Improving the character interview technique used by fiction writers

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

In this post, we look at how the character interview technique is used as a means to help stimulate the fiction writer’s imagination in developing character. We see that the usual approach with this technique has a big flaw inherent in it, but that improvement is achievable. We end with a simple example of a more effective use of the technique.

What is the interview technique?

The interview technique is based on the idea of a real interview. The writer asks questions of his character, the interviewee, and listens carefully to the answers, all the while taking notes. Not just verbal language, but body language, tone of voice and facial expression is also noted. The technique is supposed to help the writer gather information and emotional and psychological insight about his character.

The writer prepares for the interview by drawing up lists of questions. Some lists are simple and others more complex. Some are even tailored to fit the story’s genre. Some lists are made up of questions relating to physical attributes (name, height, eye colour, distinguishing marks, age, etc.), while others may deal with emotional and psychological questions (how do you feel about losing, etc.). A writer might interview with the intention of learning much more about their character than is necessary for the plot, and refer to the lists of answers throughout the whole writing process for inspiration, fact checking and avoiding contradictions as well as for psychological and emotional pitch. Another writer might go for the bare minimum, wishing only to use the interview to ‘spark up’ the character before letting them run free within the story. Many writers swear this technique works for them and we have no reason to doubt them.

The technique’s flaws

Yet, I can’t help feeling that the interview technique seems to be a bit like the tail wagging the dog here. The writer demands answers from his character under the pretence that they have their own intelligence, emotional and psychological state; that, in fact, they are independent souls. But if this is the case, why do they give up large parts of themselves so easily? This is not how human beings are, and if you want your character to be complex, then they must behave like a human being, surely.

Not only do people not reveal important aspects of their psychological and emotional states directly, but some do not know how to answer such questions, or are left unmoved by a question or even confused by it. Some individuals are not connected to their emotional or psychological sides. Some people have no self-awareness. Some may give you an answer they think you want, or one they think makes them look good, or may simply give you an answer depending on how they feel at that moment. A fact-based questionnaire will undoubtedly get you straighter and more honest answers, but even here you may have problems. Ask some older people their age and see what happens. Anyway, you don’t get to the heart of character through data collection. And if all you’re doing is collecting facts, why bother with the interview?

Some writers says they’ve cracked the problem of a reluctant interviewee by leaving aside the normal question sheet and throwing ad hoc questions at them in order to gain access to their emotional and psychological states. But I still don’t see why the character will suddenly open up, whether they have secrets to hide or not, but especially if they are not the type to open up, anyway, and especially if the questions are penetrating ones. You always have to ask yourself: would a real person suddenly start talking? How are you going to get those who lack self-awareness, are disconnected from their emotional side, the liars and the hypocrites, the bullies and the addicts, the narcissists and the control freaks suddenly to open up? People may tell you all sorts of things about themselves they may actually believe, but are just not true. Flawed people generally don’t know that they are flawed. They may get away with it because on the surface they may appear to be not what they actually are, and convince others of it. But you need to know your character’s flaws. Yet how are you going to get revelations out of your character by direct questioning? It seems that in order to do so, you have to throw them out of character, and once you’ve thrown them out of character, they are behaving unconvincingly and unnaturally.

Ways to improve on the technique

In order for the interview to have real teeth and help the writer develop well-rounded, true-to-life character then the interviewer ought to have a basic idea of the personality type under interview, and really importantly, he must be prepared to adapt a more complex approach to the interview because complex characters do not give up their secrets easily, if at all.

So how will we accomplish this? Because we are dealing with human psychology, we can turn to psychology for basic guidelines. Psychologists use a whole range of very successful interviewing techniques to help them deal with the complexity of personality. The police have even adopted interviewing techniques developed by criminal psychologists to help them gather evidence and gain confessions from criminal suspects.

Let’s look very briefly at some of the ways criminal psychologists approach the interview.

The type of interview carried out will depend on both the subject and the purpose of the interview. Some interviews are conducted simply to pinpoint guilt while others are aimed at therapy. With reference to a violent attack, for example, the psychologist needs to explore the psychological and emotional range and depth of the subject, the perpetrator. He does this by firstly looking at the crime. He needs to know what happened, how it happened, to whom it happened, and why it happened. The psychologist will not often directly ask these questions of his interviewee because the interviewee will more than likely not answer them or have no idea how to answer them, especially the last one which would require a considerable amount of self awareness on his part. Nevertheless, a psychologist will be able to build up a picture of the subject’s personality once these questions are answered because he will now understand his motivations. Then he will move backward through his life, questioning him on his family, friends, relationships, work, school, etc., along the way taking notes, particularly of emotional responses. The psychologist will do all this because he knows there is an underlying cause for the offender’s behaviour and he wants to get at it. The offender’s action did not come out of the blue but is linked to his personality.

The likelihood is that the criminal psychologist will already know important aspects about the psychological and emotional state of the perpetrator without even meeting him if these four questions, what happened, how, to whom and why, have already been answered to his satisfaction. This is based on an understanding that in general a particular set of unusual and violent or destructive actions are linked to a particular set of psychological and emotional traits. This is a very important point to understand: that you can learn much about a person, not by ever meeting them, but by the actions they carry out. In other words, action is character.

This leads us to believe that a character carrying out an unusual set of actions must have an underlying psychological reason for doing so. People do not do unusual things, if they do anything, for no reason, even if it seems that way. So, if you as a writer decide a character will do something unusual in your story, you can work backward from this point to discover motivation for that action, then further back still to reveal the psychological and emotional state behind that motivation, and you can do all this by using the psychologist’s interview techniques, or at least by adapting them into an easier version. This will help you produce complex and believable character types. No matter how bizarre the action appears on the part of the character, they will be legitimate because he or she will have real motivation based on their personality type, and the writer will be able to ‘prove’ this to his reader.

Psychologists rarely take any answer as something complete in and of itself. Over the course of the interview or set of interviews, the psychologist, criminal or otherwise, will gain an understanding of the emotional state of the interviewee by noting body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and language. The psychologist notes the interviewee’s overall emotional reaction to any question, and with reference to the interviewee’s emotional level at other stages of the interview. Understanding the subject’s emotional state is very important, as it is often a gauge the psychologist uses for determining the veracity of a set of answers. It may also offer a lead for him to pursue. So, for instance, a subject who reacts emotionally over a simple question regarding family relationships may prompt the psychologist to believe this is a topic worth looking closer at but in a very careful and roundabout way and possibly even at another time.

The writer must be prepared to observe their character closely, not just listening to their responses, but watching them, too. The writer should endeavour to work out the normal emotional response of the interviewee by asking him a set of ‘comfortable’ questions. This gives the writer a baseline to work from. Any further questioning which elicits an emotional response deviating from this baseline should be noted. This deviation gives the writer an insight into the effect the questions are having on the subject that the subject would probably never openly admit to. The writer’s awareness of these emotional cues may well decide on a different approach as with the example of the family relationship question above. As the writer explores the character’s personality, working on the assumption that they have the same complexity as a real person, he must be always ready to change his line of questioning and the way those questions are asked, in order to deal with the nature of the emerging personality.

An example

In fiction, as in real life, action SHOWS character. Action SHOWS us a character’s ambitions, struggles, loves, hates, courage and fears, weaknesses and strengths, failures and successes. You can SHOW many of these character attributes even in an interview because as well as body language, tone of voice, etc., dialogue is also action, and the words do not have to be truthful or direct to be revealing. In fact, your interviewee is much more likely to SHOW you their emotional side with a set of unintentional cues than to tell you of it directly. To SHOW most effectively, you ought to write up your interview as though writing a scene. SHOW, not tell the relevant aspects of character related to the story’s plot.

The following is part of an interview showing how the interviewer adapts his line of questioning based on a big emotional cue he receives from the interviewee rather than through the interviewee’s direct use of language.

Mr. Scrunge is a character from my children’s novel St. George’s Day. He manages and trains teams of chatterers and squealers (monkey jockeys and racing pigs). His arch rival is a manager and trainer called Berty Puffwhistle.

“Mr, Scrunge, congratulations on the race of the day last week at Chascot. Third place is very good out of a field of nearly forty competitors.”

He tightens his shoulders slightly, but his deadpan expression gives nothing away. “Third place isn’t first.”

“Third place isn’t bad for such a popular race.” I make a pause. “You’ve had some success on the racing scene all these years, so where…”

“Some?” he interrupts. “I like to think I’ve had quite a bit of success. I’ve won a lot of races. I’ve won major titles.”

I note that he says I rather than we. He doesn’t include the chatterers and squealers or other trainers in this success. And major titles? Major?

“Of course,” I say to humour him. “So where do you see yourself this year?”

He shifts about on his seat. “I’m not sure I understand your question.

“I mean ambition-wise. I take it you have racing ambitions this year?”

He fixes his gaze on me and his eyebrows move closer together. He takes a deep breath, holds it for what seems like an uncomfortably long time and then releases it in a quick hiss as though his words are in a great hurry to leap from his mouth. “A man with no ambition is an empty shell. A man with no…” His voice, suddenly full of a hard resolve, drops to a hush, making me shiver, “…soul. He may as well be dead.”

After a pause, I ask, “So what are your ambitions?”

His eyes have not moved off me.

“I seek justice,” he says in that same tone of resolve.

Unlike his right hand, Mr. Scrunge’s left hand is no longer in his lap. It hangs loose by his side. Without looking directly at it, I notice the fingers are moving. I want to look at that hand, but dare not, not while his gaze holds me.

His eyes move off me and onto a cup of tea beside him on the table. He picks it up and takes several quick gulps. Is his mouth dry? I steal a glance at his left hand. He holds what looks like some small silver balls against his palm while his fingers turn them over and over. A stress buster! He places the cup back on the table.

I’ll come back to this topic of ambition via another route.

“Next month we’ve got the Skipton Run,” I say, smiling. “Are you entering it as you did last year?”

The fingers of his left hand stop moving. “I always enter the Skipton Run,” he says, a thin smile appearing on his lips.

I take a deep breath and think: I could do with my own stress buster around this man.

An interviewer would work hard to get any straight question answered in a straight way with Mr. Scrunge. Yet despite this, we’ve learnt a lot about the character here and with a very small number of questions, though most of them are the same question asked slightly different ways. Mr. Scrunge is delusional (he’s won no major title), self-centred, defensive, fixated on success (his weird bit about ambition) and blames others for his lack of success (the bit about justice). But maybe the most revealing thing about him is that raising the topic of ambition should cause him such stress that he attempts to deal with it by use of a stress buster. These are all big things to learn about a character, yet we discovered none of them by him directly telling us.

Summing up

Human beings are complex creatures who do not open up easily to questioning. Psychologists use interview techniques to handle this complexity. The type of interviewee and the purpose of the interview will depend on the approach the psychologist takes. For our characters to be complex creatures they must mimic the general behaviour of real people and not open up easily to questioning, so the writer must develop an interviewing technique to deal successfully with this. A basic study of the techniques used by psychologists will be a useful aid to help the writer with this exercise. Of course, we’re not expected to develop the same sort of sophisticated approach as a psychologist, but if our characters are opening up way too easily in the interviews, we need to ask ourselves what sort of characters we are indeed creating.

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