Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Talk to Your Characters

by Lazette Gifford
2004, Lazette Gifford

Every day Forward Motion Moderator Justin Stanchfield posts writing exercises at the site that can help get the creative juices flowing.  Once a week that exercise is 'Talk to Your Characters Day.'  Many people have found this one extremely helpful.  The exercise can be done a number of different ways, from of drilling your characters for answers in an interview type setting to having your characters write a letter to you.

I had never tried anything like this before I came to Forward Motion.  Many people do it regularly, but if you are like me, you likely have some misgivings.  It certainly won't work for everyone or every character, but I discovered that the exercise can be both helpful and fun.  Sometimes finding the 'fun' part of writing is as important as finding the characters.

Stepping away from the usual way in which a writer creates characters can help introduce new elements.  You might be surprised at the kinds of things you can pick up for a story just by pretending that your characters are sitting in front of you.  You have opened your mind to a new kind of inspiration that looks outside the box of normal character creation.

In writing the answers, you might also want to indicate which questions annoy them, how they fidget or look worried -- in other words, make this is an 'interactive' character creation exercise.  Make them as real in your mind as you can manage -- and after all, isn't that what you're trying to do anyway?  Just because you have removed them from their normal environment (the pages of a story) shouldn't mean you see them less clearly now.

What kinds of questions should you ask?  Try ones like these:

  • Who are you, really?

  • What do you want?

  • Whom do you trust?

  • Whom do you mistrust?

  • Whom do you secretly love?

  • What are your secrets?

  • What are your lies?

  • Where do you want to be at the end of the story?

  • Why do you oppose your enemy in this book?

  • What choices do you regret?

  • What are your strengths?


Coming up with more that specifically suit your work is a lot of fun as well.  And in finding and asking the questions, you might learn answers to plot problems as well.  Don't feel that you can only do this with your main characters.  If there is someone lurking in the shadows and you want to develop them a bit more, take them aside and discuss the situation.

If you go with a letter form rather than interview, let the character ramble as though they are writing to a friend or relative.  Or they can be writing a letter of complaint about their lives to the author.  You can get a feel for the personality and quirks that you want to embellish to make your characters distinctive.

I once sat down and asked questions of a character who had been the main focus of eight books I had already written. She and her team of three associates worked at solving cases in a science fiction setting.  I thought I knew her, but almost immediately I came up against something totally unexpected.

(Me) So, who are you, really?

(Devlin) How the hell should I know?  In the eight books you've written you have never once given me more than a whisper of a background.  I know I'm from Tempest.  I know I was poor, and I even used to pickpockets and barely avoided trouble.  However, beyond that... how the hell did I get from that to one of the top five agents for the IWCS?

You gave the three guys great backgrounds.  Lots of details.  I don't even have a second name.

(Me) I... Ummm... I wanted you to be mysterious.

(Devlin)  I'm not mysterious, I'm damned boring!  How can I stand up there with the boys -- a famous scientist from Earth, the best Bear Dancer from Forest, and the Inner World Council's top psi?  Who the hell is going to care about me?  I'm nobody.

(Me)  You aren't nobody!

(Devlin)  Prove it.  Tell me what makes me interesting.  You tell me who I am.

(Me)  You're Devlin.  You are one of the top five agents for Inner Worlds Council Security.  And you have this great team.

(Devlin)  I am not my job or my team.  But without them, I'm pretty much nobody.

At this point I think she would have hit me over the head if she'd been real.  But it defined a very serious flaw in my story arc for the IWCS books.  Devlin really wasn't mysterious, and she paled compared to the three guys she works (and lives) with.

I'm still working out who she is, in fact.  I think she's going to make a fascinating character, in the end.

For another look at what this kind of interview can produce, check out the lighthearted article from Vision # 18 -- Character Driven Plotting by Valerie Comer:

Good luck, and have fun.