Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Getting to Know Your Characters: An approach to learning their stories

I often get frustrated by conventional character development processes. The questions can be more like what a census agent would ask than what could benefit a writer. Now, bookkeeping questions have their place. Having answers to what eye color characters have, aspects of their education, where they fit into a family, etc. can come in handy around page 250 when you’ve forgotten. And these factual profiles are invaluable if you’re writing a series. But none of this says much about how the character will react under stress.
There are “prompt” questions like, what does your heroine carry in her purse? These can reveal some surprises in an indirect way, but only if they engage the imagination. Lists rarely are as informative as some teachers claim they are.
Then there are the flatfooted, mechanical questions. What’s your motivation? What’s your biggest fear? What’s you greatest talent? Biggest weakness? In context, these might tell you something about your character that’s important, and indirect answers can  lead to stories (which are good). Unfortunately, since the questions  always seem to be the same, the answers have the flavor of pop psychology or psychiatric evasion.
For me, the best way to gather information is to create an interview sheet for the individual character, keep things open ended, include what’s edgy, and listen. It’s okay to have a few fallback questions (or the equivalent) to get you going, but preparing thoroughly to interview your character is critical to success, just as it would be if you got the opportunity to interview a celebrity.
My most successful format is “tell me about,” with the focus being an experience that was bad. So here are some you might want to include:
  • Tell me about the worst date you ever had.       
  • Tell me about the most successful lie you ever told.   
  • Tell me about an adventure that went wrong.   
  • Tell me about a person whose loss left a hole in your life.
  • Tell me about your most embarrassing moment.  
  • Tell me about the time you remember when you came closest to death. 
  • Tell me about the biggest chance you screwed up.  

You can follow any of these up with, “Tell me about how that experience effects your behavior today.”
And most of these can be turned around to provide the character with the chance to reveal wonder, joy, honor, and insights. “Tell me about the best date you ever had.”
I always was entertained by the Pivot questions at the end of episodes of the Actor’s Studio. The answers were fun and, since the questions were known ahead of time, the interviewees were able to show off a bit. And I think, “What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?” led to some illuminating responses. But I always felt frustrated that I couldn’t ask my own questions. Perhaps they wouldn’t be answered by real people. In my experience, even characters need to be caught off guard.

1 comment:

  1. So true peter. Charters have a voice if you let them speak. I almost forgot that.