I knew I wasn’t crazy. (Hey, I saw that eye roll!) In her lecture about the interior life of our characters, young adult and middle grade author Coe Booth said, “Characters should exist before we know them. They should keep ‘talking’ when we aren’t writing about them.” Coe had no idea how good her words made me feel. I wasn’t the only one who thought that about my characters!
When I began my third middle grade novel, I interviewed the people I hoped would populate the story. My goal was to become better acquainted with my already-identified main character and his family as early in the novel-writing process as possible.
Why? Well, for one thing, we were going to spend a heck of a lot of time together. Why start out as strangers? Also (and this is a big ALSO), knowing my characters allows me to anticipate how they’ll think and feel in the situations I’ll plot for them.
Based on the interview outcomes for each player–primary and secondary–I compiled character sketches. Each character has a job to do and I had to know they were up for it. Slackers need not apply!
Oh sure, my characters have surprised me already–and that’s the fun part–but hosting that meet and greet for the entire cast at the outset made a big difference before we buckled up and motored into the unknown together.
Here’s my secret for a great character interview–turn off your inner censor. Unplug the darn thing and put your mouth on mute. Not unlike a brainstorming session where you agree there are no “good” ideas or “bad” ideas, the same must hold true as you query characters. LISTEN. Don’t interrupt or wonder if what they’re telling you is factual or even fits with the story you want to tell. Let your subconscious and your intuitive side have free rein. If you can do this, you will be amazed by what will surface. I recorded information about my characters and only afterward learned how the pieces fit together in powerful and significant ways I never could have planned or predicted.
Here are some sample character interview questions:
Who is your hero?
What’s your favorite day of the week? How come?
What’s under your bed?
What’s your earliest memory?
Do you have any allergies?
What candy is your all-time favorite?
If you could change your name, what would it be?
What’s your biggest fear?
What are you good at in school?
What do you wish you were good at?
When you look in a mirror, what part of your face do you like best?
What do you like to do when you get home from school?
Do you have a pet?
Do you have brothers or sisters?
How do you parents get along?
Who lives at your house?
What’s the best vacation or trip you’ve ever taken?
What seems unfair to you?
If you could live in another time in history, when would it be?
What ticks you off?
What rule would you change if you could?
What would happen if your best friend moved away?
What’s your least favorite chore at home?
Do you have a bad habit?
Do you like being hugged?
What would you do with $100?
Consider these questions for starters. I know you can think up even better ones (and please, feel free to share!)
Why not interview your characters too? Even if you’re mid-novel, it’s not too late to conduct an impromptu Q and A session. You may discover something that will add depth or quirkiness to your characters and “maybe” even help to explain why they do what they do (or aren’t cooperating).
But remember the secret–shift your censor into neutral. Let your characters delight, surprise and perplex you, and then they will do the same for your readers.
Every time I write a new book, I want to push myself to try something different. ~ Lauren Myracle