Getting to Know Your Characters

I used to think character interviews were a complete waste of time. I created these people, I know who they are. I know what they look like and how they sound. I hear their voices and the nuance in their language. They take up space in my head. We’re well acquainted.

However. As Rachel from the show Friends would say, “that’s just a fancy but”.

I did take time each time I wrote a scene to get into my character’s head. Yes, they take up space in my brain and now I have to take up space in theirs. Writing is a weird cycle of purposeful insanity, which is why it only works if you love it. Anyway, I realized that the time I took to shake off the world and put myself into the character’s shoes so that I could write in their voice and not mine was basically like a mini-character interview each time I started writing.

“Okay, I’m Livi. I’m overworked, my ex is an inconsiderate manchild who needs validation that I’ll give when Hell freezes over, and I’m in a fight with my best friend. How do I respond? Oh, that’s right. I’m going to down an entire bottle of bourbon, eat greasy foods, make bad decisions and then power through tomorrow like a champ because hangovers are for amateurs.”

That was my character interview. Instead of filling out pages of questions before I ever started writing a draft about backstory, likes, dislikes, hobbies, etc I would go over the highlights before every writing session. In my latest project, I’m doing the full character interview before I ever start. I may end up needing the mini-recap before writing sessions anyway, but if I struggle–as sometimes happens–I’ll have something to flip back to for help.

The point is, just because a character or a story lives in your head, doesn’t mean you don’t need to take the time to get to know them. Even if–no, scratch that, especially so you can understand the parts of the backstory you might not use in the draft. Just because I’m not going to write about the precise moment that Livi realized she needed to leave home all those years ago doesn’t mean I don’t need to know about it. It will affect her decisions and her relationships with other characters.

I need to know what happened to Scarlett’s parents and why she was living with her grandmother to begin with. I need to know about Eitan’s deep need to protect the people he cares about because of the one time in his childhood that he couldn’t. These moments shape our characters. It shapes their personalities, their voices, what drives them. When we come up with a character, they’re not fully developed. How you choose to fully develop them is up to you and your process. But I’m woman enough to admit that I was wrong. Character interviews are not a waste of time if they help you round out your character so they can be multi-dimensional.

Give a try. Google character interviews. There are tons of resources with lists of questions to get you started. Maybe it will work for you. Maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll end up looking crazy because you’re talking to yourself and answering as if you are more than one person. That’s okay, too. You’re a writer. You’re like Alice in Wonderland. You fell down the rabbit hole the minute you committed to letting that first story out of your head.

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