Friday, March 10, 2017

How to Interview Your Characters Like a Pro, a guest post by Cindy M. Jones

Hey all! Shannon here! Well, I'm not REALLY here. I'm off celebrating my 15th wedding anniversary with my husband. But in my absence, I have the grand privilege of introducing you all to Cindy M. Jones. She has some fantastic thoughts on interviewing your characters. Bookmark this one, friends. You'll need it!

Cindy M. Jones is story consultant, small business owner, speaker and creative writing workshop leader who has appeared in publications such as; The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, The Christian Post, Birmingham Magazine, Birmingham Parent, Birmingham Business Journal and RootsRated. She has founded and facilitated creative writing groups for all ages. Her mission is guiding writers in discovering their goals and unique voice while giving them the tools they need to succeed. You can follow her happily ever after life on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram or sign up for an occasional free short story at cindymjones.com. Her favorite quote is, “Start where you are, do what you can, use what you have.” ~ Arthur Ashe

How to Interview Your Characters Like a Pro. Dig deeper than eye or hair color with these 23 soul searching questions.

Growing up in the Deep South, manners were taught with handed down adages. When it came to people, there were two that everyone knew by heart, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” and “Walk a mile in their shoes before you judge ‘em.”

These sayings intrigued me, even more so as a newspaper journalist. My curiosity about people only deepened. With each interview, I realized things aren’t always what they seem. On the outside like a book cover, each one portrayed a happy, successful and productive life but once the pages began turning, truths emerged. Insecurities, grief and fear infested their walls like termites.

That’s when my inner sleuth came alive. I wanted to know what created certain personality, traits, mannerisms and uniqueness. Was it genetics, society, family relationships, environmental or personal obstacles?

Each individual story jabbed my heart, but I cherished every victory. I was walking in their shoes. 

Using the same tools to dig deeper into understanding characters, I’ve chosen 23 questions out of hundreds that I’ve collected over the years to help you get to know your character. At first glance, a character seems flat and unrelatable. Once they begin to develop, you feel their pain. You want them to heal, to grow, to overcome.

Interviewing someone isn’t always easy. You need to earn their trust, allow your subject to warm up to you. Make them feel comfortable, valued… you are their best friend who would never spill their secrets. Well, at least not yet. 

Author Nancy Rue once said in a conference that she purchases a new journal for each new character and allows each to tell her story. Let’s start our journey with your character’s vulnerabilities. 

(Tip - Create a collage of pictures of your character to place in front of you as you interview them.)
 
 

Start off with a few questions:

1. What are you most proud of but afraid of sharing?
2. Do you consider yourself liked or disliked by others? Why?
3. Are you afraid of being your true self around others? Why?

Now that you know a bit about your character, how would they finish these sentences? 

4. “More than anything, I want to …”
5. “If I could change anything about myself, I would…”
6. “I think my greatest strengths, abilities and skills are…”

Now’s the time to get to the heart of things. Don’t hold back, allow yourself to feel what your character may feel. Actors call this “fleshing out.” Step into their world. 

7. What is your biggest regret?
8. What are some lessons in life you’ve had to learn the hard way?
9. What is your deepest need?
10. What is your darkest secret?
11. What is your greatest fear?

It’s okay to allow your own experiences to feed into your character. “Write what you know,” is a quote attributed to Mark Twain. But Benjamin Franklin also said, “Write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” 

(Tip - Asking yourself “what if” is an excellent way to move beyond what you know into what your character may know.)

12. What if you had to give up something very valuable for another? What would it be?
13. What if you were to decide a person’s fate? What types of people would you consider worthy or unworthy? 
14. What if you had to choose one thing to do the rest of your life? What would it be?
15. What if everyone doubted your abilities? How would you overcome?
16. What if you had to compete against others to live? How would you find courage?



If you are in doubt to what your character might do or say, go with your gut. What is your first response? What makes you shudder? Don’t go with the easy or acceptable answer. Ask yourself, “What would be the worst thing that could happen?” The worst case scenario is what will create tension. Tension creates drama. Drama creates apathy. The character that was once a sketch is now a living breathing being. 

17. If you knew you were going to die in the next year, what would you do differently?
18. In what ways are you most like your enemies that you hate?
19. Which relationships in your family/life are the best? The worst?

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” ― James Scott Bell, How to Make a Living As a Writer.

Every character needs redeeming qualities. We want them to walk away changed. How would your character complete these sentences?

20. “People have no idea what it’s like to be me. I’ve been through....but I want to...”
21. “It’s not my fault for… if everyone would… I wouldn’t…”
22. “I’m tired of always being the one to… when I should be…”
23. “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”

Can you visualize your character now? Do they seem real? Did you find yourself emotionally involved? If so, you’re on your way to developing a three dimensional character, the kind that stays with you long after the story has ended. Take a step in her shoes, then another. Don’t stop until you know everything there is to know about your hero.

44 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! I've started using them for my Camp NaNo characters. I honestly can't answer some of these for myself, so it'll be good to know.

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  2. Hi Josie! I'm glad you're enjoying them. Thank you : )

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    1. Ahhh my characters feel so developed now! It's much better than just their height, favorite color, and MBTI.

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    2. Soooo proud you're already using this! That's awesome!

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  3. Wow! Thank you! This post is one of the most helpful I've seen lately!
    Um, I can answer most of these, but some I haven't found out yet. I've only just started writing my newest book, so I'm still working these things out.
    I am definitely going to use this with all of my characters. These questions really dig deep... :D

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    1. Thank you GJE : ) I'm so happy you've found this helpful. I've found that people will sometimes struggle to answer a question but when I rephrase it a couple of times, they begin to feel more comfortable. In the past, I've asked friends pretend to be my character while I interview them. Lot's of fun! You should try it. I wish you the best.

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    2. You're welcome! That's a good idea! I'll ask my sister if she wants to try it with me... :D Thank you! Have you written any books?

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    3. Good for you! Have your sister dress the part, lol. That's what I used to do to my little sister. I've written mostly short stories for anthologies and magazines. That seems to be my niche, but I wouldn't mind trying my hand at a book one day. I'm working on a collection of creative nonfiction right now. Thank you for asking!

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    4. Thanx! I will!! I hope she'll cooperate. lol. I'll look up a few your stories. I'm not for sure that I'll ever become a full-time writer, but writing is totally something that I love doing. I've written several short stories but have yet to reveal them...

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    5. GJE - I wish you the best in whatever you decide to do!

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  4. Thank you for these wonderful tips! My writing needs a little polishing, but that's to be expected. :)
    Some of these questions, I can't answer myself, but I guess that's expected also. I'm on page 41 of my book. I look at other people's writing ad all of a sudden, mine doesn't look very good. :I
    I can't wait to use these tips! :)

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    1. Hi LHE - That's awesome that you're on page 41!!! Congrats. One of my rules is to never ever compare myself, and you shouldn't either. You have a destiny that no one else can fulfill! If you want to, you can go to my site and download my free gift, You Can be Brave - 7 steps for growing your confidence. I can't wait to see what you do! Let me know when you finish.

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    2. Hey, I know how self confidence goes . . . or lack of it. :I I tend to think this way a lot but then I remind myself that they didn't start out that good either, that their story had to go through thousands of revisions before it *became* that good. And getting to page 41 is awesome! I remember being so excited when I actually finished my first fan fiction that made sense, the first non short story I wrote. Keep going, keep at it, and don't be so hard on yourself. You're doing great, and I know you'll go far if you keep at it. I promise!
      *Sarah

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    3. Thank you, Mrs. Jones. I will let you know when I finish my book. I am so happy that I've gotten so far. This plot bunny has done me well. :)
      I'll check out your site! This pot has been helpful for me. Thank you!!!
      I really should stop comparing myself. it only makes me depressed

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    4. Sarah, you are so sweet. You have been very encouraging to me. You inspire me. :)
      You're right, they probably had to rewrite TONS of times. No one gets it perfect on their first try. I will be singing hallelujah when I get it done. I am tingling with anticipation. I am sure you were jumping with excitement! Yes, it will be hard to actually say "The End" to my book. :I
      Anyway, you are very inspiring and you give great advice. Thank you ever so much, Sarah! :)

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    5. LHE - You have made me feel super special today so never forget that you have the power to inspire others!

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    6. Aww, thank you, Mrs. Jones! You are a huge blessing. Ok, let's repeat: "I have the power to inspire others".

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    7. LHE, thank *you* for that! I've never been called an inspiration before and I'm honored you think that about me. I was having a really rough day today so this really made my day. And you're welcome, any time!
      *Sarah

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    8. Well, you ARE an inspiration. I'm glad that I made your day! :-)

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    9. LHE & Sarah, you both made my day! Seeing your enthusiasm and the way you "played it forward" is the very reason why I write. Blessing to you both in all your endeavors. I have a feeling you two will accomplish great things. : )

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    10. Thank you. I receive it! I hope my writing will prove a point and answer questions! Thank you for your encouragement and I hope your writing career grows and inspires many people!

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  5. This will be a lifesaver for me! I'm 57,000 words into this current book, and while I feel like I know my characters well they're not very three-dimensional. Thank you so much, Cindy!

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    1. You are very welcome. 57,000 words is quite an accomplishment. That's great!

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    2. 57,000 words?! You should get a medal. It's so hard to get all of your ideas down and sort through them. *which ones to put in the book your working on and which ones to ditch*
      I'm on page 41 of mine. The farthest I've gone is 68 pages, but that book was choppy. :|

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    3. I agree with LHE. I finished my first draft at 26,000-28,000 words.... I'm not sure how the fleshing out will work. :D

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  6. Great ideas, Cindy! Thanks so much--from a Southern writer who's a tad older than the teen writers here. I love this site--glad they welcome everyone. :)

    Blessings,
    Julie

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    1. I agree Julie! I love this site too. It doesn't discriminate : ). Seeing so many teens starting their dreams is very encouraging to me. I wished this site would've been around when I was a teen. I also enjoy connecting with other southern writers! Blessings to you and your work.

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  7. Great advice! I will definitely be saving this for the future.

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  8. This is great, I will certainly use these in fleshing out my characters. I've been using Character Interview suggested by the Helping Writers Become Authors site, but I keep adding new or different questions for myself to her list. Some of these will go on my list! I've finished one book I have to fix/add to so this will help on some of my pesky minor characters, main ones too. Thank you for such a helpful post!
    *Sarah

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    1. Hi Sara, You are welcome! You are so smart to start collecting questions now. I have files for questions that I find in magazine or web interviews. Some people collect trinkets, I collect questions. Congrats on finishing! You are on your way!

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  9. I'm not a fan of doing long character profiles, but these are some great interview questions! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi Lauren, I know what you mean. I've tried the long profiles before and feel completely overwhelmed. Now I journal for each new character and will go through this interviewing process of getting to know them rather than trying to create them. It works better for me. I hope these can help you too!

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  10. This is surprisingly hard to do.... I feel like I want to answer for myself, and not for my character. But it does give me some background....

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    1. Hi Lexi, Getting to know your character can be challenging but you will always leave a bit of yourself in each and that's ok. Hope your writing goes well!

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  11. Hi. I love your post. I'm sure it will come in handy in the future. But I have a question: How does drama create apathy? I always thought it would make characters sympathetic. Can you explain? Other than that, this is a great post and I've already begun to ask my characters these questions.

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    2. Hi, thank you so much! Yes, I can explain that very well. Apathy is the wrong word and that should have been sympathy. You have a keen eye and my mac dictation doesn't understand my southern accent, nor did I catch it. Thank you for pointing that out. You may have a future in editing. Message me if you're interested, lol, I need a price comp too.

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    3. One of these days, I might take you up on your offer :)

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  12. These are so great! I'm so excited to do this with my characters. It makes them seem so much more real. I really appreciate your taking your time to give us these pointers. It means a lot. Thank you!!

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    1. Hi Abigail, So glad you are enjoying them. Thank you for your sweet comment!

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