Character Creation Part Deux

This post, I want us to go deeper into Character Creation. A lot deeper. I’d like to talk about how you develop each character’s voice.

Voice is one of those things that are hard to define but easy to see. There’s a big difference between Scarlett O’Hara’s voice and the godfather’s. Just listen to them talk for two sentences and you’ll see it.

But how do you develop that voice? It doesn’t just happen, does it?

I suppose for some lucky, genius authors, the character voices just happen. But most of us have to work at it. Here’s what I do, and it really doesn’t matter when you do this. You can do it before you write a word of your novel. Or you can write it after you’ve done your first draft. Or after your tenth.

The main idea is to interview each character in conflict.

What do I mean by “in conflict?”

I mean that you play two roles in the interview:

You play a tough, suspicious interviewer trying to trip up the character. You ask hard questions and you don’t accept easy answers. When the character tries to evade your questions, you call her out on it. You keep hammering. You make her sweat.
You also play the character in the hot seat. You answer each question—truthfully if you dare, deceptively if you don’t. It’s OK to get mad at that pesky interviewer. It’s OK to counterattack. It’s OK to yell. Your interviewer is tough and can take it as well as she can dish it out.
What happens when you do this? Your character starts showing signs of stress. She starts sweating. She gets angry. When people get stressed and angry, they let things slip. They say things in new ways, unique to them. They let out secrets they meant to keep hidden.Interview the heck out of every one of your major characters. Push them on their motivations. Push them on the legitimacy of their actions. Push, push, push.

When do you stop?

You stop when you’ve beaten each character to a pulp. Until they insist on quitting. That may take a while. Some of my character interviews go on for five or ten thousand words.

When I’m done, I read through the whole interview, highlighting in red all the interesting turns of phrase each character said. Some of them are unique. Those are the ones I’ll later use in the actual novel. I look for speech patterns that I can use over and over in the story, the things that will tell the reader who’s talking, even if there aren’t any dialogue tags.

This is hard work. You’re going to be mean in your role as the interviewer. You’re going to get mad in your role as the character. You’re going to learn how your characters behave under stress, and why. You’ll learn their favorite evasions and their best insults. You’re going to learn how to BE your characters.

If you do this before you write your first draft, you’ll build in all that uniqueness to each character from the get-go. If you do it in a later draft, you’ll come to the next round of revision with a thousand ideas on how to deepen each character.

You may be thinking right now that the character interview sounds too easy. It sounds like you couldn’t possibly learn anything new because after all, you’re playing both roles.

Nope. The character interview is magic.


Try it and see.

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