Ditching the Character Interview

Ah, the character interview, the go-to tool for literary and genre writers alike to help them get a feel for their characters' inner and outer worlds.

As if grasping a character's, er, character is as easy as filling in the blanks on a standardized form.

When I first began writing fiction, I tried this route with zero success. My characters always ended up feeling more like cardboard cutouts than actual people.

Thankfully, I stumbled on to a better solution, one that requires a bit more time and thought, but which, in the end, helps ensure that:

"...each main character has unique characteristics rather than 'generic female lead' with different guys." --Marisa Gaither, Reading to Distraction, on Light's Bane

That's one of my favorite snippets and a continuing source of motivation.

Marisa recently reviewed The Vampire's Favorite, saying of the main character's family:

"Each of Jason's sisters has distinct personalities..."

When a reader gives your books reviews like that, it's really hard not to be pleased.

Back and Forth Plot Development

The way I develop characters is tied in with the way I develop a story's plot. In fact, I usually develop them at the same time, unless I'm beginning a new story with a character from a finished one. Even then, I spend quite a bit of time discovering and building backstory and deeper characteristics.

But that's not the first step. First, I take my main characters and the rudiments of the plot and use that as the story's bare bones. For example, a few years before I began writing the Daughters of the People Series, I brainstormed titles and summarized each story's main plot points.

  • Book 1: The Prophecy. Important clues surface to the location of the Sanctuary of the Seven Sisters. The Enemy of the [People] reveals itself. The Oracle shows signs of awakening.
  • Book 2: Light's Bane. The Elders speak of the Prophecy of Light. A young Warrior faces a deadly enemy who may hold an important artifact of the Seven Sisters.
  • Book 3: The Enemy Within. The Daughters of the People are betrayed by one of their own, while another Daughter struggles to right the wrongs of her sister.
  • Book 4: In All Things, Balance. Part of the Prophecy of Light comes to pass when the Oracle awakens from her long slumber. The entrance to the Sanctuary of the Seven Sisters is uncovered.
  • Book 5: Sanctuary. The Sanctuary of the Seven Sisters has been located, but will the Daughters of the People find a way to reclaim and protect it? The betrayer is found, near dead, and brought to the Sanctuary???
  • Book 6: The Gathering Storm. The Seven Tribes begin gathering at the Sanctuary of the Seven Sisters.
  • Book 7: War's Last Refuge. [Plot points not included, as it hasn't been released yet.]

At the time, I only planned on the series being seven books long, symbolic of the Seven Sisters from whom the People descended. It was only after I began writing Book 3 that ideas for the two interstitial novels, Tempered (Book 3.5) and Redemption (Book 6.5), were conceived.

It's also important to note that some of the plot points changed over time. Sanctuary wasn't discovered until Book 5. The betrayer from Book 3 was only hinted at in Books 4 and 5. Her story will be told in Book 6.5. Also, the People gather somewhere other than Sanctuary in Book 6. I rearranged the order of some of the stories. The basics of the overall story arc, however, remain the same.

When I first conceived the Daughters of the People Series, I didn't even know who most of the characters would be. That came much, much later. By the time I'd finished Book 3, though, I knew who the main characters in the rest of the series would be.

Usually, before I sit down to write each story, I have at least a rudimentary idea of what's going to happen in it. In Book 6, for example, which hasn't been fully developed and written yet, I know:

  • The main characters will be Sigrid Glyvynsdatter, a geneticist, and Will Corbin, who runs the Omega, a sports bar located in Tellowee, an important refuge for the People.
  • Sigrid and Will begin a relationship.
  • The People begin gathering in Tellowee.
  • Will (or someone) organizes a tournament of some sort.
  • There's a love triangle. (Probably.)
  • Sigrid works with the Bones of the Sisters to unlock the People's heritage.
  • The Oracle's identity is revealed.
  • There's a Happy Ever After.

Those are what I consider my bare bones. From there, I work back and forth developing a plot around those bones, drawing on what's happening with the People, Sigrid and Will's separate backstories (which I learn as the story develops), their budding romance, and what's happening in each of their lives to flesh out the story.

It's not unusual for me to go into writing a story with little more than the brief outline above. In fact, I've already written the first three scenes for The Gathering Storm. I use the plot/scene brainstorming activities found in Rachel Aaron's 2K to 10K to outline each scene before I write it, or sometimes to outline the next few scenes. I do this especially when I'm struggling with writing speed, but also when the story stalls and I'm not sure which direction to go next.

I do flesh out plot points as the story progresses, often adding, subtracting, or changing important points as I go. By working directly from the most important elements of the story (the overall story arc, the individual characters, their romance), I end up with a tightly written story that rarely drifts into the irrelevant or sags under its own weight.

Observation, the Comfort Zone, and Character Development

There's one other thing I do when I'm developing story and character that really helps me figure out what's going on with both, and this is where character development (specifically) comes in. Instead of interviewing my characters, I throw them into a situation with other characters and set them loose, then I sit back and observe what they do.

This results in a much more honest portrayal of each character. Let's face it. When asked a direct question, characters will lie, either deliberately or unintentionally, exactly the way people do in real life. If you really want to understand your characters, focus on their actions. How will Sigrid react, for example, when Chana (a secondary character from Book 5) rolls into Tellowee with her posse and hits on Will? How will Will react to Chana's flirtations after being ignored by Sigrid for years?

Pull your characters out of their comfort zone, throw them into a situation they really don't want to be in, and watch what happens. It's really that simple.

This process goes well beyond jotting down favorite colors, songs, and attire and delves into a character's psyche. It illuminates the motivations for their actions, thoughts, and speech, and from those, it's relatively easy to build believable, distinct characters.

Breathing Life into Secondary Characters

This is the exact same technique I use to develop secondary characters. For example, I absolutely do not believe in having a stereotypical evil villain who always gets his just desserts. (Spoiler: At least one bad guy from the Daughters of the People Series survives at the end of the last book.) In fact, I liked one bad gal so much, I gave her her own story. That's how Book 6.5 came to be, and Say Yes and Thief of Hearts and a dozen other stories now sitting on the back burner. Some secondary characters become so important to me, I give them their own story. As my editor says, I have enough story ideas now, I could live to one hundred and not have time to write all of them.

The thing is, I enjoy delving into a character's inner world and discovering her heart and soul. In my mind, it's an injustice to reduce any character, no matter how minor, to a stereotype. Bad guys (and gals) aren't always completely bad, as we're beginning to see with Lukas Alexiou. He's one of my favorite bad guys, by the way. But he has his own reasons for doing things and those reasons aren't there simply because another character (or the story the writer envisions) needs them to be.

And that's a huge mistake many writers make. When a secondary character appears in a story solely to support or act as a foil for a main character, he will inevitably be a shallow parody rather than a fully realized character. Spend some time getting to know your secondary characters. Make sure they're necessary to the story and that their motivations are driving their actions, not yours or your other characters'. Let them surprise you, then pass that surprise on to your readers.

Recap

These methods may not work for every writer, and that's ok. We all have to discover our own process. In the end, it doesn't matter how we develop characters, only that we do, and that we don't allow them to be placeholders in our stories. After all, they're our stories and our characters. Shouldn't we do justice to each by going beyond external characteristics and regimented spaces on a form?

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