Monday, December 17, 2012

Designing character interviews that really matter (including genre-inspired questions)

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

Worldbuilding and Identity Questions
These questions are potentially useful for all writers, not just those who work in created worlds like those in science fiction and fantasy. The goal here is to establish what the character considers normal, because stories generally rely on pushing their characters outside the normal, and their reactions to stress will change depending on what they do consider normal.

1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries? How would it affect me if I needed to leave it?

2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What conditions would cause me to react with strong emotions such as fear, awe, wonder, or discomfort?

3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort? Is physical exertion normal for me, or difficult, or somehow socially disparaged?
4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What architecture, vistas, shapes, or textures give me comfort, or discomfort?

5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both? What expectation of respect for authority did I grow up with? Did I accept it or struggle with it? How do my current circumstances compare?

6. How do I show who I am in the way I maintain my appearance? How far do my social and economic circumstances allow me to control how I appear to others? What clothing or adornment feels comfortable to me? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of meeting social expectations of beauty or power?

7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?

8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?

9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?

10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?

11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?

12. How do I prefer to express my emotions? Do I express them verbally, or through action? Do I hide them from others? Do I hide them from myself? What expressions of emotion are considered acceptable in my society, and how has this influenced my emotional strategies?

13. How do I feel about social interaction? Does it feed me or drain me? Do I expect to have many people around me, or few? Do I expect those people to be relatives, people I know, or strangers? How do I feel about being alone?

Genre-Inspired Questions
The following questions are inspired by some of the issues that become central in different fiction genres. Be aware that these are not useful exclusively to the genres listed, but can certainly apply across genres as well, depending on their relevance.

Science Fiction
  • How do I react to things I have never seen before? 
  • Do I respond to the unknown with curiosity or fear, or both? 
  • How do I react to swift change?
  • How do I visualize the future?
  • How do I feel about the past - including my own past history, the history of my society and its technology?
  • What is my definition of "the latest" technology? How do I feel about it? Where do I imagine it going?

  • What is my emotional response to privation? To physical danger? 
  • What kinds of equipment do I consider indispensable, and why?
  • Am I good at thinking on my feet? 
  • How important are team members to me? How much might I sacrifice for them?

  • What do I find attractive? Unattractive?
  • How do I define masculinity and femininity? How do I respond to those qualities emotionally or physically?
  • How do I respond emotionally to the sensation of physical arousal?
  • Do I have any physical or mental quirks that might influence my sensual life?

  • What am I afraid of?
  • What do I find creepy?
  • What contributes to my most extreme feelings of anxiety, and what factors might contribute to creating a spiral of growing fear?
  • How do I feel about the fear of others? Is it worthy of scorn, inspiring of courage, or inspiring of greater fear in myself?

I realize that this list, in spite of all the things I've covered, is incomplete. For example, since I'm not a horror aficionado, I'm sure I've missed some great questions for that genre. I welcome other questions to be proposed in the comments. If you'd like to see some other great interview questions, you can look back at my post Knowing Your Character Inside and Out, and at Nicola Morgan's questions on Help! I Need a Publisher!
I hope this list has given you some useful ideas about how to explore your characters through interviews. Good luck!


  1. thank you so list of questions as well as the questions you posted and added to by Nicola Morgan are helping me work wonders with my ideas for my characters.

    1. I'm so pleased, ramanda429. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thank you so much!!! This sounds like it could really help me with one of my characters that I've been stuck on forever!

    1. Oh, you're welcome, Dolly! I hope it's helpful.