Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 1, 2024

Can We Talk? Interviewing Your Characters

by Sarah Sally Hamer

microphones set up for an interview

We all want to know our characters better, to make them ‘jump off the page’ or be ‘less like cardboard.’ But it’s not as easy as it sounds. After all, our characters ‘talk’ to US. How is it possible they don’t also come alive for our readers?

More than skin deep

Of course, we want to describe the physical appearance of our characters, although that’s a different article. But that’s not the crux of what we writers need to do. We need to make our characters REAL, so that our stories will resonate with the reader.

From the main protagonist all the way to the walk-on server in a restaurant, each of our characters has a story. Just like people, a character isn’t ‘born’ the moment they walk into our books. They have goals and conflicts and motivations and flaws and virtues. Think about some of your favorite books/movies.

Are you interested in the plot? Or are you enamored with the character? Jamie Frasier in Outlander. Or Claire, for that matter. Katniss in The Hunger Games. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. All of these characters SEEM real, even though they’re not. How did the authors build those characters? By spending time with them, by describing their needs and wants and loves and hates. And by connecting those things to the reader through deep point of view. We feel that we KNOW them, and we want to wrap ourselves in their world as we read the book.

 We can’t put all of their backgrounds into the story or we’d have a horrible, confusing mish-mash, but we need to know a lot about every main character. If you, as the writer, don’t know what your characters want, why they want it and why they can’t have it, neither will the reader.

One of the best ways I know to get your character to talk to you is through a Character Interview. 

How to inverview a character

Character interviews often take place with two people, one pretending to be their character, the other pretending to be a television or newspaper interviewer. The character side will answer all questions with “I” or “me”, only speaking from the character’s viewpoint.

The interviewer ‘talks’ to the character and asks questions based on the character traits you’ve created for your character. Think a TV reporter or Johnny Carson/Jay Leno/Jimmy Kimmel asking questions. Carson became renowned for his ability to go off script and ask questions based on the guest's responses.

There are lots of good websites to find questions to ask—put Character Interview Questions into Google and pick one or two. Or make up your own questions, based on your knowledge of your character. 

It’s also all right to do this without another person present. I turn on my computer and pretend I’m speaking to my character and typing what he or she says. So I might ask my female protagonist why she’s afraid to commit to a relationship. She might ‘tell’ me that her heart was broken when she was in high school and she can’t trust men.

The next question—following that lead—might be why she thinks love and trust mean the same thing. One question leads to another, each answer giving you more information. By delving deeper and deeper into ‘her’ personality, I may actually discover that she’s terrified of making another mistake, because her father left her mother when she was a child.

Keep digging!

Do you see? Of course, this isn’t a perfect example, but the more I ask, the more I dig, the more information I’ll get. Then, I can create that character on the page with a depth of feeling that makes her ‘real.’ One of the best questions that isn't on every list is relatively simple and, if your character will answer honestly, something wonderful can come up: "What are you afraid of?" That often stops a writer in their tracks as they try to figure it out. And the answer to that question can start an entire new conversation. It's great!

Maybe your character cheated on a spouse, which would bring up some interesting questions! Or someone he loved very much died. One of my friends discovered that her heroine’s ‘aunt’ was really her mother, which completely changed the dynamics of her book. She felt amazed and delighted at the same time, and after finishing it, the book sold very quickly.

Another tip is to try to make sure your character answers questions ‘in character.’ If he is an old man, he’s going to speak differently than a young woman will, for instance. 

Remember, we’re really NOT too interested in what these characters LOOK like. We want to know what makes them tick.

Try it! The more you can work with this process, the more I think you’ll find it helps to develop your characters and make them real.

I’d love to hear about your interviews—tell me the secrets your characters tell you!

* * * * * *

About Sally

Sarah Sally Hamer

Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at www.margielawson.com and hosts symposiums at www.mindpotential.org. Find her at info@mindpotential.org.

Top photo modified in Canva by Writers in the Storm based on a vector from Depositphotos.

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15 comments on “Can We Talk? Interviewing Your Characters”

  1. The most surprising secret I learned from one of my characters was that a young boy thief was in fact a girl. She said she was running away because she overheard her mother say she was going to send her to Madame Dopari's Emporium, a high class brothel. She disguised herself as a boy and left the city.

  2. The main character in my current novel is a young woman who is telling people her magic gift of seeing bits of the future doesn't work so that she can hide the impossible future she's seen.

    1. Love it, Lisa! So what is she afraid they'll do to her when they find out? Who does eventually find out? What character trait will grow into her character arc?

      Are you sorry you opened that door? 🙂

  3. My main character in my current WIP is out to stop the oppressive government. Secretly she thinks if act the same as her recently killed mentor, she will avoid the pain of losing friends in this war and finally be good enough.

    1. Lynette, that's a great plot! So can you ask her what is "good enough?" What will she need to do to prove that she's worthy? And who needs to know that?

      Good stories start from good places and grow into great ones. I have no doubt this one will be great!

  4. I took one of my characters, Rose, out for a beer.

    She told me of how her childhood changed drastically when her father was let go of his job as an accountant in early 1900s Chicago and had to ride the rails in order to find work.

    Living with Grandma was no picnic, and her dad was gone for so long that her mom gave up waiting and found someone else.

    Things go downhill and sideways from there.

    1. Good! So how does she FEEL? What will she do next? Her dad is gone, her mom is basically gone, and her grandma can't take care of her forever, right? So what is her next choice? How does she feel about it?

      You see that it can just keep rolling -- there are SO many opportunities but we have to let the character choose.

      LOL!

  5. Good morning, Sally! I'm working on a character sketch for the FMC of the next book. This post is perfect for me. Thank you. Saving!

    1. Great, Winona! This is my go-to even after 49 years of writing "professionally" when I can't get a character to talk to me. Sometimes, at this stage of my game, it just takes a couple of sentences but sometimes I have to do pages before I really understand what's going on.

      Thanks!

  6. We did this in a writing workshop I attended several years ago, except our instructor gave it a twist. He asked us to interview a secondary character about the MC and do it in the secondary character's voice. It was so much fun, and really helped me get to know that character as well as my MC.

    1. I agree, Denise. It certainly opened my world when I first learned about it. Characters probably don't like having a microphone shoved under their nose any more than I do, but it certainly helps the author!
      Thanks!

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