Erika Wassall, the Jersey Farm Scribe here on
We know that knowing your characters inside and out is a key element to writing a book that pulls in both your target audience, and your target agent or editor. Whether you’re writing a chapter book about a boy who refuses to ride in cars or a young adult novel about Theresa, the gypsy daughter of a CEO who finds herself caught between the family name and her own longing for freedom, we need to know more than just what the characters in our manuscripts do.
We need to know WHY they do them. What makes them tick?
An interview is a unique way to find out more about the character. This can be a really fun way to spend an afternoon with a writing friend or critique partner. Get together, and talk a bit about your characters. Then have them interview you, and you answer the questions as the character.
Have a set of questions ready, but allow the interview to float away in whatever natural direction it takes itself. Encourage each other to ask the tough questions. Think of the interview as the stuff that would go in a good tabloid! You want the dirt! The emotion. The dreams. The fears. The motivations. Who they have a vendetta against and who they secretly rendezvoused with last summer.
Here are 20 questions that I like to have on the table:
1) What’s your biggest guilty pleasure that you’d never want people to know?
2) Do you have a secret crush?
3) Do you believe in God? How do you define God?
4) Who is someone you were once close to that has died?
5) What’s the most seemingly out of character thing about you?
6) How do you feel about ____? (insert any random “hot social topic” like abortion, global warming, universal healthcare…. whatever)
7) What would your dream career be?
8) How do you feel about small spaces?
9) How do you most commonly act out when you’re angry?
10) Do you believe in love at first sight?
11) What do you think is the single most important thing in a romantic relationship?
12) What is one thing you would never want your parents to know about you?
13) How long have you known your closet friend?
14) If you could go to college for anything, just for the sake of learning, what would you study?
15) What kind of first impression do you THINK you give off? What kind would you WANT to give off?
16) What kind of relationship did/do you have with your parents?
17) What have you done that if people knew about it, would get you in the most trouble with the law?
18) What is one hobby you wish you had stuck with as a child?
19) If you were alone in the wilderness for a week, what three tools would you want to have with you and why?
20) When have you felt the most out of control?
Sometimes the more random and seemingly irrelevant the question is, the more value they can bring. So be sure to ask the 65-year-old woman in a love story what she would want to go to college for, and don’t skip the question about universal healthcare when you’re interviewing the warrior from the 1800s.
Chances are, you’ve thought about what the love-struck princess thinks is the single most important thing in a romantic relationship. But when you learn what tools she’d take on a wilderness adventure, you may learn things about her that round out her character and make her more real. More whole.
Don’t over think it.
This exercise hold some of the same spices as free-writing. Not everything is going to link up perfectly, but at the end, you’ll walk away having learned something.
I’ve often found that the more questions I answer, the easier the answers get and the more they start to meld together and form a realistic person in my mind. In a single conversation I may find myself forming… and reforming… the intricate workings of my character.
So don’t be afraid to skip the ones you get stumped on and come back to them later. Give ridiculous answers! Sometimes grains of truth are found in the most ludicrous places. And if not, at least you made yourself smile!!
There are a lot of things about character development that can be a struggle. Let this exercise be a fun way for you to “interact” with your character from a different perspective.
Because there is no doubt… your manuscripts are worth it!
I’d love to hear your thoughts too! Have you done this exercise before? What do you think are good questions to include?
Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at www.TheJerseyFarmScribe.com where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!
Thank you Erika for another great post. Here’s a link to a 2009 post about flushing out your character.