"I always begin with a character or characters, and then try to think up as much for them as possible.” – John Irving
There’s no doubt that one of the most important aspects of a good book is a good, solid character – or cast of characters. The believability of the main character is one of the first things I notice about a book when I read it for the first time. How an author presents a character through thoughts and dialogue are important.
As the staff journalist for a weekly newspaper, I’ve been privy to hear literally hundreds of stories from various people over the years. I get a first-hand peek at people’s lives and to see why they are the way they are. I’m paid to pay attention to how they string their words together to tell their stories.
Not only have these stories given me a steady supply of inspiration and ideas to implement in my fiction, but because the words used to tell those original stories are coming from real people, I’ve been able to pick up on speech patterns that are used in every day situations and in turn have been able to write real dialogue for my characters.
I’ve done this through a tool called interviewing.
Interviewing is basically having a conversation with another person in which you have the chance to learn something that you didn’t know before.
Throughout this post, there are a few things you need to keep in mind: Asking questions is an art form. It is a valuable skill – knowing how to ask the right questions – a skill that takes time to master. And just like any form of art (music, drawing, writing, etc.) to get better, you must practice.
Recently, I did an interview for my job where I had just a few minutes’ notice. I had hardly any time to learn what I was going to be interviewing about. I didn’t know anything about my subject and had no time to research it before I left. I didn’t even know what I should have been asking.
It wasn’t a disaster, but the interview was all over the place. Because I’ve learned to improvise over the years (this wasn’t a first-time thing), I got what I needed to do the story but I had no control of the direction of the conversation. Therefore, when I got back to the office, it took me twice as long as it should have to write the article.
Know your subject.
“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” – E.L. Doctorow
You have got to know your characters. No exception. To tell a really convincing tale, learn your characters inside and out. The difference between discovering who your characters are before you begin to write and learning them as you go is a matter of preference and a matter of time.
When writing fiction I sometimes feel like I did the other day at the newspaper office; flailing around with words, uncertain of which ones to use or even of what story I am telling. It will begin to feel like the process is taking twice as long as it should, because I’m taking more of a stab at the dark to see what will work rather than taking the time to plan it out and really get to know my own story before I start to write.
I think it’s some mark of success when I can have an actual conversation in my head with my characters.
Research a little.
“I have tried every device I know to breathe life into my characters, for there is little in fiction more rewarding than to see real people interact on a page.” – James A. Michener
An interview is only as good as you are prepared. Don’t be afraid to dig around a little.
Go some place public and listen to and watch how people interact. Watch their body language, listen to their words. If you get a chance, actually do an interview with someone. Author interviews are great for this.
Then read and read widely. See what other published authors have written and use it as inspiration and as a guide. Try reading outside of your own genre, but think of your favorites too. I am constantly turning to my favorite authors for inspiration.
A great book is Breathing Life Into Your Characters by Rachel Ballon Ph.D. As a dual writing consultant and psychotherapist, Ballon talks throughout her book about having to look at the emotional and psychological depth of your characters in order to make them real to your readers. (If you haven’t read this book yet, I suggest you do so, and soon.)
“Reason can answer questions, but imagination has to ask them.” – Dr. Ralph Gerard
To know your characters really well, you have to ask them lots of questions. You dig down to who your character really is the same way you conduct an interview. You ask questions.
So sure, you have basically six words to work with here – who, what, when, where, why, and how – but you can get insanely creative with those questions. (A great example of being insanely creative is this blog series of questions for your characters by A.M. Schultz.)
Be prepared to go deep here. You may find that your characters will refuse to answer. If they won’t give you the answer to the question you ask, find out why. Keep asking around the corner until you’re satisfied that you have a genuine answer that reveals something about your character’s character.
Take capacious notes.
“Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin.” – Mel Brooks
Once you begin asking questions you need to be ready, with pen in hand, to take notes and to be surprised. After all, while your characters are just an extension of yourself, they are also fiercely individual.
Pay attention to what your characters are saying and how they’re saying it in your head. Don’t ignore what your characters want to say, because their voice is the one that should be heard in the finished product, not yours.
Some of the ways you can “take notes” are by making character profiles (self-explanatory) and doing writing exercises. Actually write out the answers to an interview with your main character, as if they’re writing it to you.
Then to test the theory, take your main character out of his natural environment and see how he reacts: Got a centaur living in an enchanted, medieval woodland? Pluck him out of that setting and drop him on to a busy city street. See how he reacts. (This example actually inspired one of my favorite scenes in my current WiP.)
What are some of the questions you would ask your main character in an exclusive interview?