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What should a character interview contain to be successful where the goals are: characters with strong voice who are established with a distinct 'personhood' (?) and are generally interesting to follow?

Why I'm asking

A common weakness in my writing method is that my characters don't "pop" when I start. I've had a few successes, but its hard to tell when I start a book who those will be. But, I've worked with writers whose characters do pop right away; sometimes immediately in brainstorm sessions, so this is pre-revision. The answer for me is that I clearly need to change the way I think about people or do more upfront work. I'm aware of some basic strategies: give them quirks, do a character sheet, etc.

But, what I think I'm sorely lacking is character voice. I have heard of methods where you "interview" your characters. You have a series of questions and you write in first person as if you are your character, responding to those questions. By the end you have a maybe twenty page document that covers a lot of the things you'd see in a character sheet, but it's in that characters voice.

I'm hoping that a good checklist of points will help me draw out character weaknesses and start differentiating my characters so they aren't all Mary Sues or the same person wearing another hat.

An interesting character is better than an interesting plot. So if I want to write, I need to master this.

Sub questions

Are there known interview methods I'm unaware of? (Books/websites) I've done some googling in the past and never really come up with anything satisfying or intriguing.

Plot/POV/Circumstance Not Enough

I've been writing long enough to understand that you can play with conflict, pov, and all sorts of other things to shift the tone of a book. In my opinion, these are often patch jobs to cover up weak characters. When you read something like Confederacy of Dunces (which if it's good at anything, it's good at characterization) within a few pages you know who these characters are and what direction they'll stray in in most situations. The author of that book is stretching in ways I'm not; and while plot is certainly an element of the final product, the humor, the whatever -- it's not the source of the identity or voice.

What isn't helpful at this time... for this question.

If you have a method that isn't the interview method that would help me I'd like to know about it, but not as an answer. Leave a comment with a link or enough detail and I'll ask a separate question if I need more info.

  • I never do interviews - I have this feeling that only the best interviewers can make a person reveal themself, and I don't see myself as a master interviewer. Instead, I stalk my characters. I follow them since they get up till they go back to bed, and then I infiltrate their dreams (though not all of them dream). I pick a random day of the week, then check their weekend routines, what they do while on holiday, during special occasions. I always try to stalk them a few days year round because some people behave differently in winter and in summer. (cont.) – Sara Costa Mar 9 at 23:14
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    (cont.) I also investigate their homes, including their wardrobe, pantry, fridge, whatever books they keepe around... Oh, and I keep track of who they interact with and how. Very important that one: some characters are really funny and outgoing at the pub, then they get to work and become uptight. Or they go home and turn out to be secret introverts. You may also want to go through some memories of them. A telepathic stalker. That's what works for me. – Sara Costa Mar 9 at 23:14
  • I usually fill out a character sheet but from the first POV so it helps me develop their voice while I’m creating them. What they wouldn’t tell someone, I start a new paragraph and write as a thought, or collection of thoughts in parentheses. What the character doesn’t know about themselves, I start a new paragraph and write in italics. You can mark the sections differently, colors, formatting styles, fonts, etc. – Nadeshka Mar 10 at 21:25
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    I can't remember the name of the essay - but I believe it was Ursula LeGuin who remarked that most of her published novels started with what was originally chapter 2. She threw out the first chapter, presumably after having gotten a feel for the world and characters. – Jedediah Mar 12 at 18:45
  • "Who are you?" and "What do you want?" – ShadoCat Mar 15 at 18:59
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5 Hours, 5 Days, 5 years (ago)

Unfortunately, I don't remember where I read this, but an author/writing guide I read suggested a simple rule of character interview 5 Hours, 5 Days, and 5 Years. Ask what they were doing at those 3 times and that's all you really need to know about them (according to the system). I don't recall it being explained in any depth. It's the sort of "rule" that is obviously very reductive so it sketches in broad strokes quickly in a way that is relevant to their current character.

5 Hours sets up what the character does habitually. 5 hours earlier this morning they were feeding the kids and getting the husband off to work. 5 hours ago they were still at the office, etc. Describe this activity and you'll learn things like how they get around during the day, what they do for work, who they spend time with – their basic routine.

5 Days is not a precise time, so we generalize into something important that represents what their life has been like in the immediate past. If your story begins at a new job, 5 days ago they were frantic from job hunting and worried about paying bills. If they are starting at new school, 5 days ago might have been the lazy end of summer vacation. If the story begins with a recent relationship breakup, 5 days ago might have been filled with heated arguments and tears. Since stories usually start at the beginning of a situation, 5 Days gives context about how the character's life has just recently changed.

5 Years is another imprecise jump and again not a specific time. The idea is to cross a major life hurdle. 5 years ago they were still a starry-eyed student, 5 years ago they were single with no children, 5 years ago they were just starting an alcoholic downslide. They were a different person under different circumstances 5 years ago. That person had goals, and friends, and a routine that is different than now. They are in a better place, or worse. They have accomplished some of their goals, but abandoned others. Comparing them today and 5 years ago gives a good idea what trajectory they are headed in.

You don't need to fill in every detail before 5 years because at that point it is far less personal – more likely something that happened to them. We can't really describe an adults motives through an experience they had 10 or 15 years earlier, it's not going to meaningfully inform how their goals have recently comprimized, or tell us about the direction their life is taking now. A character was in almost completely different circumstances 5 years ago, but it won't be disconnected from the current situation.

  • I like the idea. It's a good high level organization technique for planning the direction of an interview. I'm not sure it's going to push me in the ways a need to be pushed; but maybe this is just peice one of the puzzle. Thank you for the thoughtful answer. – Kirk Mar 8 at 13:10
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    Never seen this around, but it seems interesting. – Liquid Mar 9 at 17:36
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I don't use interviews, per se, but when I think about a new character (obsessively for a week or more) what I am asking myself is how they would (or did) react in various circumstances.

I would say adapt that to interviews: Characters show their character when they are confronted with problems, big or small, or situations in which they don't immediately know what to do.

So you can ask them things like the puzzle interview questions; What would you do if [something strange happened].

Basically, how do they handle the kinds of minor and major problems they will encounter in their world?

Also, questions about their past, but not a history lesson, a situation they had to handle. For an adult, perhaps "Tell me about the first time anybody asked you out, or vice versa. How did you handle it?"

"When was the first time you rationally refused to agree with your father? Tell me what happened."

You could ask more intimate or sexual questions as well, this interview is private!

"Who is the person in your life you dislike the most, and why?"

"Who is the person you worry about the most in a non-romantic way?"

"Have you ever had a one-night stand? Would you ever?"

And so on. I think of questions I'd expect most real people would refuse to answer, or are embarrassing, but our characters don't get that choice. They might argue a bit, but they are going to have to answer.

  • It's interesting. When I think about interviewing some of my characters, they aren't the type of person who wants to be questioned. I know that, and it's wired I know, but "forcing" them to answer see like it might violate their character. But obviously that's not helpful – Kirk Mar 10 at 0:48
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    @Kirk You're not "forcing" them to answer. You're a good friend asking them out to dinner, talking about things over a glass of [character's preferred drink]. – Galastel Mar 10 at 1:10
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    @Kirk Think of it more like a doctor that is insistent their patient be honest about their drug use, or promiscuity, or whatever, with full doctor-patient confidentiality, in order to best serve their patient. Tell your character you have to know, otherwise they will not be properly represented in the story. If they can't answer, be patient, it means you haven't subconsciously developed that aspect of their personality. But now that you have put the question to your subconscious, if you circle back to it after a night of sleep, you will likely have the answers ready. – Amadeus Mar 10 at 10:48
  • This is something I just need to solve for myself. If a character is the dissembling sort, they're going to lie to a doctor, their friends and even themselves. I need to divorce myself as an intensity from the interviewer. It's another good point to consider. Thanks. – Kirk Mar 15 at 14:15
4

There is one thing that comes to mind - the "36 questions that will make you fall in love with someone". It's a slightly different premise, of course, but the point of these questions is to make a connection to the person you're interviewing. So there might be something you can use there.

Here's the New York Times article about it and here's the study it is based on.

Some excerpts:

  1. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?

  2. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?

It's 36 questions, and some are more intimate and probably less useful here, so I'll refrain from pasting the whole list. But you see where it is going. They're very specific questions meant to draw out a specific and personal response.

As you can see, this is based on a psychological study. If you want to do some more digging, I'd suggest to actually start by looking in Google Scholar for similar studies. Maybe the references in the linked study are also helpful. But this is a huge part of psychology, so you might find something that suits your purpose even better.

Generally speaking I would say that questions should be specific, not generic. They should also be relevant to the plot or the world of your book. So instead of the crystal ball question above, you might want to use ideas from your novel. If it is sci-fi, you might ask "Have you heard that they discovered these aliens that live backwards in time and communicate by tachyon streams? What would you like to ask them about your future if you could?" (If instead you're writing a historical novel in the vein of Jane Austen, you might ask them what they know about the trade war in China and what they think would be the solution that could make both parties happy. Again, it's important not to ask simply "What do you think of it?", but to be specific. Their answer can still be "I totally don't care.")

  • I have a note from a few years ago about this very method maybe working for character generation. I like the suggestion and will need to review the questions (its been too long) to see how it works out. I can see it being a good way to explore background details; it may not help directly with voice as much as some of the other answers, but still useful. Considering this has led me to believe that a generic interview probably won't be helpful, but these may be good broad topics to cover with more specific, probing and inciting questions. Thank you. – Kirk Mar 15 at 14:13
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Just ask them. That is the point of this method.

If you have something specific you want to know about a character you should just ask it. What makes you interesting? Do you have a strong personality? What makes you different?

Note that this obviously is only useful when you actually have some specific concern. In general the 5/5/5 mentioned by wetcircuit or pretty much anything more structured is better.

But in your case you are clearly asking this question because you do have specific concerns. That means you can and should use specific questions about those specific issues. Think of it as a job interview for the role the character has in your story. Personalize the questions for the role and character.

Since you have some characters you liked you should start by using this on them. What do you think made you appealing to me? Why do think you worked for your role in the story? And so on.

Seriously, just ask them.

  • Point on specificity of questions taken and included into my list of things to consider when organizing. Using characters that are already working as litmus test for the method seems like a reasonable thing to do; but my brain is more in love with the idea of using the method I'd use on others for character building than asking them about their role in the story, which may be too meta and non-voicey to be of use to me. Then again, I could be wrong. It's probably worth a try. Thanks. – Kirk Mar 15 at 14:36
  • @Kirk As I mention this variant only works when you have a specific concerns. I guess I should have added "on the meta level" as well. My instinct would be same as yours, better not be this meta unless there is a specific reason for it. – Ville Niemi Mar 16 at 0:22
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Kirk--Hello. Nice to see you again.

Well, I'm answering more to provide grist than anything else, and I don't really need 300 points. (I mean, if the points translated to Amazon dollars I might feel otherwise. Still, FWIW I'm not answering in pursuit of the bounty but to give you feedback.)

I've done character interviews. Not on all of my characters, only the ones I didn't understand. I did these within a meditation, because I assume that my characters come from within myself. IDEA ONE. So, to do character interviews, I first put myself in a meditative state. I believe this gives me better access to my subconscious.

Now, my main characters are with me so much of the time, that I don't interview them much. We chat. They're in my conscious brain. I go about my daily life and... we chat. A character on TV reminds me of them and... we chat. My readers ask me about the main characters... and we chat.

In my experience it is the secondary characters that pop in literature and film. Severus Snape pops. Samwise pops. Boo Radley pops. Et cetera. And, FWIW, my secondary characters pop. The secondary villain and a secondary hero are the most compelling characters in my book 1.

And, my secondary hero in book 1 is a main character in book 2 (draft version) and she no longer pops. So. IDEA TWO. Consider what 'level' of character you are trying to make 'pop.' You might be interviewing the wrong ones.

OK. So, personally, I ignore the mains for interviews and focus on the secondaries (the tertiaries are almost prop-level and maybe not worth interviewing at all.) When I get into my meditative state, I envision an office. I'm behind a desk and the secondary character comes in for the interview.

Most of my questions are "Why did you do this? Why do you want that?" Because motivation is important.

But relationships are important too. I remember at one point saying in irritation to my secondary villain, "Of course I am including your father in the story--he is the entire reason you behave as you do!"

And she lashed back, "I have nothing to do with my father!"

Her pride was revealed in this exchange. Her determination to cast herself as independent from the man who had raised her, was revealed. I frankly didn't know that about her before, so this approach worked. She didn't answer my question at the time, but she revealed herself.

So this gets at two things.

IDEA THREE. Relationships are important. If I were limited to one thing to suggest for you to make your characters pop, it is to explore the nature of their relationships with other characters. Their past and the people in their lives that shaped them. Also, ask them about why they want what it is they want. Why does your villain want to destroy your hero? Why is he so angry? Why is she so single minded? And so on.

So that's a few ideas. I think (IDEA FOUR) that any interview you hold can be useful. I think you don't need to follow some formula off the internet. Maybe ask yourself what question would get you to make yourself vulnerable? and ask your characters that question.

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    Therese are inciteful ideas. Thanks for getting it going again, DPT. (No one needs 300 points, certainly not me either) – Kirk Mar 10 at 12:45
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+300

Expanding on what I said in a comment to @Amadeus's post, I don't like thinking of "talking" with my character as an interview. A character might not want to answer a journalist, an interrogator, even a doctor. But a character would open up to a friend. So, "a trusted friend" is how I position myself vis-à-vis my characters.

Similarly, questions like "who is the person you dislike the most" are questions that don't help me. I can't imagine a real person asking or answering a question like that. It feels synthetic. (Questions like this might work for someone else, they're good questions, they just don't work for me.)

The type of questions that helps me most is "what do you think about X". Such questions allow my characters to open up, tell me why they think what they think about X, or why they have no opinion about it. ("Why" is crucial - I agree with @Linksassin there.) Those questions are also open-ended enough to allow the character to take them wherever they're comfortable, wherever they have something interesting to say. Have about 10 varied Xs.

As an example, I "asked" the three main characters of the fantasy novel I'm currently working on what they think about Giuseppe Verdi's opera Un Ballo in Maschera. My prince character was very critical of Riccardo, his trusted friend and advisor found Renato's behaviour unacceptable, and a third friend enjoyed the music and the show. The first two were all too happy to elaborate on their opinions based on ethics and historical precedent, the third shared his love for music. He also commented on how in an opera house there are all the commoners, so he has to stay uptight - he would have much preferred a private showing, where he could have sung along, demanded encores, etc.
I asked the same three characters what they think about Brexit. They all agreed it is the government's responsibility to rule, they were negligent in letting the "commoners" make the decision in the first place. And part of the problem now is that there are a lot of people pushing this way and that - there should be one person making the decisions and carrying the responsibility for them.

It remains to figure out what Xs you should be asking about. I like to split those up: 3-4 questions about in-world characters or events, 3-4 questions about experiences that are completely outside the characters' normal experience (e.g. Brexit for high fantasy characters), and 2-3 questions that are just random, because they sometimes make interesting things come out (e.g. chocolate, or a surrealist picture).

  • This feels like it'll be one of the more useful answers when I get down to troubleshooting an interview and/or organizing it at the question level. And your examples are clear in how characters might differentiate themselves. So, thank you. It may be worth a follow up question in the future to maybe have some guidance on "X" selectors. The general idea is causing synapses to fire, so I'm liking the path this sets me on. – Kirk Mar 15 at 14:39
  • This I think is the keystone of several answers. While not complete, it gets closer to an answer on how to achieve voice and character differentiation than the other answers, but it still relies on elements started elsewhere. Bounty awarded, but I don't know that I can pick one answer as the answer. Thanks. – Kirk Mar 16 at 14:27
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...? Why?

To me one of the most important points of the this style is the follow-up question: "Why?". Sure it's great to know that one specific detail about a character but if you can't answer the why then they are just disconnected facts and not a cohesive character.

Similar to DPT I don't use this method for my main characters. Those characters typically live in my subconscious for so long I would be better at doing an interview as them than as myself. I do use this method for minor characters and more commonly my player and non-player characters for roleplaying games.

What to ask

The questions you ask should be targeted, personal and force your characters to think. The 36 questions to make you fall in love with someone provided by Spectrosaurus's great answer are some good examples. In addition to that type of question, I like to focus on putting my characters into difficult situations and asking what their response would be. Some examples:

You are traveling on a dark road as night, off the road to the right you see as group of people, several large forms surrounding a smaller one. As you pass them you hear a cry for help. What would you do next? Why?

A family member comes to you asking for money. You know they have a history of debt and gambling and are likely to lose it. What would you do next? Why?

Your superior gives you an instruction to do something illegal. You know it is wrong but the risk of getting caught is low. What would you do next? Why?

I tried to keep these somewhat generic, you should tailor them to your setting and themes. Typically I try to include opportunities for world-building information as well as character development.

How to answer

Get inside your characters head. Imagine them in the situation, fill the world with the details and play out the scene. What would they do? What is their priority? Do they saves themselves or jump to the aid of a stranger? How do they do it? What are the instincts of your character and where did they come from?

Again, detail is key. In your answers you want to fill out how they character feels about the situation, what they are thinking and which details are important to them.

Why ask why

As I said before I believe the why in these questions is the most important part. Take the following two answers to my first question above as examples:

What would you do next? I avert my eyes and increase my pace, hoping their don't follow. Why? I'm not strong enough to help them anyway. I'd just get myself killed and help no one.

What would you do next? I avert my eyes and increase my pace, hoping their don't follow. Why? The actions of others are none of my concern. No point risking my neck for some stranger.

You can see the two answers have the same action and mostly the same reasoning. It is too dangerous to intervene and they hurry off. There is a major difference in the motivations of the characters however.

The first example is a selfless character lacking in confidence, they want to help but don't think they can. Contrast that with the second example. This character is self-centred and confident, they could help but chose not to. This is just one, fairly simple example of what you can get from these sort of questions. With some practice this is a quick way to get detailed character development details.

Other thoughts

Something I like to do sometimes is following this up with yet another question: "What would need to change for you do change your mind?" Asking that helps you determine what the boundaries for the character are. "If a had some help maybe..." and "If there was something in it for me" inform as much about the character as asking a whole new question would.

Re-read your other answers. Maybe in your answer to a later question you learned something you didn't know about the character. Go back to your early questions and check if this new fact would change how they responded to that question. This is a discovery process, not a test, you can always change your answers.

  • This question jives with other advice I've seen on character generation. The snowflake method essentially goes through a "Why?" iteration on characters several time. This isn't an interview method, there; but I could see how it would work and why it would work as well. This is definitely something I should do more of, but I'm not sure if it's necessary for the voice-whereas its very good for understanding motivation. For me the problem isn't that my characters aren't motivated in specific directions, its often that they are all the same person who happen to have different goals. Thank you. – Kirk Mar 15 at 14:43

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