Interviewing Characters

I learn a ton when I interview my characters. Over the years, I’ve compiled a set of questions for them, such as…

What are your parents’ expectations of you?
Where do you belong? Feel most at home?
What do you deserve? What are your inalienable rights?
What makes you feel worthy?
What sorts of circumstances unnerve you? Describe one.
Tell me about a defining moment in your life.

Etc., etc. It goes on for a bit. Author Gigi Amateau told me that she concludes her interviews with, “Hey [character], I’m here for you. What do you want from me? How can I help?”

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie

Last week I interviewed one of my characters, a teenage boy who has asked other kids at summer music camp to call him Dizzy Gillespie in honor of the great jazz musician. It was an awesome interview. The kid told me how he stands up to bully-types but feels nervous when he does, how his connection with a particular dog makes him think about reincarnation and parallel realities. I won’t necessarily use these tidbits in the novel, but it’s good stuff to know about him. He rambled and I listened, and my fingers flew fast over the keyboard.

When I ended with Gigi’s question, he surprised me. Dizzy said, “You can help by writing me into more scenes. Get me out of the background and onto center stage. I’m the character who’s bringing this story to life. Kids are going to read this book for me, and the sooner you recognize that, the better your book will be.”

Wow. I had to smile. I love this guy! Up until now, Dizzy has been a strong secondary character—a force to reckon with—and his actions have done wonders for moving the plot forward. But he’s not the protagonist. I’ve thought of him as laid back and cool, and haven’t noticed how intensely competitive he is. Now I get that if he doesn’t get his way, he’ll try to steal every scene I put him in. He’s dangerous, and I’m loving it. I’m having a blast writing this novel.

When was the last time you interviewed your characters?

4 thoughts on “Interviewing Characters”

  1. Love this post and the question: “Hey [character], I’m here for you. What do you want from me? How can I help?”

    I need to interview my character. His voice is a bit shaky right now, and i don’t think he’s happy with that! Thanks for the reminder to do this!

  2. Gigi also asks her characters: what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? That question rattles me, and my characters tend to have trouble with it. See if it works for yours.

  3. A.B, I love every new post from you that pops into my inbox! How cool that you tried the “I’m here for you; how may I help you” question. That idea was inspired by a meditation practice offered by Thich Nhat Hanh . He suggests that we approach ourselves and people dear to us meditatively with this thought: “Darling, I know you suffer, and I’m here for you. How may I help you?” I really do like the practice with characters, too. Here’s a link:

  4. Gigi – This is great. I went to Thich Nhat Hanh’s website, and loved the focus on mindfulness and community. In the Oprah interview, I lingered on the idea of being present with someone… being present with our characters… wanting to share everything with those we love… Wonderful stuff here. Thank you!

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