Character: Interviewing

Way, way back, when I started this blog, I was talking about the fact that I don’t like using character questionnaires (What colour are their eyes? What do they do? etc).  I find them too distancing and rigid.  When I started I relied on stereotypes flavoured with versions of people I know.  Over the last couple of years I have started to use another technique.

After attending a summer school, I had been experimenting with the first person voice having used the third person for many years, and was enjoying the freedom it gave me. (Believe me, after seven years of ‘he/she’, the move to ‘I’ was like that moment when the Karate Kid stops having to clean cars).

That autumn I received a rejection from an agent for my second novel saying that the main male character needed to be fleshed out.  I decided to interview him.

To do this I set myself 500 words a day for six weeks: asking anything that came to mind.  One of the scenes in the book was his recollection of the moment his mother had walked out when he was a child.  One day I was in a hotel in Bristol waiting to go to a training event I’d been booked for.  I’d had breakfast and realised I probably didn’t have enough time to do my 500 words but could do it on the train home.  And then I thought, why not?  So I sat on the bed with my laptop, opened the document, and typed, ‘Tell me about your mother.’

As he began to talk about her leaving, he described a stupid dream he had: that he might get her back for one day, and the conversation they would have.  As he was talking, I could feel the sadness welling up in me and eventually tears dropping onto my shirt.

As a trainer I was hoping they would dry in time for the course; as a writer I was thinking, this is great!  Keep typing!

And it was good.  What he said is now in the novel.

The truth is that for several years my mother had been suffering from dementia and was long past the point when we could talk in any meaningful way.  In that moment of the interview, my world overlapped with that of the character, and produced something heartfelt.

Earlier this year, I did a second interview, this time with the elderly woman.  Another agent had questioned why a woman of her generation and class would want to do what I was describing.  So I went back and asked her.  20,000 words.  About 4,000 of them went into the novel.  Some really funny, quirky things.

When I have tried to explain this method to people they say one of two things: a) you interview the real person?  Or b) you mean you talk to yourself?  In answer to the first question, no.  I interview the character.  In answer to the second question, in a way, yes.  But only as you might talk to a character in your dreams.  They contain an aspect of you, but at the same time they have their own identity.

The advantage of this method is that you can ask whatever you want, and adapt the following question to the answer just given.  Biographical information often emerges as part of a larger conversation.  The reply comes in the first person and you can interrupt one another if a new thought occurs.  The elderly woman said to me at one point, ‘You’re very polite’; I said, ‘Thank-you’; she said, ‘You’re welcome.’  It was an odd exchange, but it did bolster the sense of a real conversation.

For me, I need at least one draft of the novel before I attempt it, so that I have a solid enough idea of the character before I start to ask questions.  Otherwise they keep changing shape.  I once tried using it before I started a novel and it didn’t work.

Which, I suppose, raises the question of how you write a first draft of a novel if you only have a cursory knowledge of the character.  I guess because I start with a general sense of them.  In the first chapter of the novel the elderly woman is at the doctor’s.  She moves in the leather chair and worries that the squeaking sound may be misinterpreted by the GP.  In terms of the way she interacts with others this is a pretty significant pointer.  The second thing is that despite being put off on several occasions in the early part of the novel, she will do everything she can to achieve her aim.  So, she’s determined.  A polite but determined elderly woman.  And really, that was enough for a first draft.

There is nothing new under the sun.  This method is used by many writers, who all have their own way of approaching it.  I seem to remember hearing that a classic writer (Henry James?) suggested ‘going on a train journey’ with a character just to talk to them.

I’m using it again now.  I’ve transcribed all of the scenes that I got for my screenplay (see Meditation 2), and I’m now interviewing the main characters to find out more details about them.

As ever, when I put these posts into Word Press, I get suggestions of other posts that have related content.  This time, the suggestions included one titled, ‘Ezekiel: Breathing Life into Dry Bones.’  Which is pretty good tag line for what this whole interviewing exercise is about.

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