Interview Your Main Characters For More Depth And Realism
Seeing the Light
I have a confession to make. It’s an embarrassing confession so I ask that you be gentle in your judgment of me. I should have known better. I mean, it’s not like I don’t understand how important it is, but for whatever reason I simply failed to take the most elementary of steps. Yes I am a professional writer and yes, I was a teacher; both of those facts only underline how monumental this mistake was, and further add to my shame.
For you, the reader and fellow writer, my mistake could be a bonus. By watching me squirm upon the sacrificial pyre of self-loathing, perhaps you will learn and never have to follow in my ignominious footsteps. That is my hope for you.
Let me give you a little background before I give specifics.
I am writing a novel. I have written a novel before. It is not as though I am unfamiliar with the steps to take in the process. In fact, I have written articles explaining the novel-writing process, so there is no possible excuse for what I have done. This is surely a case of “do what I say and not as I do” because Lordy, I really screwed up this time by not following my own advice.
My current novel has been going well thank you very much. I am now 50,000 words into it and the storyline is very clear in my brain. I was feeling quite full of myself this Friday as I took a break from the novel and spent some time reflecting.
And then it hit me with the force of an F5 tornado….I didn’t know my main character.
Halfway through my novel and I came to realize that my main character, one Toby King, is a complete stranger to me. I wouldn’t recognize him on the street if I passed him. Put me in a room with Toby and six other people and I wouldn’t know who he was. Seriously! I know what he looks like (kind of) and I know what has happened to him in the past, and I know what is going to happen to him in the future, but I don’t know WHO HE REALLY IS.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!
And that, quite obviously, explains why I have not been happy with the dialogue in my book to date. Every time Toby speaks in my book I am left with a feeling of emptiness, and that just will not do when that character is the person carrying the ball throughout the novel….in fact, this is a character-based novel, so you probably now can see what a huge problem this is.
So I needed to meet Toby and in fact interview him.
Do You Know Your Characters?
It turns out this is a fairly common problem with writers who attempt a novel. Many a writer has found themselves in the same shoes I now wear, cast adrift, not knowing their characters well enough and floundering aimlessly in a sea of words.
One way to form a bond with your characters is to sit down with them and write out an interview, just as you would do if interviewing a real-life person for a magazine article. I thought you might find it helpful if I shared with you my interview with Toby King.
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“Toby, I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me. I have to tell you, interviewing someone in Bob’s Java Jive is a first for me. Tell my readers why we are meeting here in a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon.”
“Hey Bill, it’s my pleasure, and thanks for driving down here. Why here? Because this is my home, man, both figuratively and literally. I was born in Portland and this will always seem like home to me. As for the Java Jive, well, I’m a roadside poet. This is where I read my work; this is where I connect with the people; this is my home away from home if you catch my drift. If it’s not the Java Jive then it’s Bob’s Roadside Grill in Topeka, or any of a thousand other different wayside stops.”
“That’s all well and good, Toby, but let’s be honest, you are a pretty famous writer. You have a Pulitzer Prize and several best-selling books to your credit. I would expect to find you on Good Morning America and not in a coffee shop. You have to admit that’s a bit different for a celebrity.”
The interview is interrupted while Toby laughs about my last statement.
“Bill, my celebrity status and four bucks will get you a nice vanilla mocha here at the Jive. That’s the thing about fame, my man; it’s about as fleeting as you can find in life. I had it all and I lost it all. What it all comes down to is the quality of the man himself. Nothing else matters. To these people I’m just Toby King, homegrown boy who is here to entertain them for a night and shoot the shit afterwards. Hopefully what I have to read to them will inspire them, or jumpstart their brains, or encourage them to go out and do some good in this world; but at the end of the day I’m just a guy trying to walk a path he can live with.”
“Do you mind if we talk a little about your past?”
“Not at all, Bill. Fire away.”
“I know from reading your book that you have had a pretty tough life. Most people would have some bitterness because of those hardships. I guess what I’m asking is how you handle all that has happened to you?”
“Bill, my life compared to some was a piece of cake. A tough life is a single mother of three who has to work two jobs just to put food on the table, with no prospects of change on the horizon. A tough life is being born into poverty in some third world nation, not knowing if you’ll see the age of twelve. My life wasn’t tough; what it was….was just life. You either deal with it my friend or you don’t. You either learn from it or you don’t. It’s always our choice. Have I had some tough times? Most definitely! But remember that many of my problems were a result of my own actions, so to sit around and moan about it would be a bit ridiculous, don’t you think?”
And so it goes…..
Try It, You Might like It
You may not be comfortable doing this. It might seem a bit whacko to you and that’s all well and good. Writers have to do what works for them. In the final analysis we are the ones in control of our writing destiny. All I know is that this little exercise allowed me to know my main character a bit better, and that in turn allowed my story to acquire more depth and substance.
Whatever you do….whatever method you try….remember that your main characters are the vessels that carry your story. If they do not appear real to the reader then you might as well not write the book.
I’m just trying to keep you from making the same embarrassing mistake as I made.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”