Kate S Notes on the Character Interview

Kate S Notes on the Character Interview

Kate’s notes on the “Character Interview”

In our seminar on Saturday, we discussed how to develop three-dimensional characters. I mentioned that when I have had trouble seeing a character as others might see them, I have occasionally taken a character “aside” and interviewed them. I don’t remember where I first heard of this technique, but I’ve found it to be revealing and surprisingly fun. It is a discovery tool. You don’t (necessarily) use the interview in your story.

Tips: Be careful not to answer the questions for your character as the author. Don’t try to think about how your character “would” answer. Just pose as the interviewer and let the character go. Pick a setting for the interview, pick a type of interview (For a newspaper? For a job? For a child adoption?) Then you take on the perspective of the interviewer (who also becomes a character in this setup), and you actually write the scene. Let it unfold. As you interview this person (your character) on the page, you might notice their mannerisms, their body language. They might evade certain questions. They might get angry or refuse to answer certain questions. Maybe they flirt with you, the interviewer. Do they insist on a certain location for the interview? Maybe they offer you something to eat, buy you a drink. Maybe they turn the questions back on you. Do they take control? Do they sit nervously? Do they balk at a certain question? Are they trying to cover up something? How do they do this?

For example, once when I did this, I discovered that while my character saw herself as a kind, humble, wallflower type, she actually came across as intimidating, coy, and flirtatious to others. I discovered aspects of her body language that unnerved the interviewer. She turned the questions back on the interviewer, tried to impress him by running circles around him conversationally, but refused to reveal anything personal about herself. The interviewer never got through all of his prepared questions. This gave me another perspective on her as a character, and besides, it was so much fun.

You can make your own list of questions that are appropriate to the setting you create for the interview. I found these questions on a business website—they were used to reveal so-called “true character” in job interviews—you might borrow some of these.

1. What's your favorite restaurant?

2. What's your spirit animal?

3. So, (insert name here,) what's your story?

4. Tell me a joke.

5. What would you do if you woke up and found an elephant in your backyard?

6. Have you ever played a sport? If so, which one and what position?

7. If you opened your own business, what type of company would it be and why?

8. "I'm sorry, but I just don't think this is the right fit for you." This question applies only to job interviews. It is not a question, but a comment that might reveal character. How will the person react? Will they make their case again? How, and how strongly? Do they apologize? Do they start sobbing or make a confession? Do they give you the finger and walk out?

Kate’s notes on the “Dr. Phil Aside”

At times you might get all balled up in the interior of your character, or the character might lose focus on what they are doing and why. We have heard the advice, “give the problem to the character” rather than trying to solve the problem yourself as the author. I think this sounds like great advice, and there are probably a million ways to do this in the story itself, depending on the particular situation. I am not experienced enough to give you any of my own examples of this.

However, one thing I’ve done to discover the motives and deeper psychology of certain characters and situations is to have the character leave the situation for an “aside” conversation with a confidant. I call it “aside” because it is not actually part of the story, just a way to discover what in the world is going on! I’ve had the character leave the scene and go to a private place like a bathroom for this conversation to take place.

The TV show host, Dr. Phil, is a convenient confidant because he is direct in his line of questioning and yet he is an objective outsider, not involved in the story. He is also a counseling professional, so he can see through (and might point out) any BS the character might be using to delude themselves. He says stuff like the questions below (and keeps pushing until he breaks through to some level of truth). Usually the character has to take a deep breath before answering. It might take a while to break through their defenses. Some characters may never be able to answer these questions. In those cases, Dr. Phil might frankly tell the person what he thinks is really going on, sometimes scolding them, but with sympathy and compassion.

“(Character name), why is this so important to you?”

“We both know there’s more at stake here than just ____. Tell me want’s really going on.”

“Why are you being so hard on ____? He doesn’t deserve that.”

“Let’s be honest here. You don’t really want ____, do you? It’s something else. Tell me why you’re ____.”

“What are you trying to hide from ____?”

“Why is this so hard for you?”

“Tell me why you can’t you just ____.”

“Do you think your past (relationships, experiences) have anything to do with this?”

“It’s obvious to me that _____.”