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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
(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.