Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How Journalism Can Make You a Better Novelist – The Art of Interviewing

‘A Lesson From the Newsroom’ Series: Part 1 (read the introduction here)

"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.)

Ask away.

“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?


  1. Great post, lots of good info here!

  2. You are one smart lady! And this post is great... I read every single word. It's been a while since you've written something of this length with so many in-depth details, and I loved every second. Thank you, Amanda, for sharing your knowledge with us!

    1. Thanks for that Katie! I'm thankful to you and everyone for reading! Hopefully I'll be able to keep up the series ;)

  3. I am preparing to participate in Camp NaNoWriMo beginning on August 1. I am going to write the rough draft of a novel I've been thinking about for some time now. I plan to interview my main characters in preparation for camp. Thanks for the article.

    1. I'm not doing Camp NaNoWriMo this August, but just did JuNoWriMo and am planning on NaNoWriMo (the big one!) When you interview your characters, if you post them to a blog or something, send me the link! I'd love to see how you're going to do that.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. I used to do page design and interviewing for my school paper in high school. It was always so much easier (and worthwhile) to get information if they interview played out more like a conversation. If the person you're talking to doesn't really acknowledge that you're drilling them for information, they'll likely give you what you need more easily. I've also been planning to do a character interview for my blog when I publish "Ivy League" next month.

    1. Right you are Chris! I look forward to seeing some of your character interviews :) Write on!

  5. Sorry it took me so long to comment on this post -- I was busy changing my ethnicity by sunning on the beach.

    That said, this is excellent. Some of those quotes as brilliant, and the piece as a whole speaks volumes on character creation. As you know, I like to ask my characters goofy little things, forcing them to answer questions I wouldn't answer on my own.

    "“Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin.” – Mel Brooks"

    This quote was my favorite. We all have the dorky teenage girl, the egotistic football star, the crazed serial killer, the pageant queen, the dirty politician, the saintly altruist, the awkward dog, all under our skin, floating around as part of our collective DNA. It's part of us -- every clip we watch, news article we read, movie we see, book we devour, we add a layer to our imagination. Characters MAKE life, and they make fiction. I often think I'd love to live reclusively on a private island, but I'd get bored because the characters I meet unexpectedly each day are more interesting than the characters I would allow myself to create.

    1. Hey AM - good to read from you again! (no worries – hope you didn’t get a sunburn…I still remember mine from earlier this year when camping) Thank you for reading and for commenting. As always, such insight! It is so true that our daily interactions with the world are what develop us as humans and what helps develop our characters in turn.

      P.S. Looking forward to the next installment of your question series.


Thanks for joining the conversation! Subscribe by email to get updates in your inbox or follow this blog!