. It was fascinating to see how you and the other writers who commented interact with their characters. We all find what works for us! Happy writing in October!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The process of writing, from beginning to end, is so fluid, it’s always fascinating to hear different takes on the same subject. And not only do things that work for one person not work for everyone else, sometimes what works for one person, doesn’t work for them other times. I’ve really enjoyed getting other writers’ thoughts and variations on this particular subject.

      I can already tell IWSG is a great group! Can’t wait for next month!

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  8. I love talking to my characters! Like you, I find longhand works best for me, and it just brings out such colour – your character becomes a real person rather than words on a page, I often get their ‘voice’ this way, and it can be invaluable in bringing out new plot points or motivations.
    (Wecome to the IWSG bloggers, by the way 🙂 )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I love how talking to my characters has really brought them to life. Every character interview I’ve done has led to some kind of insight, some bigger than others. Thanks for stopping by; I’m so happy to be part of ISWG!

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  9. I’ve never done character interviews before, but I’m thinking of starting a new series and it might be a good exercise to flesh them out.

    I love this point you make –> “If you don’t think of your characters as their own people (rather than just part of you), then maybe they won’t come across as real to the reader” Really sums up the importance of good character development and knowing them well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I’d realized that until I was writing this post, but it’s so true. It’s really too easy to be disconnected from our characters, especially the minor ones, but it’s important to realize that if we’re disconnected, why on earth will the reader feel otherwise? Good luck with your first interview. I’m interested to see how it works out for you!

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