Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Character Interviews - are they worth the time?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the newly released The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

If you had asked me a couple months ago about my feelings on doing "character interviews," I probably would've shrugged and said something like, "I don't know. If they help you, great. If they don't, fine."

I had tried before to be super-duper organized about my plotting and character planning. Charts with every character's birthday, their eye color, what kind of car they drove. I always burned out quickly and never looked at them again.

Then, Laura Anderson Kurk, author of the beautiful contemporary YA novel Glass Girl, wanted to interview the boys from my book for the Playlist Fiction Blog. And when a writer you love and admire wants to do something to promote you, you say yes. No brainer.

Laura sent over the interview questions.There weren't that many, and I thought it would maybe take me thirty minutes. After all, I was going to be writing on behalf of my male character and they're not that wordy.

The first one seemed very straight forward: First, give us a little background information. Tell us your name, your age, and where you go to school.

I poised my fingers over the keys, ready to answer as Chase Cervantes, and...nothing came out. Chase would never just spit out his name and age and where he goes to school. He would never trust anyone who asked him that question. And why was he being interviewed, anyway? The only person who would ever interview Chase was a cop.

I brushed the feeling away and decided to answer for Palmer first. Palmer would love to be interviewed. His answer came easily:
My name is Palmer Earl Davis (thanks Pappy Davis for the middle name.) I’m 16 years old, and I just moved from Louisville, Kentucky to Visalia, California, where I’m a junior at Redwood High School. Go Rangers!
Okay, time to answer for Chase. Again, I sat there. He just wouldn't answer the question. And while Laura is a fellow writer, I didn't want to make her life difficult by saying, "Hey, Palmer was fine being interviewed, but Chase wasn't so wild about it..."

So I went with:
Uh, I’m Chase. I’m sixteen and I go to Redwood High School.
And then moved on to the next question Laura had sent: What do you guys do for fun?

Well, great. There was no way Chase would answer that publicly.

I quickly figured out it was impossible to bounce from Palmer's voice to Chase's, so I decided to answer them all for Palmer, then all for Chase. 90 minutes later, I had finished the interview and sent it to Laura. (You can read the complete character interview on the Playlist Fiction blog.)

When I was done, I was so happy with what I'd written. It had been my first time writing anything purely from Chase or Palmer's point of view, and not only had it been fun, I felt like I had learned a lot about them. And it made me wish I had done character interviews for them sooner.

If you've tried character interviews before and they haven't worked (or if you've never tried them) here are some thoughts for when and how they might be most effective:
  • Do the interviews after you've written part or all of the first draft. I need a little time in the story world to figure out how everything fits together and who even matters. Half the time when I'm writing the first chapter or two of a book, characters crop up who I didn't even predict.
  • Consider interviewing only characters who aren't the main character. Especially if you write in first person, you likely already feel very close to that main character. I could have churned out that interview for Ellie in about 30 minutes. But it wouldn't have been as meaningful an experience as it was to write for Chase and Palmer.
  • Let someone else ask the questions. You can recruit a writing friend to help you with this, and tell them you'll repay the favor. Or you can borrow the questions Laura asked me.
Speaking of Playlist Young Adult Fiction, Laura L. Smith's book It's Complicated is on sale right now for 99-cents. I'm going to give away FOUR e-copies of it:


Have you done character interviews before? What worked for you? What didn't?

42 comments:

  1. Yes! But now that I think about it, they're always for my main character. I should start doing them for my secondary characters. This was a great post, by the way.

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  2. I used to do character interviews with a link-up, and I really enjoyed them, but some questions are just really hard to answer! Interviews really make you think. I've finished my first draft, and now I'm doing the compositing questions that are listed on this blog, and wow. It's hard, and that's not even a proper interview! :)

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  3. Atually, no, I never have. I think it would help me. One thing that I have done that's really helped was "character chats." The way that works is a friend and I each talk as our characters. They have a conversation. Preferably, NOT the main characters--it really helps to get a feel for how they talk, plus you find things out like, "Hey, wait, she doesn't have an extended family!" or "ooooh, he likes soccer!" :)

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  4. I have never done a character interview before! I had kind of tossed the idea aside, but I might have to try it soon!

    -Abby

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  5. I absolutely love character interviews, as long as they're interviews and not character forms (which are fun too, but not as much). I need to find more of them.

    As Amanda said, character chats are fun as well. I've done them online on a forum I'm on; there's a whole thread for them!

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  6. I have never interviewed my characters. I tend to sit and think about different aspects of their lives but not from their point of view. Perhaps I should to help cement their voices.

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  7. Wonderful post! I have yet to try character interviews, but it sounds like it would help me out quite a bit. =]

    Blessings,
    Sarah

    http://sarah-plainandaverage.blogspot.com/
    http://threemaidens.blogspot.com/

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  8. Fun interview on the Playlist site!! I've never felt the urge to do interviews as a means of brainstorming, but they are SO MUCH FUN to do after a book's written, like this one.

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  9. I've never done a character interview before, but now I'm thinking that I need to do one on my male character (not main) in my WIP! That would help me find out who he's really like!

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  10. I haven't actually done a character interview before, but I've done something where I "turn into" the character and ramble about my life etc for as long as possible... Sort of like a journal? Idk. Interview sound fun though! I'll have to try this sometime.

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  11. In your opinion is it worth doing both Voice Journaling and the interview for the characters?

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  12. I bought a book that has a huge section on getting to know your characters. It's really great, called Ready, Set, Novel! I would say it's not exactly like an interview but it's pretty close. : )

    (MJ)

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  13. I've tried asking characters what they would do in a certain situation, but I always use my main character. It seemed to work to get a better view of my MC, but it made it more awkward with my supporting characters.

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  14. I have toyed with this very thing, Stephanie! The thought of interviewing my characters has always seemed silly to me. Yet so many have said it helped them. Maybe I ought to just do it. lol

    Thanks for the post, Stephanie!

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  15. I interviewed a character once on my blog, though I would like to interview others. I love the idea of having someone else interview your characters though. Sounds like it could be quite helpful!

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  16. I do something similar to character interviews, where I ask one question and see where their answer takes me, and ask more questions accordingly. It's so much fun, and I can learn so much about the character.

    A couple of weeks ago I was watching the TV show Lark Rise to Candleford, and one of the questions asked in that episode was "What is love?" And right away one of my charries answered "giving your life for someone else's." Then I went around and asked a bunch of my other charries that, and the answers were so interesting.

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  17. Interviewing characters is something I have yet to do. And it sounds like a great idea to get to know your characters (or someone else's) more.

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  18. I haven't done an interview before but I think my characters would really like that! I am off to go do an interview!

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  19. I have a character interview form that I found in Spilling Ink by Ellen Potter and someone else whose name I can't remember. I interview my characters with it ever so often ... some are more willing to give up their answers than others.

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  20. I've never done character interviews before, but I can definately see how they can be helpful. Though I would need to finish the draft of this WIP first I think in order to establish the full characters for myself.

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  21. Character interviews can be funny, though I haven't done many of them. But I agree about waiting until the first draft is over to do those! Without strict "lists" you kind of just let your characters be themselves.

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  22. Those are nice questions... But I probably won't be able to use most of them. I'm not allowed to read anything that has dating or girlfriend/boyfriend stuff, so I'm not allowed to write that stuff either. And I wouldn't know how.

    But I'm sure I could do some sort of interview. Is it a bad idea to interview characters from other books/movies for practice? Like Vanellope or Turbo from Wreck it Ralph?

    Is it helpful to interview the bad guys?

    ~Katelyn~

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      I found it VERY helpful to interview one of my villains. Well, it wasn't so much an interview as my Mom asking "Why does she do this?" (or maybe it was "Why is she so mean?") and then all of a sudden I had this breakthrough and I understood the character totally! Just make sure you have plenty of paper or a keyboard or something handy when you do - I have mine crammed into the margins of the paper I was using.

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    2. Cool, thanks!

      ~Katelyn~

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  23. Awesome post! On my blog I am going to start blog post with character interviews so this is just what I need!

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  24. Hmm, this is something I have to think about!
    Maybe my characters are a bit 'flat, they don't have their own life. I really have to solve that!
    So thanks for the advice!

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  25. I keep a document with a page for each character. Each page has a picture of the actor I imagine my character to look like, the name, age, and role in the story of each character, and a bullet list of words that describe them. I know I downloaded interview questions for them one time, but I've never been interested in using them. Maybe I'll try that when my first draft is finished! Thanks for the post!

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  26. Yes, I interview my characters, but not as much I should. It's so much fun learning about your character's voice! When they're talking, little details about themselves just slip out! "It's Complicated" looks like such a cool book!

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  27. I tried character interviews a long time ago, but got bored with it pretty quickly. Now that I think about it, though, it was because I was answering their questions in my voice, rather than their own. I'd better try it again ;)

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  28. I had the same problem and epiphany as Anna, ha its funny our names are the same too! Anyway the first time i tried character interviews i felt it was bland and it didn't get me any where. From your post i realized that i was basically just recording facts instead of getting into my characters persona. Now I'm going ask one of my friends who also writes to create some questions for me

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  29. No, I haven't. But this is a really good idea. Thanks, Stephanie!

    Going to go check out Palmer's and CHase's interview... :D

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  30. I've done interviews FOR my characters, but not WITH them...like answering in their own voice. I'm going to try it! Seriously cool idea!

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  31. I've never done them before. It's rather hard, as most contemporary questions aren't adaptable for my science-fiction-ish dystopia. However, I have four weeks to kill-- I mean, wait-- until I can start editing, so I think I'll give this a try. I can come up with questions like those, right?
    Thanks for the post! I loved the Playlist interview. Now I really need to read The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet...
    Katia

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  32. I've done my own personal interviews, write down a bunch of questions I'd ask someone else, and turn around and do it for mine. But actual someone-else-interviewing-them? no, or, should I say, not as of yet.
    But, with my own questions, I've gotten some characters of mine who refuse to open up, or those who open up too much and write a whole biography about themselves...

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  33. I've seen character interview sheets before, but never done them, as the ones I've found seem to have dozens of useless questions like 'What's your favourite food?' and 'What's your favourite colour and why?', which in all honesty I can't even answer for myself, let alone my characters.
    But I'll read those interviews and maybe give some of the questions a go for my current WIP.

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  34. I am so going to get a friend to make up some questions for me. Way more fun than thinking up my own. And the way Chase wasn't answering the questions cracked me up.

    LOVE the character interview with Chase and Palmer. I just cracked up when Chase announced he'd like The Rock to play him in a movie. :P

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  35. I love character interviews. I try to do them with my MC and my supporting cast, usually at the beginning of my "getting to know the characters" stage. I find that when I don't know the answers and am forced to really think "would Amanda prefer A or B? Why does Tasi hate water? What is Jack really afraid of?" I usually get really cool answers.

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  36. Hi Stephanie. I just had to comment. I found your blog from a friend on Goodreads who commented and loves your books. I started looking at the character interview. I'm from southern Indiana and work in Louisville, Kentucky, and my husband I moved to Visalia, California (and lived there for a couple of years before moving further south in California). I just thought...small world. I loved Visalia and I remember all the cruising on Mooney Blvd. on Friday nights! Love it. Best of everything with your books and many blessings.

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    1. Oh, that is so strange, JoAnn! It's a great town. I lived there when I was a little girl and for a long time I considered it my hometown. It was fun to be able to "visit" it again when I was writing. I'm so glad you said hi!

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  37. Yes! And I love it! The interviews are so much fun and I learn a lot about my characters!

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  38. It's funny 'cause I did a set of Character interviews the other day. It was a lot of fun! I asked character's about themselves and the other characters. It was interesting to see how the characters thought they were perceived by the others and how the others actually perceived them.

    Here's some of the questions:
    Describe your physical appearance and that of XXXrandomcharacter.

    How would your best friend describe you personality wise?

    How would you describe your best friend?

    What is your favorite characteristic?

    What is your least favorite characteristic?

    What is your deepest regret?

    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

    Who do you value the most now, why?

    Who annoys you the most, why?

    If you could have anything, what would it be?

    How do people close to you hurt you, without them ever knowing it?

    What is your deepest secret?

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  39. My younger sister and I take turns in interviewing each other's characters. It's more fun than writing it all out, since it feels like acting, which we love.
    Some useful interview questions have been:
    "What was your most embarassing moment?" and "What part of your personality aren't you proud of?"
    What has been more profitable than interviews though, is character coaching.
    My sister found a book on life coaching which teaches people how to mentor others without telling them what to do but instead allowing them to develop their own solutions. When applied to my characters it was incredibly useful, since it questioned the motives I'd come up with and made me wonder if my characters should be more active in solving problems.
    Plus it made us laugh when questions came out like -"As Queen of your country how can you delegate that responsibilty to someone else?"
    I would strongly advise anyone to read life coaching questions and apply them to their characters.

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