Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Getting Past Your Character’s Defenses — One way to find your deep story

I’m a big advocate of interviewing characters. I find it gets me closer to who they really are than answering descriptive questions or creating biographies. Some characters like to talk. They’ll tell you who they are and what they care about freely. Others are reluctant, but their resistance is telling. It often gives me a lot to work with as I read between the lines. And the bonus is that I can use their style of evasion in the stories. No one skirts the truth in exactly the same way.

Then there are the problem characters who often end up being the most interesting. These are the ones who appear to answer every question easily, without ever revealing the ground truth. They may have an alternate or nicely spun counter story. Or they may be expert and providing answers that are at only a few layers deep.

In every case, their actual stories are worth pursuing. Whatever is guarded and secret turns out to be the reason the story was written. The sprites, hidden in the back of my mind, set everything in motion. It is up to me to figure that out.

I don’t always succeed. I’ve gone back to look at completed works and discovered, too late in many cases, that I missed actions and statements that should have raised questions. Sometimes the faintest of hints point to possibilities that just never occurred to me.

Most of my successes have come from taking closer looks at actions that don’t quite add up. Or more reasonable choices that characters avoided. Or a connection I hopped past in the first reading of a draft.

I have discovered that my surest way to uncover hidden dimensions of my stories is to trust my gut. How that happens in practice is I listen (text-to-speech) to every draft of my stories, follow along in the text, and I mark every time something feels weird or raises questions or sparks my curiosity. This is a great way to find and consider what is hidden and improve the next draft.

It often necessitates a lot of rewriting, and it sometimes means only the kernel of a draft fits the higher level version. The results are good, but I’m experimenting with returning to the interviews so I can get to the essence of the secret designs and themes before so much time and effort is invested in the draft.

Note: Finding only 50 pages or deep value in a 350-page manuscript can be agonizing, but taking a step toward the story that was always meant to be and is better than you imagined is worthwhile. I’d prefer to avoid that sacrifice, but I’m willing to make it for quality.


The problem — Clever characters with excellent (genius?) defenses.

The possible efficient solution — Probing interviews.

  • Always suspect the character won’t tell you the whole story, but accept what’s said as true. A good model is the improv approach of using whatever you’re given. Saying “yes.”
  • Be the good cop. Don’t try to browbeat anything out of your character.
  • Convince yourself that you have only the character’s best interests in mind. You want to tell his or her story as fully and authentically as possible.
  • Be curious. That will help you to really listen.
  • Create open questions. Many of these are in past posts, but 1) have your top ten listed and organized to get the best responses you can imagine, and 2) don’t get committed to how questions are expressed or ordered. Chances are you’ll have the adjust as the interview proceeds.
  • Consider including an icebreaker that will put your character at ease.
  • Imagine a good setting for the interview.
  • If it helps, write a letter to your character to request the interview and let him or her know the purpose.
For me, the character I’m interviewing is as real as a real-life person. Try to get close to that. If the character feels made-up, ask for an anecdote before questioning. I like to hear about birthday parties for some reason.

  • Ask open ended questions. I usually develop no more than ten. I try to ask those that will (eventually) reveal relationships, motivations, and feelings.
  • Follow up on what piques your interest or prompts your intuition.
  • Be aware of shifts away from topic. These are great in a regular conversation, but they are likely to be designed in an interview to end a path of inquiry. The more intriguing the shift, the more probable it is that you got close to the truth you’re seeking.
  • Don’t challenge deceptions directly. Instead, ask for more if you can.
  • Never express your own interpretation of an answer. Discover the character’s interpretation.
  • Keep the character you’re interviewing interested. If answers seem stock and rehearsed, your questions aren’t good enough.
  • Read over the answers and mark anything that feels different or exciting.
  • Put a mark in a different color on anything that especially pleases you. Some of those answers will be valuable as written. Others will be appealing distractions, created by the character to hide the truth. The hidden truth probably will come to you as you explore what an honest answer might be.
There is a workaround that is an easier than an interview to get past defense. Use real people. When I wrote a historical novel, I got to know the characters from what they had written and what had been written about them. The “ahas” about secrets they’d never have shared came across during research.

I haven’t tried it, but I suspect direct observations can lead to a similar experience of character satori. Currently, I’m reading Neil Simon’s Memoirs, and it looks like basing characters he knew extremely well provided true north in his stories. (I think he based six characters, including Felix Unger, on his brother Danny.)

By all means, take the reality route if it doesn’t get in the way of storytelling. But, even if you use historical figures and the people around you for characters (more people claim to be Holly Golightly than claim to be the Fifth Beatle), you may find that probing questions provide better information for your stories.

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