This is a technique that I picked up in a workshop a year or so ago. As a writer, I felt that no one knew my character as well as I did. I created them but did I know them? I noticed that at times when writing a scene that I thought I had already planned got stuck because a character did something I did not expect or plan. I know it sounds a bit odd, that my fictional character can do something that I did not plan or expect. But remember as a writer, I am a seat-of-the-pantser, I allow the story and yes the characters to dictate the direction. I may have planned to write that Joey bends to kiss the Sheila, and that leads to a trip to bed or to a long term relationship, but the girl up and does something different:
Sheila put her small hand in Joey’s face and said, “Stop right there Joey. I like you and all, that’s why I came to dinner with you. You’re fun and I like your humor. But you got me all wrong. I like girls for lovers, not guys.”
Writing a scene with a character like the Sheila was supposed to be simple. I thought we might get all mushy and sloppy leading to bed or maybe a slap in the face or even a glass of champagne in the face, but my young lady threw Joey (and me) a curve rather than going with the flow. Sheila took over, in effect saying “I have a story to tell too.” Sheila was supposed to be a flat character, a meeting in the night but that isn’t what happened. It is time for an interview.
An interview can be done in a number of ways, I have a bit of history in the legal field so I picture putting Sheila up on the witness stand and I become a prosecutor trying to get to the bottom of who this character is. It could just as easily be a newspaper reporter interviewing her.
“So, Sheila, why would you go with Joey on a date and then throw the fact that you are gay into his face just as things are getting juicy?”
“Well, first off, Joey thought wrong. He never said anything like he considered this a date or I would have set him straight from the get go. Second off, I can’t control what other people think. Anyway, we’ve had lunch a few times and he never even hinted he wanted to make a move on me. So this was dinner why should that change things? I didn’t think he would try to kiss me. Kinda caught me by surprise. We’ve known each other for a while at work, he’s a really nice guy and I thought dinner would be nice to get to know him better. But I don’t need a lover, especially not a male lover.”
“You do realize that you probably just set Joey’s self-esteem back a good ways.”
“Look, I fail to see how that could be my fault. I realize that there was a misunderstanding of our places, but I never did or said nothing to lead him to think I might be interested in him that way. Joey is his own person. He’s responsible for his own thinking processes. He has to take responsibility for his own misunderstanding. If his self-esteem is that weak then he has bigger problems than anything I could cause by protecting myself from unwanted advances.”
If this were one of my stories the interview would continue, I would learn about her sexual choices and why she went down that road. I would ask about her history with male lovers, had there ever been one? What I learned could enter the story or it may provide insight and a way to turn this into a new story. It might also cause me to drop the character completely as inappropriate to the story. (I would also interview Joey and get his feelings on the situation.) One way or another the story didn’t go where I planned, so time for rethinking. The interview is a way of diving into that.
The point is anything you would like to know about a character you can learn by simply asking them, and then have that character answer. If the character has a dialect they use, they should use it in answering the questions. If they have certain physical characteristics they should come up in the interview as well. If the character cannot answer the questions they may be the wrong choice to begin with.
Choose one of your characters and interview them in depth. Ask them anything along the lines of your story or beyond. (Warning, this could lead to your story changing or finding a new story for this particular character.) The interview should run as long as it needs to but I would think a minimum of five hundred to fifteen hundred words.