I wrote a post a few years ago for my friend, author Lynne Marie, about interviewing your characters. In it, I suggest that to really get to know a deeper layer of your character, an interview should have two phases. First, the regular set of questions asked. And next, the same questions asked Whilst Under A Truth Serum. This has always been a helpful exercise for me. It helped me to write my characters, while knowing a deep truth that they themselves often didn’t.
Then, two summers ago, I went to a revision intensive with Emma Dryden during the SCBWI summer conference in LA. Emma took us through a great interview exercise. I had recently started developing my current WIP and thought it the right time to interview my new main character and get to know her a little better. The first question was What are You Most Afraid of?
And an interesting thing happened.
Here’s how that interview went:
Kat: What are you most afraid of, Finn?
Kat: Uh, Finn?
Finn: (folds arms and stares at the ground)
Kat: Emma Dryden is waiting, Finn – I’m going to need an answer.
Finn: You know that at my school they give you a star every time you do your homework.
There’s a Kid of the Week every week. And at the end of every year, there’s a Moving Up
to the next grade.
Finn: If everything is always Special – it just means that nothing is special at all.
What became interesting to me was not the true feeling beneath all the posturing and attitude. It was the actual posturing and attitude. I was the writer. I already knew what the truth was. Now what fascinated me was the ways in which she chose to cloak her truth. The ways in which she chose to represent herself – regardless of what that truth was. What she showed the world despite what was inside.
This led me to thinking of alternate interview techniques. What are the different ways your main character would respond to the exact same question if it were asked by different people – with whom they had very different relationships.
Rather than being the Interviewer, I sent other characters from the story to ask for me:
The new yet-to-be-trusted school psychologist
The detached father at the end of a long day.
The best friend, writing letters from afar.
The stranger she will never see again.
The clueless younger sibling
I wanted to know whom she would trust. To whom she would lie. And particularly for whom she would create the most inventive answers.
No one wants to read about a one note character. Like people in the real world, the characters we are drawn to tend to have little hidden corners and nooks where they keep treasure and trash, secrets and sadness, joy and hilarity. Figuring out how your character
responds to the same question, under different circumstance, will give you tremendous insight on how to navigate them through the tricky travels of your story.
Did I necessarily use all this information in my manuscript? Perhaps not verbatim. But the answers will all be there, woven in the choices my character makes and the actions she takes.
And good luck getting to know your characters.
Mine is currently grounded in her room.
(But I kinda have a feeling she will sneak out the window.)
Kat Yeh grew up reading, doodling, and scribbling in Westtown, Pennsylvania. She worked for many years in advertising and sports marketing — while writing for herself in the wee hours of the night. She currently lives on Long Island where she can see water everyday and explore all the bay and harbor beaches with her family. She is the author of children’s books YOU’RE LOVABLE TO ME, Random House Books for Young Readers (2009), THE MAGIC BRUSH: A STORY OF LOVE, FAMILY, AND CHINESE CHARACTERS, Walker Books for Young Readers (2011), and THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (coming January 2015!), and THE FRIEND SHIP, Disney-Hyperion (coming 2016)!
Check out the Exercise Book for Kat’s character interview exercise!
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