Craft: Building Believable Characters in Fiction With a Character Interview
We’ve all read a book that we either put down because we “couldn’t get into it” or finished a so-so book and were left wondering why it just “felt off.” While it is true that each book is read differently by each reader, if many readers are feeling the same way about your book, it can be unsettling. So, what is up? As an author, what can you do to help your book from falling into the trap of failing to enrapture readers?
Often, the biggest issue is the problem of having less-than-believable characters.
What does this mean?
While being non-believable sounds easy to understand, it is multi-layered. For example, supernatural characters can be very believable even though they are performing extra-human tasks. So, how do authors and screenwriters accomplish this and still make these characters believable, and even better, relatable?
One of the basic questions I ask authors when we sit down is, “What makes your character unique?” Nine times out of ten, authors will give me a breakdown of the story that they are building around the character. While the character and the story seem inseparable, as the author you must remember that you build the story around the character and their history. It is their history, their quirks, their likes and dislikes, and their personality that makes the story. In other words, events happen, but it is how they deal with the events that makes this story unique.
Here is a great list of questions (a character interview ) that you can download to help make your characters multi-dimensional and avoid the trap of cardboard or 2-D characters. Feel free to expand upon these questions as you see fit in order to completely explore your character’s background.
o What is the etymology/history behind this name? How does it reflect your character?
o How does this quirk affect their daily lives? When does it appear (e.g. when they are stressed/relaxed/happy)?
· What is one thing they feel they have been missing in their lives?
o Why are they searching for this thing?
· How would they identify themselves (in five words or less)?
· Who are they/what do they do when they are by themselves? How does this compare to how they identify themselves?
· What kind of person do they want to become?
· What is their biggest fault?
· What is their biggest/darkest secret?
· What is their biggest fear? How does this impact their current life?
· What motivates them? Who? Why?
· Who is the most important person in their lives?
· What are the names of their parents? Siblings?
o What family history now influences your character’s life?
· What was their first major romantic relationship like? How did it end?
o How/does it impact their present relationships?
· What is your character’s greatest strength?
Now the lesser questions:
· What do they look like? (eye color, hair color, stature, build) Provide a picture.
· Relationship status? Why?
· Favorite food?
· Favorite book?
· How often do they talk to their family?
· Where do they live? Why?
· Favorite color?
· Favorite style of clothing?
· Favorite restaurant?
This list could go on and on.
What kinds of questions do you ask when you are trying to get to know someone? Feel free to ask deeper and uncomfortable questions of your characters. In fact, the more uncomfortable the better (example: What person would you kill first in a zombie apocalypse?)
Okay, that example was a joke… Or was it?
Once you have put all these things to paper for your main character—yes, you must actually write down the answers—I want you to flesh out your character’s arc. (Oh my goodness, that may have been too on the nose with the zombie example, huh?)
A character arc is the growth of a character throughout the book. If there is no change in the character and no growth, then there is no (decent) story.
Side tangent… Recently, I watched a movie called Young Adult; it had promise but at the end, the main character fails. Hard. And not only fails, but doesn’t grow (failing is an important part of all great tales). She just goes on being the terrible, irredeemable character she started out as. I was super pissed. Why did I just give up two hours of my life to a story that was basically nothing but watching a jerk be a jerk and continue to be a jerk. No, thank you.
As human beings we are drawn to good and evil, but at their core must be an element of redeemability and possible redemption.
And that goes back to great characters. No one wakes up and doesn’t want to change. Okay, that’s not entirely true; narcissists probably love who they are. But that is why we hate them and they are generally sucktastic. But even narcissists are who they are for a reason. If we dig, really deep in their case, there is likely a formative event or moment in their past. They are who they are for a reason. Find that reason, and you may find that nugget of truth that makes even the worst of the narcissists semi-understandable and maybe even a bit redeemable.
All this brings me to my important next point; you need to respond to these questions for each of your main characters and that includes your antagonist.
Don’t forget… Everyone has a motivation.
Yes, everyone. Even we, the owners and employees of SPS, have a motivation. What is ours? We want to help you write your best book. We want you to be proud of your book and we want readers to love it. If you need help with writing characters that resonate, or any other aspect of writing or publishing, we are here! Feel free to reach out and ask a question! Contact us now at selfpublishingservices (at) gmail (dot) com.
Now, go whip those characters into shape!