Interviewing a Character
11 04 2018
Interviewing is a technique I picked up in a workshop a few years ago. As a writer, I should know my character better than anyone, right? I created them, didn’t I? But how well do I really know them? I noticed that sometimes when writing a scene that I thought I had figured out, my character did something entirely unexpected. As a writer, I am a seat-of-the-pantser, meaning I allow a story and yes the characters to dictate the direction. For example: While I may have planned to have Joey lean towards Sheila and kiss her, and have this lead to a trip to bed or maybe a long-term relationship, Sheila had other ideas:
Sheila put her hand on Joey’s face and gently pushed him back. “Stop right there Joey. I like you and all, that’s why I came to dinner with you. You’re fun, and I like your humor. But you’ve got me all wrong. When it comes to lovers, I only take girls.”
Writing a scene with a character like Sheila was supposed to be simple. However, Sheila threw Joey (and me) a curve. Sheila took over, in effect saying “I have a story to tell too.” Time for an interview.
An interview can be done in a number of ways; I have a small bit of history in the legal field so I picture putting Sheila up on the witness stand and I act as a prosecutor trying to get to the bottom of who this character is.
Me: “So, Sheila, why would you go on a date with Joey then throw the fact that you are gay into his face just as things are getting juicy?”
Sheila: “Well, first off, Joey thought wrong. He never said anything that made me think he considered our dinner a date. I would have set him straight from the get-go. Second off, I can’t control what other people think. Anyway, we’ve had lunch a few times and he never even hinted he wanted to make a move on me. So this was dinner – why should that change things? The farthest thing from my mind was that he would try to kiss me. Kinda caught me by surprise. We’ve known each other for a while at work, he’s a nice guy, and I thought dinner would be nice to get to know him better. But I don’t need a lover, especially not a male lover.”
Me: “You do realize that you probably just set Joey’s self-esteem back a good way.”
Sheila: “Look, I fail to see how that’s my fault. Yeah, there was a misunderstanding, but I never did or said nothing to lead him to think I might be interested in him that way. If he had bothered to ask around, he would have known my preferences. Besides, Joey is his own person. As such he’s responsible for his thinking processes. He has to accept responsibility for his misunderstanding. If his self-esteem is so weak that I set him in a spin, then he has bigger problems than anything I could cause by protecting myself from his unwanted advances.”
If this was a story that I was invested in, the interview would continue. I would learn about her family, sexual choices and pry into why she followed the path she did. I would ask about her history with male lovers, had there ever been one? I suspect that Sheila would decide that answers to certain questions were none of my business. What I learned could enter the story, or it may provide insight and lead to a new plot line altogether. It might also cause me to drop the character as inappropriate. (I would also interview Joey and get his feelings on the situation.) One way or another the story hadn’t gone where I expected – forcing me to do some rethinking.
If you need character information, my point is: ask them. An interview is ideal for this. If the character has a dialect, they should use it in their responses to the questions. (Notice Shelia’s “…but I never did or said nothing to lead…“) If they have specific physical characteristics, say a twitching eye, a habit of rubbing their nose, those should show up in the interview as well. (A character should always remain in character.) If the character cannot answer the questions you have, they are probably the wrong choice to begin with.