Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Question of Character: Interviewing your characters for backstory and motivation

This morning I had coffee with a special person--a character in my novel! Just as with a flesh-and-blood friend, I wanted to know more about her and what makes her tick, so I invited her to meet me for coffee. I showed up with my notebook and pen, and she showed up in my imagination. We sat across the table from each other and started talking.

Now before you start thinking I'm losing my grip on reality, here's what really happened. In my writing critique group this week, I was questioned about why I'd included a certain plot device in a story I'm writing. Specifically, one of my secondary characters is keeping a secret that she doesn't reveal until near the end of the story.

"Why does she keep this a secret the whole time?" my fellow writer asked. "Why doesn't she just come out and say it early on? It would save everyone a lot of trouble."

I had a hard time answering the question, because frankly I didn't know the character's motivation for keeping the secret. I just knew that I, as the author, wanted that element of surprise. Clearly that reason wasn't good enough. I still had some work to do.

So I decided to ask the person who knew best--the character herself. I imagined her sitting across the table from me and peppered her with questions: Why are you keeping this particular secret? What do you think will happen if you tell? Are you normally a secretive person? If so, why? If not, why are you doing something out of character? I jotted her answers in my notebook. By the end of our conversation, I had a clearer understanding of her motives, plus some additional morsels of information, like how she dresses, how she sits, whether she maintains good eye contact, and how she treats the waitstaff.

If you write fiction, interviewing your characters is a great way to ferret out motivation and backstory and add richness and depth to your story. You can question them about a specific issue in the story, as I did, or just get to know them better. Here are a few good questions to start with. You might be surprised at the answers! Ask your character questions like:

What would you do if you weren't afraid?


How do you spend a typical Sunday?

What advice were you given as a young person?  Was it good or bad advice?

What myths, fables, and "old wives' tales" were handed down in your family?


What compliments have you received from people?


What are you talented at? What talents do you wish you had?


What makes you laugh? What makes you cry?


If you could have any pet in the world, what would you choose, and why?


Where have you traveled?


Who are the members of your family?


At a family reunion, who would you gravitate toward? Who would you avoid? Why?


Open your checkbook or wallet (is it full or empty?) and list your last five expenditures.


Open your calendar and read the appointments that are listed on it.

I'm sure you can think of many more questions to ask your character. The point is to spend time getting to know them, just as you would a new friend. You might open up a new plot twist, or deepen and clarify an existing one. For the sake of your story, it's time well spent.

1 comment:

elizabethbrinton said...

What an awesome post this is. The best experiences I have had as a writer involve the times a character 'arrives' and as I am fond of saying, 'with a suitcase.'
I am going to do the interview with my teenage self as she is the main character in my novel in progress.