Character Basics: The Interview

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A couple of weeks ago I posted about the Snowflake Method of outlining. Part of the process involves developing your characters using a character sketch so I thought I’d explore what that means, at least in my own process.

Back in the day when I ran a Star Trek fan-fiction writing group I had a character biography form that participants used to define their characters. Having a standard form helped group members to collaborate. In most cases characters in the group were Star Fleet Officers, so that form was a lot like a CV (resume for American readers). It mostly gave career background and a little bit of family / personal information and it was a very effective method of creating and getting to know a character. This is a habit I’ve never really been able to break, although these days my character sheets are a lot less formal. I’ll explain my method here, but by all means, use and abuse as much or as little as you find helpful. Whatever works for you is the best method – there are no hard and fast rules here.

My starting point is almost always what a character looks like. I’m generally quite a visual person and it’s often how a character looks that comes to me first. I like Pinterest for visual inspiration (I wrote a post about it here). I maintain a few writing related boards so any time I come across an interesting face or a photo of a person that might inspire a character I save it. Searching for hair styles or fashion is also really useful as inspiration for characters, and of course celebrity photos as well.

Probably as part of the visual inspiration I will also be thinking about physical factors such as age, height, hair and eye colour, ethnicity, build and physique or weight. Looking at a photo might also inspire a name: “This person looks like a Jane.” or “What kind of name fits this kind of face?” By the time I’ve got an idea of what my character looks like I’ll also have the basics of who they are. Next comes the really hard work. Next you have to get inside your character’s head and this is when I deploy “The Interview”.

I’m not even kidding. Think of it like you work for a magazine, or you’re looking to hire someone for a job. You get the basic information plus a head shot sent over by the employment or talent agency. You meet the person in a hotel or coffee place or office and sit them down and start asking questions.

When it comes to the character interview I begin with a list of questions I know I want answers to. The list varies depending on the character I’m profiling and the story I going to tell. I will almost always ask about parents, siblings and wider family. I might ask about job, hobbies, what they would do if they could. I ask about their likes and dislikes, what they’re afraid of etc. Eventually my character will give me answers I don’t expect.

Of course, in practical terms when I interview my characters I’m not conducting a spoken interview (although if it works for you, do it). I usually sit at a desk or table with my chosen photo in front of me (usually on my laptop screen or iPad) and a pad and a couple of different colours of pen. I find it helpful to write the question in blue or black and write the answer in a colour; something about making the physical switch helps me to also make the mental switch out of my own mindset and into the character.The ink colour depends on the character – as long as it’s not a standard blue or black ink. I write out the question, swap pens and then sit for a few seconds and really think about who the character is before I decide on and write down the answer. I write it as purely as I can, thinking about exactly what my character would say if ask that question. If the answer leaves room for expansion I write down the follow-up. I try to let it progress as naturally as I can, asking whatever question I want the answer to, even if I think it’s not relevant to the story because one of those answers might well prove to be the key to developing the plot.

And yes, I write the interview rather than type it.

When I’m done I boil it all down into one typed sheet, although I always keep all the handwritten notes anyway. This typed character sheet contains the information I may need to reference quickly but the exercise itself is the real purpose.

If you google Character Questionnaire you will get thousands of results with hundreds of example questions as a starting point (I quite like The Script Lab’s questionnaire here) but it doesn’t really matter what questions you ask and what answers you get, what I find really beneficial is figuring out how my character thinks. It’s too easy to write every character as if they’re me. This is an exercise in trying to escape my own head, my own thoughts, my own opinions and it’s almost always really valuable.

Do you use character sheets? How do you put them together? Have you ever interviewed a character?

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