The Nanowrimo Guide to Outlining (Learning What's Important About Your Characters)

Making the Most of Character Interviews (How to Outline for NaNoWriMo, Pt. 8)

The Nanowrimo Guide to Outlining (Learning What's Important About Your Characters)Plot and character aren’t so different after all. In fact, in many ways, they’re the same thing. Over the course of the last seven posts, as you’ve focused on outlining your plot, you’ve also been outlining your characters, perhaps without even knowing it. But now it’s finally time to focus exclusively on character interviews.

By this point in your outline, you’ve already figured out the inherent factors of character arc that will drive your story’s plot and theme. You know your characters’ Lies and Truths, Wants and Needs, and backstory Ghosts and motivations.

You know about the Normal World in which your protagonist will start the story, and you know how he will change and where he will end up by the story’s end.

You also have a firm grip on your supporting cast and their respective desires and (where appropriate) arcs.

These are the most important aspects of your characters and if you’re so inclined, you can take off and write them into the first draft right now. However, there’s one extra step I always take in my outline—character interviews.

Why Bother With Character Interviews?

Outlining Your Novel 500As you’ll see in a second, I use an extensive list of questions to help me understand my characters inside-out—everything from their deepest fears to their favorite foods. Some of the answers will show up in the story; many won’t. Character interviews require a decent outlay of time: I generally spend upwards of six hours on each interview.

So why bother? When you already know all the “important” thematic stuff about your characters, why do you need to bother with this trivial stuff? Can’t you discover everything you need as you write the first draft? Certainly, you can. And, inevitably, there will always be important aspects of your characters you won’t learn until you actually start writing them.

But I’ve discovered character interviews can make all the difference in both the ease of writing a new character and his success in driving the plot. In the past, when I’ve chosen to skip an interview, the character too often fails to be as realized as those I did interview. Even though I do discover my characters as I write about them, I never understand them as fully as should if I don’t interview them beforehand.

Depending on how many of your characters you decide to interview (more on that in a bit), character interviews can be a lengthy part of the outline. But they’re always worth it. And, in my experience, they are often one of the easiest and most enjoyable parts of the outline!

Master List of Character Interview Questions

With each new novel I write, I’m always adding new questions to my character interviews. My list started out with the basics, but the questions I look for these days are the ones that will help me dig down into the heart of the characters to find interesting motivations and contradictions.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook 200The list now includes over 120 questions, curated from multiple sources over the years (if you see a question you originated, thank you!). I’ve offered my interview list before, in several different resources, including the Outlining Your Novel Workbook, but since I’m always updating it, I’ll include the latest version here.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program logoYou can also use the Character Interview feature in the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software.

Character Interview Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program

Character Interview Questions

Name:

Background:

Birthday:

Place of birth:

Parents:

Siblings:

Economic/social status growing up:

Ethnic background:

Places lived:

Education:

Preexisting unique skills he will use to solve plot problems:

Jobs:

Salary:

If he could do anything other than what he does, what would it be:

Travel:

Friends:

How people view this character:

Lives with:

Fights with:

Spends time with:

Wishes to spend time with:

People who depend on him and why:

People he most admires:

Enemies:

Dating, marriage:

Children:

Relationship with God:

Outlook on life:

Opinion of himself:

What, if anything, he would like to change about his life:

Personal demons:

Lying to self about:

Optimistic or pessimistic:

Real or feigned:

Morality level:

Confidence level:

Self-control and self-discipline level:

Typical Day:

Physical appearance:

Physical build:

Posture:

Head shape:

Eyes:

Nose:

Mouth:

Hair

Skin:

Tattoos/piercings/scars:

Voice:

What people notice first:

Clothing:

How he sees himself:

Five words he would use to describe himself:

Five words best friend would use use to describe him:

Identities of this character (mother, lover, soldier, etc.) in order of priority to this person:

Degree of self-awareness:

Greatest joy (thing that’s keeping him alive):

Greatest pain:

Health/disabilities/handicaps:

Characteristics:

Personality type:

Love language:

Strongest/weakest character traits:

Three rules he lives by:

Public identity:

Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?

Default personality trait:

Default argument tactic:

Physical vulnerabilities:

Emotional vulnerabilities:

Things that make him irrationally angry:

Things that make him cry:

Fears:

Talents:

What people like best about him:

Interests and favorites:

Political leaning:

Collections:

Food, drink:

Music:

Books:

Movies:

Sports, recreation:

Color:

Best way to spend a weekend:

Great gift for this person:

Pets:

Vehicles:

Typical expressions:

When happy:

When angry:

When frustrated:

When sad:

When afraid:

Idiosyncrasies:

Laughs or jeers at:

Ways to cheer up this person:

Ways to annoy this person:

Hopes and dreams:

Plan to accomplish these dreams:

Worst thing he’s ever done:

Greatest success:

Biggest trauma:

Greatest embarrassment:

He is the kind of person who:

What you love most about this character:

Why readers will sympathize with this person right away:

Voice on the page:

Core Need:

Corresponding psychological maneuver (delusions, obsessions, compulsions, addictions, denial, hysterical ailments, hypochondria, illnesses, behaviors harming the self, behavior harming others, manias, and phobias):

Anecdote (Defining Moment):

How to Use the Interview

Implementing the character interview is easy—just sit down and start answering! This is perhaps the most guided part of my outlining process, since it is, in essence, a fill-in-the-blanks exercise. However, as with any part of a successful outline, your answers to the character interview should not be random.

Don’t Create the Character, Uncover Him

Writers sometimes ask how they’re supposed to come up with answers to the questions. Are you supposed to just sit down and start writing down any ol’ answer that comes to mind? Definitely not.

There’s a reason we’ve waited until almost the very end of the outlining process to work on character interviews. By this point, you will have discovered your characters. By now, they will be real people living within a real plot. Their shape and essence should be very clear to you. If you’re like me, you may even have “cast” your characters, using actors and other real-life personalities to provide distinct faces and physiques that anchor your characters in your mind.

In filling out the character interviews, you will inevitably run up against a few questions for which you don’t know the answers, and you’ll have to brainstorm something on the spot. But most of the answers should be evident from what you already know about your characters and plot.

For example, as I was interviewing Thorne—a new Cherazim character for my portal fantasy sequel Dreambreaker—I didn’t have to make something up in answering the question, “If he could do anything other than what he does, what would it be?” The answer came easily. It was a discovery more than an on-the-spot creation. It was a soldifying of what I already understood about the character’s essence:

If he could he do anything he wanted—honestly he’d probably still be a gambler, but with credibility. He sometimes dreams of owning his own gambling establishment, but, in truth, the responsibility would kill him. As it is, he lives life on his own terms and he likes it that way—if only he were not constantly derided for it. He feels like, if only the world accepted him and gave him his due, he would be happy and whole.

Take as Many Words as Necessary to Answer the Questions

How should you answer the questions? Short answer is “any way you want to.” If you want to literally interview the character and have him respond in his own words, go for it. If you will be best served by short one-word answers, that works too.

However, I recommend continuing with the same conversational style you used in the previous sections of the General Sketches. Muse aloud on the page, writing whatever comes to mind about the character. Most of my answers are at least a couple of sentences and often a paragraph or two.

Some of the questions will be irrelevant to your character and you can skip them outright.

How to Use Your Character Interviews Throughout Your Writing Process

The interviews will provide their greatest benefit simply in helping you solidify your characters into fully rounded, nuanced human beings in your own mind. They will have fulfilled their greatest value simply in being written down. However, unlike much of the General Sketches, character interviews supply information in a format you can use throughout the drafting process.

Once you have them written down, they provide the further benefit of being a handy resource for referencing facts about your characters throughout the writing process. I collect all my interviews in folders in Scrivener and refer to them frequently, whenever I have a continuity question about eye color or birth date—or when I need inspiration for how a character might react when he’s angry or frustrated in a particular scene.

Writing_Process_Scrivener_Character_Sketches_Interviews

How I set up character interviews for my historical superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer in Scrivener.

The interviews are easily searchable and save time in the long run when you’re stalled on a character detail that would otherwise need to be brainstormed on the spot, bringing your current scene to a screeching halt.

Which Characters Should You Interview?

Obviously, you’re probably not going to want to interview every single one of your characters, especially if you have a large cast. So how do you triage your cast to determine which get full-fledged interviews and which do not?

Ultimately, this will be a personal decision. Which characters are integral to your story? Which characters do you feel you don’t fully understand yet?

My own rule of thumb is that all POV characters get interviews and all antagonists get interviews. If I’m going to be in a character’s head, I need to fully understand how he thinks and what made him the way he is.

As for antagonists, I admit it: I used to skimp on their interviews. The other thing I admit is that antagonists have always been a weakness in my writing. So, finally, on the last two outlines, I put two and two together and realized that maybe, just maybe, the reason my antagonists were challenging me in the first draft was because I wasn’t taking the time to fully understand them and their motivations in the outline. I started doing complete interviews for them, and boom! my antagonists immediately improved.

Start with your protagonist and work your way through your important characters until you have a fat dossier full of everything you’ll need to create these characters from the ground up and power them through your plot.

And have fun! This section of the outline is a no-pressure way to get to spend time with some of the most fascinating people you’ll ever meet.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’re going to talk about the final step in the outlining process: the scene outline.

Previously in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you find character interviews useful? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is an absolutely brilliant post. I’ve been doing character interviews for years, but this is much deeper and more searching than any of mine.

    As to God, I think mine can be a little too assertive. Instead of asking God for forgiveness at least one sees things the other way around:

    Dear God, if you’re listening, I know I’ve been furious with you since you let Alan die. I haven’t forgiven you for that, and perhaps I never will, but please, can you let me think of something that I can do to stop the killing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The whole key to successful character interviews is that they look past the surface. If they’re simply rehashing what’s already obvious about the character, then they’re really not going to be worth the time.

  2. I used interviews for a little while with several major characters of mine, but lately I’ve stopped. My characters usually come to me pretty well formed already (they’re what inspires me to write a story after all), and I found that the questions didn’t really help me in discovering them further. Interviews just don’t work for me, I guess. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, if they’re not working for you–if they’re not adding anything–then definitely don’t do them.

  3. Felicity Seeley says:

    I’ve had trouble using character interviews. Now I’m wondering if it’s because I try doing them too early in the process. Thanks for the tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is similar to the reason I used to resist using personality typing systems (particularly Myers-Briggs) on my characters. I felt that if I imposed a personality from the beginning, I’d end up with cardboard cutouts–and I would have. But when you *first* discover the character, then use these tools to refine them, they’re extremely helpful.

  4. I’ve been doing this in my head but you’ve convinced me to be more structured and write it down.

    I’m concerned that I might not evaluate each character the same and want to ensure consistency in how the character is presented. I may have brain stormed some things about someone, but chapters later I’ll realize there’s something I hadn’t considered and then have to make sure it goes with what I’ve already written.

    At this moment I’m doing an ad-hoc development of the MC’s grandfather. The chapter(s) revolve around him being hospitalized which was the reasons I used to bring the family together, allowing me to compare & contrast the grandfather/father relationship with father/son. So Grandpa’s been talked about in the space a couple thousand words, but my next paragraph will have him coming in the front door, home from the hospital. Now I have to put words in his mouth that match the observations others have been making about him. Hard working, set in his ways gruff, stubborn. So yes! a written interview would come in handy. “Can I get you something, Dad?” “I don’t need no help getting around my own house!”

    I also have a newly introduced character, the cousin’s girlfriend, who will be an important supporting character the rest of the way. From here on, I’ll have two couples – a brother and sister and their girlfriend and boyfriend (the MC). I’m happy with her introduction, but I then look over the outline, seeing how she’ll affect the plot the rest of the way, and ponder what the details of her character will be. She needs a certain personality and backstory. to make it all logical. And, of course, I see that it will make it easier to WRITE IT DOWN after the outline but before the writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I definitely find value in writing things down. Even if I *do* know it in my head, there’s something about making it concrete on the page that solidifies it. I can see the big picture much more easily and make adjustments more accurately.

      • Reviewing the questions – you have ‘birth date’ but not an explicit age, which to me is the more important of the two. Then a generic ‘dating/marriage’ which likely does cover it, although I was thinking more specifically of how long they’ve been married.

        For example, Grandpa’s 72, Grandma 57, and they’ve been married 42 years. Just that can give you an impression of their situation.

        But those are details I can modify myself in the interview form.

        PS – and maybe ‘species’ as many of you are into the science fiction/fantasy writing.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          In my own interviews, I generally write down the specific birth date and figure the age from there, depending on the year in which the story takes place.

  5. *evaluated each character by the same criteria

  6. HonestScribe says:

    I usually try to perform character interviews both before and during my first draft. It’s a helpful way to get into their frame of mind at the beginning of a new scenario and track their changes.

    However, this time I couldn’t really interview my protagonist that well before the story began; she has really bad amnesia. My initial attempts to talk to her would look something like this if written out:

    Me: So, who are you anyway?

    MC: *slowly blinks* I don’t know.

    Me: Do you know where you are?

    MC: Is this a trick question?

    So, I’ve been discovering things about her while she is. Granted, I didn’t start totally blind, but most of her backstory is a blank. Strangely, that’s been okay so far. It’s certainly different than what I usually try, and it’s taught me a bit about letting a character naturally unfold.

  7. This is a great idea but knowing me, I’ll do an interview with a character and then when I go to write, write something that contradicts that character’s interview.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing wrong with that. It’s all about digging deeper and discovering more and more about the character. However, it’s possible that if the character keeps contradicting your understanding of him, it’s a sign you don’t quite understand him well enough yet.

  8. Enjoyed this blog post! Thanks. 🙂 I actually answer interview questions from the characters’ points of view based on information from mini profiles.

  9. Roberto Fiocco says:

    Thanks for this post. Creating characters is for me the most difficult part in the writing process, because you have to create people, not only a tangle of characteristics linked to a name. I really hate character interviews, because I need a great amount of time to complete them, but I love them because they help me to make my characters more live than ever.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think you’ve summed up most people’s feelings about outlines in general: hate the time output, love the results!

  10. I’ve seen a number of character questioners that can help you build up your character, but this is probably the most detailed I’ve seen yet. It’s to the point where I might use this on major characters I’ve been writing for years now, just to tweak up their personalities that extra bit in upcoming edits.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You can pick and choose which questions are pertinent to your system and style. I’m always looking for new questions I feel would be helpful to me.

  11. Wow. I’ve always been like “Character interviews? Bah.” But you make a lot of sense hear, and that character interview checklist you included just might be the best resource for character building I’ve ever seen.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      And, of course, you don’t have to feel obligated to do *all* my questions. I like the thorough approach (surprised?), but you can pick and choose those you know will be useful if you don’t have the time or inclination to go that deep.

  12. Good point

  13. Thank you for another great post. Between your blog and books, you are really helping me a lot!

    On a side note, it would be a big help to me if there was a separate worksheet/PDF that I could copy the Character Interview questions from. I want to start using them, but I’m having a hard time copying and pasting from your website or the Outlining your Novel e-book. It would be especially difficult if I had bought the paperback!

    Just an idea. Thanks!

  14. Thank you for this! While I’m already a good way into my first draft, my MC is giving me trouble, and an important character I hadn’t planned at all was introduced. Interviewing them should help. And I might just do it for the rest of the cast while I’m at it. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although I generally do my character interviews before I start the draft, sometimes doing them in medias res is an even better approach, since you’ll already have started to get a sense of the character on the page,

  15. I’m much more of a visual illustrator/painter than a writer, so when I create characters I focus a lot on the physicality of them. Their design, fashion aesthetic, color scheme, body type, facial features, etc. Of course, on the flip side, I often find it harder to explain the character in words and flesh them out, unless I really write it all out in categories, like on this. I’m glad this exists. It really helps not only me to know my own oc’s, but helps me grasp how they see themselves.

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