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Thursday, December 01, 2005



Interviewing Your Characters to Reveal all of their Hidden Facets
Milton Trachtenburg
copyright, 1998

You've written a story about a bank heist; the plot has more convolutions than a licorice twist. The story is exciting from the opening hook to the denouement and you've developed an unexpected ending that will blow away even the most jaded reader. With eager anticipation, you submit the manuscript to editors you discovered by researching the marketplace. You believe that what you wrote is exactly what publishers are seeking. You query editors with a brief plot outline, and to your great pleasure, you get a response from one of them requesting a significant portion of the manuscript. Dreams of sugarplum limousines and ego-inflating book signings dance in your head.

A month goes by . . . The long-awaited letter arrives. The tension mounts as your shaking hands fumble to open the envelope, almost turning your ticket to fame and fortune into confetti. You read the letter:

Dear Sir,

Though you have an interesting plot, the characters don't do much for me. Try rewriting it. It has potential.

John Smith, editor

Your stomach sinks faster than a 747 crash landing in a cornfield. You are too hurt to recognize the free and supportive knowledge he is giving you. This letter isn't a rejection. It is a clarion call to tell you that you have potential as a writer, but that you need to further study your craft to give your manuscript the power it needs to attain publication. The editor is telling you two things in this brief letter: First, he believes you possess the skill required to rewrite your manuscript, and that the manuscript is worthy of a fresh treatment. More important, he is telling you that he is willing to read the rewrite, if you remedy the issue he presented: The issue he presented is: your characters are flat, uninteresting and have nothing to distinguish them from each other; they contribute little to a plot-drawn vehicle.

There are two rules of great writing. The first rule is: Characters must carry the story. The plot is only a malleable wrapping within which the characters act and are acted upon by natural elements, their own shortcomings and other characters. The second rule of great writing is: What you write about a character is guided by your knowledge of his or her life. You know far more about your character than you realize. Later in this article, you will find a list of questions that may help you access your knowledge so that you may power-up your characters to new heights.

Rather than learning only surface qualities, or developing a specific characteristic, I yearn to get inside each character to understand all of his or her nuances. Think of memorable books and movies. Those that are memorable featured a multi-dimensional protagonist who grabbed you and held on to the end. When you reached the conclusion of the story, you wanted more. There is no doubt that creating dynamic, exciting, conflicted characters is a key to getting your story published.

Now we come to the hard part. You ask, "What do I need to do differently to create memorable characters?" Get to know the character before you write about her. The best way to get to know a character is to have her to talk to you before you begin writing the story. Much of what you'll learn from her may not appear in the story at all, but once she’s turned loose on the pages, the information will have a dramatic impact on the story. You will share only snippets of your knowledge with the reader, on a need-to-know basis. The first efforts of new writers are often based on their own experiences in which all the characters are thinly disguised versions of real people. As we grow as writers, we write about characters and situations that have nothing in common with our own lives. Your imagination contains the seeds that will allow you to develop thousands of characters.

Next, you might ask, "How do I get my character to talk to me off the record? Do I dream about her? Do I walk down the street mumbling to myself?" No, you set up an interview at your mutual convenience. Prepare your questions in advance, as a reporter would. Treat your character as a stranger whom you would like to know better. Make her comfortable and ask only questions that will broaden your knowledge of her. Gently and politely, ask her if she would be willing to tell you about her life. If she agrees, give her free reign to talk all day about an issue. Ask her the questions listed below, as well as any others that come to mind in the process. Even background information, which may not appear in the final draft, will help you to write the story.

The questions below represent a prospective outline of some of the information that may help you to get to know your character. When you know her well, you will be able to use her more effectively in your story. The better you know her, the better the opportunity for the reader to get inside her, too. If the reader understands who the character is and what makes her act and react, she will have the answer the question: "Why should I bother reading about her? I've read lots of stories like this one."

You can ask some specific questions to make your interview more productive. Ask open-ended questions. An open-ended question can't be answered "yes" or "no." Each answer you receive will lead you to another question. Continue the interview until you know all the information and character traits you need. What you learn will affect the way she will react to her circumstances and how she will interact with other characters. This complex task needs only to be used in interviewing major characters. With minor characters, you may want to do a partial interview according to their function in the story; remember that it is often a minor character who takes center stage for a few moments and gives your reader an added treat.

When you and your major are comfortable, ask her important questions such as the following:

* What was it like living in your home when you were growing up?
* What was the worst experience you had as a child?
* What is your best memory from childhood?
* Who were the people who raised you and what were their most memorable qualities?
* Who are you today?
* What makes you angry?
* What are you afraid of?
* What is missing from your life?
* What is work for you and what is play?
* What do you have that you would fight for?
* What do you want that you might kill for?
* What do you most like about yourself?
* Where are your friends when you need them?
* What makes you sad?
* What is the funniest thing you remember?
* How do you feel about yourself as a person?
* What experiences have you had with love in your life?
* If you had a free wish, what would you wish for and why?
* What would people not like about you if they really knew you?
* Of all the people in your life who are not here any longer, whom do you miss the most and why?
* Whom do you miss the least?
* If you were celebrating, what would you choose to do?
* If you could be an animal, what kind would you be?
* Do you have a best friend? How does it make you feel?
* What is your secret fantasy?
* Are you happy where you live?
* Describe your family.
* What are your most important traits?
* What would you change about yourself?
* What bad habits do you have?
* Are you religious?
* What have you done that makes you most proud?
* What have you done that makes you feel most ashamed?

The above list is but a sample of the kinds of questions that can help you to create a multi-dimensional character. You do not have to have the character answer all of the questions, but use as many of them as you need to create a character that is whole. When she tells her story, allow her to tell the gritty as well as the pretty. Make her the sum total of her experiences, hopes, dreams, desires, faults and virtues. Allow her to make excuses, lie, or try to deceive you and the readers. The more complex the character, the more exciting the story.

To write a great story, you need to advertise for great characters. No cardboard characters need apply. Characters can have at least as many characteristics and significant events as you would have if you were writing your autobiography.

Now for some additional instructions that will enable your character to grow after you start using her in a story:

* Give the character a voice that is her own, not yours.
* Allow her to speak in her natural voice and her own vocabulary, not yours.
* When you put her in the manuscript, allow her to talk directly to the reader --
Remember, the character and the reader are alone in a room and she must speak for herself. You won't be there to interpret for the reader.
* Don't allow her to hold back -- She needs to tell the important things to the reader even if she is afraid the reader won't like her.

Use the list to practice creating a character even if you have no story in mind now.

To demonstrate how I would go about discovering information about a character’s life and personality, here is a small part of an interview between a female character and me. The character's name is Leslie. The story is about a woman who was abused by her mother as a child and the effects of the abuse upon her adult life. The character was originally developed for a self-help book, “Stop the merry-Go-Round: Stories of Women who Broke the Cycle of Abusive Relationships,” McGraw-Hill. Years later, I used the character in a short story.

Leslie has told me that she is thirty-three years old, with four children. She's been divorced for a number of years. She works part-time and receives support from her ex-husband. That information tells me nothing about her. After I have the basic information about age, sex and marital status, I can begin probing:

"Leslie, who are you?"

"I told you, I'm divorced, I got kids. What else do you need to know?"

"I need to know who you are, not what your labels say. Labels tell me you are like half the women in your generation: divorced with kids. Tell me about who you would be even if you'd never married."

"Oh, you want all the dirt, right?"

"All the diamonds, too."

"All right, but you're not gonna like me very much after what I'm gonna tell you . . . I was abused by my mother when I was a child. I was abused by my husband as an adult. I abused myself with drugs and alcohol. I abused myself by having sex for money, or with men who had no love for me. It felt right at the time because I had no love for myself -- I still don't. I feel unworthy. I want to hurt Somebody. I hate myself." She paused, brushing her long hair from her face.

"If telling your story hurts too much, we can take a break."

"No, it's like dumping a can of garbage. No sense stopping in the middle. I'm not proud of much in my life. I take my anger out on my children. I destroy friendships through my anger and insecurity. I run to sick men to seek comfort and security. I don't know who I am.

“How do you handle all your pain?”

"I cover it all with jokes and smiles and assurances. I can't stop the pain. I'm thirty-three years old and still suck my thumb and play with a piece of satin to try to make myself feel better. Hey, I'm in great shape, aren't I?

“How do you feel about the people closest to you?”

"I hate men and I don't trust women. Sometimes, I even resent my kids because they are there and I want to be alone, or I want to go out and have fun."

"What is fun for you?"

"Fun . . . How about all the wrong things? I have this friend, see? He tells me I'm special and I have all kinds of good qualities. When he says those things to me, sometimes, I just want to rip his face off. Doesn't he know how much I want to believe those words but inside I know it's a crock and he's gonna be just like the others and want something back from me? Maybe if I shut my eyes he'll disappear."

"Leslie, how do you feel about the future?"

"I think I'm gonna be okay soon. See, there's this guy I met. He makes me feel great. He really turns me on. Maybe if we get it on, I can forget my pain and feel good for a little while. I have to keep it my secret though. Too much to lose if I talk about him to anybody ‘cause everybody is gonna tell me I'm not ready for a relationship. What do they know, anyway?"

Can you tell what she looks like from the way she presented herself? What were you able to see in her face when she talked? Sometimes, it is what we don't say to the reader that gives the best description.

The vignette above shows how one character presents herself. You don’t have to use a character who is broken by life. For your story, you can develop a character full of potential whose life is simple, yet her knowledge, perspective and life force make reading about her a must. Think of the protagonist, Scout, in "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee. Scout was a child with insights that carried the story. Her believability came from her experiences. What Scout knew and how she reacted to the world around her allowed Ms. Lee to weave a powerful tale. Only a small part of Scout’s history was revealed to the reader, but a great deal more could be inferred from the context of the story.

In interviewing the character, I created a life for her as well as a voice. In the vignette above, the character uses the word "I" more than any other word. She appears to be self-centered and oblivious to the feelings of others, and as a writer, I felt this speech pattern best presented her. It is important to choose a voice and words that fit your character. Developing the character's voice is a critical part of the task of the writer.

So, if you're game, sharpen your pencils and create a character. Start with a skeleton and then put some meat on his or her bones. Ask her about herself; you will get more information by asking than if you try to invent a life about her. As she speaks to you, she will take on a life of her own. Sometimes, in the process of interviewing a character, a new story idea emerges. Plots are few but characters are without number. The characters you have hidden within you can make the difference between an ordinary and an extraordinary story.

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