By Donna Schlachter
“Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. . . “
When I sit down to create characters for a new project, this tune runs through my head. This is one truth writers ought to embrace: we need to know our characters better than anybody in our book does. Better than our readers will know them by the time they finish reading.
If we don’t know our characters, we’ll tend to write flat, one-dimensional people, like paper dolls who are simply wearing an outfit called “their story”, and are as interchangeable as—well, a paper doll.
Another danger in not knowing our characters is we’ll write three chapters getting to know them, wasting paper and the reader’s time as we plow our way through their backstory, their history, until we finally get to the point where our story really starts, about halfway through Chapter 4.
There are many methods to get to know your characters. Some of these require you to sit down and fill out a questionnaire that would cause most of us to lose our minds or at the very least, our excitement about our stories. While the details and minutiae of these questionnaires might work for some, many of us will struggle to answer what our character’s third grade teacher said that made him decide to become a private investigator twenty years later.
Bored with filling out forms, making up answers to questions I hadn’t even thought of, and wanting to get on with the process of writing, I came up with a faster and more direct way to get to know my characters—I interview them.
I pretend I’m a famous talk show host and my character is a guest on my show. As a famous talk show host, I know everybody in the world will want to hear what I have to say and how I can make my character squirm on live TV. So I come up with questions that will cause said squirming because I know how the story goes and what secrets my character is trying to keep.
Go ahead. Be catty. Be devious. Dig up the dirt. What would someone who reads one of those supermarket tabloids want to know about your character? And why would your character not want to tell the truth, not want to break a confidence, not want you to know everything about them? Because characters are real people, and real people rarely tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Even good people hide some things, hold back some things, try to make themselves look good perhaps at the expense of another.
Here is a list of questions I typically ask to get started:
- How did you get the job you have?
- What’s your background that qualified you for that job?
- Tell me about ___________ (the inciting incident in the book).
- Tell me about ___________ (could be the love interest, the villain, the hero/heroine. Whoever is making this character’s life difficult or messy in some way)
- Tell me about ____________ (whatever you know your character doesn’t want to talk about. A past hurt, a secret, a rumor, an innuendo – anything that will make it look like this character isn’t telling all)
- Bring up a topic that’s in the news now, and tie it into this character and the plot in some way. For example, if the character is a forest ranger, and poaching by forest rangers is in the news, ask what he thinks should be done to poachers and then what should be done to poachers who are also guardians of the woodland. Watch him squirm.
- Ask what the character sees in his/her future.
By the time you ask and your character answers these questions, you should have a good idea of what motivates your character, what scares your character, what your character is trying to hide and why, the lie your character believes, what the internal and external conflicts are, and the growth arc of your character.
Feel free to drop by my blog and see a couple of character interviews I’ve posted there about the main characters of my historical suspense, Counterfeit Honor. Here are the links: https://historythrutheages.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/interview-with-margaret-buchanan/ and https://historythrutheages.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/interview-with-trevor-mcgonigle/
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The bio is:
Donna writes historical suspense and, using her alter-ego of Leeann Betts, she writes contemporary suspense. Check her out at www.HisStoryThruTheAges.com or www.LeeannBetts.com. Subscribe to her blogs at www.HiStoryThruTheAges.Wordpress.com or www.AllBettsAreOff.Wordpress.com You can follow her and Leeann on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.