Designing Character Interviews That Really Matter (Including Genre-Inspired Questions)

This post, by Juliette Wade, originally appeared on TalkToYoUniverse on 12/17/12.

I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of character-interview posts, but I’m hoping this one won’t be like most you’ve seen elsewhere, so stick with me. I’m writing it as an update and expansion of one of my most popular posts of all time, “Know Your Character Inside and Out.” The post will have two parts: first, a discussion of what criteria make questions more useful and less pointlessly trivial, and below that, a list of questions that deal with world and identity, and with genre (so you can skip down if you like).

Okay, so why should you conduct a mock interview with your character? What is it that makes a character interview more than just a bunch of random silly questions?

You can learn a lot from an interview if you conduct it the right way. The first thing to do is to think about who you are as an interviewer. You are the author who will be telling this character’s story, so the questions you want answered have to do with the character and his/her role in that story. You won’t be wanting to ask the kinds of questions that a neighbor or relative might ask, or the kinds of questions that an entertainment TV interviewer might ask. It’s possible you may have some overlap between your own questions and those types of questions, but only if there is neighbor, relative, or TV entertainment content in your story.

You will want to ask the kinds of questions that help you understand your character and where he/she fits in his/her world. Don’t ask what an alien thinks of coffee, for example, unless that alien will be encountering coffee in the story. You will want to know about what kinds of expectations your character holds, because story events will be judged on the basis of those expectations, and you can construct a backstory based on the type of expectations that person needs to have. You will want to know a lot about your character’s emotions, because emotions are what give dynamics to your story. The questions you choose should grow out of what you already know about the plot and conflict, and the needs of the story, which will differ according to genre. Here are some of the many things that interconnect for a character:

world, culture, personal history, psychology, judgment, reaction, motive, action

You can enter into this web at any point, but from there you should follow the interconnections to get insight into other areas.

Before I head into the questions, let me make one last point about judgment. Judgment to me is one of the most important things you can understand about a character. This does not necessarily mean that you have to show or explain that character’s judgment on the page (I like to, personally) but people need to have reasons why they do the things they do. For that reason, I like to angle my interview questions to elicit judgments, not just information. For example, I think “how many brothers and sisters do you have” is a far less helpful question than, “What do you think of your family members?” Answers to the first type of question will be numbers. Answers to the second could range from “I don’t think about my family at all because I’m too busy” to “Every time I think of my eldest brother, terrifying memories well up in me and I can’t bear to think about it.”

The last suggestion I will make is that you should always let your character answer in the first person, because that means you’ll be more likely to discover things about character voice as you go along.

The Interview Questions

Read the rest of the post on TalkToYoUniverse.