One of the hardest parts of writing an effective story is crafting incredible, believable characters. There have been many times that I have been guilty of forgetting a character’s eye colour, a piece of their background, etc. You may be best friends with main character, but even I sometimes forget some key (and not-so-key) details about my best friends!
The new year has just begun and I know a lot of writers will be tackling new projects – novels, sequels, short stories. If you want to craft a great story, you need strong characters. One of the tools I have picked up along the way that has drastically improved the character depth and development in my current works in progress is the character interview.
Also known as the character questionnaire for those who have bad memories of job interviews, this tool is just as it sounds: you are grilling your character(s) with questions. Now it is a little unfair, because they don’t actually get to answer. That is your job as their creator, to put forth answers for them. You will quickly find that you are writing a lot more than you thought you knew about your character, even if you are making some of it up on the spot. And unlike many exercises, a character interview will most likely reveal more tidbits for you to incorporate into your work, beyond just having a stronger character.
There are plenty of interview questions you can find online and I am sure you can think of some of your own. I will list off a few of the basics and my favourites here, though.
The Basics – These are usually short (sometimes even one-word) answers that establish the foundation.
- What is your name? Do you have any nicknames?
- Do you have any scars or distinguishing marks on your body?
- Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
- Have you ever been in love? Are you currently in love?
- What are your hair, eye, and skin colours?
- Are you religious?
- Who is your best friend?
- Tell me about your family.
Deeper Questions – Here you really get to know the inner workings of your character.
- What motivates you to do what you do?
- What is your deepest fear? Where does this fear stem from?
- What do you consider your greatest achievement? Your greatest failure?
- What is a defining moment in your life that has helped shape you into who you are today?
- What quality do you most like about yourself? Which do you despise?
- When is it okay to lie?
- Do you have a motto or mantra?
- How would you like to die?
Unorthodox Questions – These may seem silly, even useless. Save them for your main characters to really get a thorough understanding of them.
- When you think of your childhood, what image immediately comes to mind? What smell?
- You wake up to a fire in your apartment/house; which three items do you carry out with you
- You are going out with some friends. Where do you go, what do you wear, and what do you drink?
- Do you write with your right or left hand?
- What are you social and political views?
How in-depth you would like to go depends on the character. For main characters, even for short stories I currently have in the works, expect the interview to span multiple pages, even if it is just a few questions! Answering all the above, and it is by no means a comprehensive list, would put many main characters in the double-digit pages. For secondary characters, you may wish to tone it down a bit. Perhaps cover some of the basics and a few of the deeper questions to get you started.
One page that I did come across during my research for this was the 100+ Questions to Help You Interview Your Character article. It is more of a template than an interview, but allows for a wide array of details you might not have otherwise thought of… Like head shape!
For those of you who write: How do you go about getting to know your character more? What questions do you ask them?
For those of you who read: If you could ask your favourite character one question, what would it be?
Leave your answers in the comment section below!