As a blogger about writing, it probably comes as no surprise that I dabble with story myself. I recently read K.M Weiland's 'Outlining Your Novel' as I am looking to scrap and restart an old project. K.M. Weiland takes a non- prescriptive approach to outlining, recognising that writers are an idiosyncratic bunch, and that each one of us needs to develop our own approach to outlining. What Weiland does brilliantly is to describe her own process and to offer other strategies that may appeal to others.
One of the strategies that she uses herself and recommends is the character interview. Weiland has developed a comprehensive 100 question interview on her blog and you can get it here. I decided that I would give it a go as a part of my own process.
If you listen to the Story Grid podcast as I do, you may have heard editor Shawne Coyne talk about the importance of the antagonist, about how these bad guys are the most important character in terms of driving the story, about how despite this they are often neglected by novice writers like me.
So I interviewed the bad guy.
The interview begins with biographical stuff: places lived, education and schools, dating history, self-image. I found myself in 'interview mode' writing fairly fluently in the first person, thinking little or nothing about the literary quality of what I wrote. And I found that I was coming up with stuff about my character that I didn't know – most significantly a failed marriage, and a sadistic pair of step-brothers.
This was powerful stuff that I simply wouldn't have without having done the interview.
However, I came unstuck a bit on 'Is he lying to himself about something?' I couldn't answer this in the first person, and if I did I would obscure the information I wanted to detail.
The next section is a description of the character's appearance, preferences and habits, and I felt I had to stay in the third person for this. That said the physical stuff made me see that I really had not considered the character in adequate depth. My descriptions led me to do an image search on Google, where a found a rugby player who pretty much matches the ideas I had.
I saved the image so I can load it into YWriter. I even came up with a few usable similes!
Getting to know the character
Some of the most exciting questions in K.M Weiland's interview are the ones that you could almost transplant directly into a key moment in the book.
What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why?
What does/will he like least about the other main character(s)?
Answering these questions made me think about those revelatory moments in Game of Thrones where George R.R. Martin's characters share character forming incidents in their pasts. I could just imagine my antagonist revealing the angry 'self-defence' attack on his brother at some key moment I have yet to discover. This was feeling like a really useful exercise.
Developing my own approach
In terms of developing my own approach I think I need to divide up the questions into those I can answer in the first person and those I need the third person for. I'll put the first person questions first so that I can dive into the character before defining them from the outside in.
Having considered my story's overview using the Story Grid foolscap method in previous weeks, I really wanted to make sure that I was considering my characters in terms of their link to my controlling idea and key themes, and about the values they represent more specifically.
I also want to move the history to the beginning so that I can add key dates as I think of them. Also I imagine that these dates may be useful to me, and that I am likely to want to access this information quickly.
I'm always a little bit envious of writers whose characters speak to them. K.M. Weiland writes about characters that 'speak' in relation to this exercise. If you are one of those people then this exercise might get you there quickly. If you are more like me, however, and your characters just don't like you enough to chat, this exercise will give your plotting more power and fuel emotive revelations that will fire up key scenes. Either way the task is really enjoyable. It is, as K.M Weiland says, 'grand fun'.
See my character interview here.