Monday, October 21, 2013

Interviewing Characters to Get to Know Them

by Beth Groundwater

We're only about two and a half weeks away from the November 8th release of the third book in my Claire Hanover gift basket designer series, A Basket of Trouble. In anticipation of this critically acclaimed book, which was well-reviewed in 3 out of the 4 big review publications (Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly), I thought I'd give readers an insight into one of the tools I used to create the characters in the book.

To portray my gift basket designer sleuth, Claire Hanover, and my other characters realistically, I need to get into their heads and hearts and discover what they’re thinking and feeling. Only then can they become three-dimensional people that readers can love or hate. Sometimes this is easy, such as in Claire’s case, because she is much like me, a middle-aged woman with a husband and two grown children who lives in Colorado Springs and vacations in Breckenridge (I used to live in Colorado Springs and now live in Breckenridge). Other times it’s tough because the character has a very different personality from me. This was true for Claire's husband, Roger, and for Claire's brother, Charley, partly because they are men and partly because of their life experiences.

One tool I successfully used to understand Roger’s and Charley's psyches was the first-person character interview. In a first-person interview, the author pretends to be a trusted person in the character’s life (I was their psychologist), and asks probing, thoughtful questions. The critical element is to record the answers in first-person. The first person voice helps you really get inside a character’s head.

Some of the questions should address the book’s central theme or conflict and some should address the reason(s) why this character is so hard to define. Examples include:

What's the worst thing that ever happened to you or could happen to you?
What is your biggest accomplishment?
What do you wish you could do or stop doing?
How would you describe yourself and how would others describe you?
What's your biggest secret?
Why do you want what you want and how would you feel if you never got it?

The result of the interview should be that the character feels as real to the author as a member of her family. When she's writing a scene including the character, he should actually speak the dialogue in her head and she should be able to picture his gestures and facial expressions. How does an author know when she has succeeded? One clue is if her character balks when she tries to force him to do something for the plot that is out of his character.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview with Roger that I did for the first book in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series, A Real Basket Case.

How did you meet your wife?

"My wife. Love of my life." Roger’s expression grows soft. "I can still remember the first day I saw her on the campus of UC Boulder. I was a junior and she was a freshman. She was laughing with a girlfriend, tossing her long blond hair over her shoulder, and her eyes—so blue they could break your heart. Still can, you know." He stares out the window, his fist balled against his mouth as if fighting for control. "She's breaking mine right now."

It was through this interview that I realized the anger Roger was showing over his wife’s perceived infidelity and over being falsely accused of murder was really masking a deep fear that he would lose the love of his life. This helped me write a very emotional scene late in the book where Claire and Roger discuss whether their marriage can survive.

Claire's brother Charley is a new character in the series that is introduced in A Basket of Trouble. In addition to his trail riding business being threatened by the discovery of a murdered wrangler in his stable, Charley has quite a few emotional issues to deal with in the book. These include vestiges of sibling rivalry with Claire, their mother sinking further into dementia, a wife who props up her own self-esteem by cutting down his, and a trusted friend with immigration problems. To help me understand the churning emotions all these issues brought up in Charley, I interviewed him. Here's the answer to one question.

Which would be a harder blow, losing your mother or your business?

Charley let out a long, slow whistle. "Man, that's a toughie. I know Mom's illness is going to kill her eventually, and I've been trying to steel myself for the inevitable. But, it's still going to be damn hard when it happens. I'll definitely miss her, even though she hardly knows who I am now. Losing the business, though, I have to say would have a much bigger impact. That's Julia's and my livelihood. We'd lose everything--our income, our house, our friends. The people who work for me could lose everything, too, if they couldn't find other work." He sighed. "And I'd lose my sense of identity, my purpose in life. I'm a stable manager. I've never done anything else. I'm not sure I could do anything else."

The answer to this question showed me that even with all his other issues, the threat to Charley's business was still the largest one, in his mind, that he had to deal with. For a reader to understand and sympathize with a character, the author must first understand and sympathize with the character. And I use whatever tricks and tools I can to do that, including the first person interview.

Please visit my website to learn more about me and my books, including A Basket of Trouble, which will be released this month.


Unknown said...

Loved this post and technique! Thanks.

Unknown said...
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Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, Christine, and I hope the post is useful to you!