How well do you know your characters? Like the back of my hand, you say? Do you know the color of your hero’s eyes? Do you know where the bad guy went to college? Do you know your heroine’s most embarrassing moment? Can you rattle off a list of your main character’s idiosyncrasies? Typical expressions? Romantic history?
If any one of these questions had you fumbling for an answer, then you’re missing out on a prime opportunity to deepen your characters and expand your story. Over the years, one of the most useful tools I’ve run across is the “character interview.” My own list started out as twenty or so basic questions regarding physical appearance and personality issues. Now it contains over 50 precise and penetrating questions, designed to get my brain juices flowing and my characters talking.
The character interview has become a vital part of my outlining process. I’ll often fill up half a notebook with narrative answers to the most probing questions about my characters’ relationships, beliefs, and secrets. I refer to these lists constantly throughout the actual writing process, not only for on-the-spot inspiration, but for fact checking (How old was he when his mother died? Did he break his left or his right leg in that car accident?).
I’ve included below the list I’ve compiled for myself. Feel free to copy it out and use it to get your own characters talking. But you might also want to keep in mind several other useful techniques, including the enneagram (any-a-gram), a personality test that aligns character traits to one of nine categories and outlines strengths and flaws. Not only is it interesting reading, but it can also help round out a character and summarize his personality. Something I’ve found especially helpful is the “fatal flaw” that accompanies each personality.
Finally, should you run across a taciturn character who refuses to let you into his deeper psyche, try a “freehand interview.” Instead of forcing your character into the rigidity of the set questions in a regular interview, just throw him onto the page and start asking him questions: What’s the matter with you? What are you hiding from me? You’ll be surprised what you can drag out of your characters using this method.
All three of these tools, used in concert, can work miracles in breaking open the walls between author and character and forcing your characters to spill their guts and reveal their deepest motivations. Plus, it’s grand fun!
Places lived: Current address and phone number:
Education: Favorite subject in school:
What people does he most admire:
Relationship with God:
Overall outlook on life:
Does this character like himself:
What, if anything, would he like to change about his life:
Is he lying to himself about something?
How is he viewed by others:
Physical appearance: Physical build: Posture: Head shape: Eyes: Nose: Mouth: Hair Skin: Tattoos/piercings/scars: Voice: Right- or left-handed: Handicap: What you notice first: Clothing: How would he describe himself: Health/disabilities:
Characteristics: Strongest/weakest character traits: How much self-control and self-discipline does he have: Fears: Political leaning: Collections, talents: What people like best about him: Interests and favorites: Food, drink: Music: Books: Movies: Sports, recreation: Did he play in school: Color: Best way to spend a weekend: A great gift for this person: Pets: Vehicle: Typical expressions: When happy: When angry: When sad: Idiosyncrasies: Laughs or jeers at: Ways to cheer up this person: Ways to annoy this person: Hopes and dreams: What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why: Greatest success: Biggest trauma: What does he care about most in the world: Does he have a secret: What does/will he like best about the other main character(s): What does/will he like least about the other main character(s): If he could do one thing and succeed at it, what would it be: Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him: He is the kind of person who: Why will the reader sympathize with this person right away: History: