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?
As 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.
The 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.
Character Interview Questions
Place of birth:
Economic/social status growing up:
Preexisting unique skills he will use to solve plot problems:
If he could do anything other than what he does, what would it be:
How people view this character:
Spends time with:
Wishes to spend time with:
People who depend on him and why:
People he most admires:
Relationship with God:
Outlook on life:
Opinion of himself:
What, if anything, he would like to change about his life:
Lying to self about:
Optimistic or pessimistic:
Real or feigned:
Self-control and self-discipline level:
What people notice first:
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):
Strongest/weakest character traits:
Three rules he lives by:
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Default personality trait:
Default argument tactic:
Things that make him irrationally angry:
Things that make him cry:
What people like best about him:
Interests and favorites:
Best way to spend a weekend:
Great gift for this person:
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:
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:
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.
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:
- Should You Outline Your Novel?
- Start Your Outline With These 4 Questions
- 3 Steps to Find the Heart of Your Story
- How to Find and Fill All Your Plot Holes
- 4 Ways to Write Backstory That Matters
- 3 Tips for Weaving Together Your Story’s Pieces
- How to Structure Your Story’s Outline
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you find character interviews useful? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!
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