Columns > Published on February 25th, 2021

The Importance of the Character Interview

Image via Alex Green

Writers are creators. Creators of worlds, stories, and of people. We flesh out characters—that to some, seem like very real individuals—with hopes, motivations, frustrations, and goals. We may even become protective of these imaginary people, especially when they have stories that are yet to be told. Our readers hope that as these characters develop—and they learn more about their lives—that the writer remains true to the person the reader has become so attached to.

Every major fictional character that you love was conjured up in the mind of someone else. Then, your imagination birthed its own version so you could visualize them as you read along. You may have even inserted some additional identifying characteristics, adding on layers to this person that was given life through fiction.

Of course, anything we imagine can shift with the influence of stage productions, film, television and radio—any and all mediums that can present a character to us. Still, we often hold onto who that character is, and what we feel they should be, from what we have read.

As writers, sometimes with each new story and each new book we create a new cast of characters. Each of these creations have their own name, their own patterns of speech, their own personalities and their own lives. I personally give very few to no physical characteristics for my characters. That is my personal preference. Yet, many writers like to detail the physical features and characteristics of the people they have written about.

So, how does one go about creating a character in fiction? That usually begins with the idea of your story. Your idea is usually about an event, or a series of events, and then you have to  design your players. Unfortunately, this isn’t a discussion on protagonist and villain and side characters. This is just a discussion on how to develop any such character for your writing, and my main recommendation for writers to understand who it is they are writing about is to interview their character.

The Character Interview

The purpose of this exercise is not to include all of this detail in your story. The purpose is to know exactly who it is you are writing about.

First, this character interview never needs to be shown to anyone, ever. You can write it in a journal, across sheets of paper, in a writing software, or on a notes app in your phone. You also do not have to complete a character interview in one sitting. A character isn’t born in a single writing session, so do not stress if after an initial interview with your character you still do not know who they are.

It will take you a little bit of time to really know them and that is fine.

A few things to consider when developing your character:

1. Who are they? Are they the protagonist? Villain? Other?
2. Why do each of these characters have the roles you assigned them? For example, why is the villain a villain?
3. Ultimately, why should the reader care about them? You may not know this right away and that’s fine, but this is something that you should start thinking about now.

There are various forms and questions on the internet that guide you through a character interview. Below are some of the general questions that have helped me in developing my characters. These questions can be asked directly to the character as you work through the interview. Again, it may feel silly, interviewing an imaginary creation. No one needs to read this or see it. This is just for your benefit.

Background – Who is the character?

1. What is your name?
2. Where were you born?
3. How old are you?
4. Where did you grow up?
5. Who are your parents?
6. Where were your parents born? Where did they grow up?
7. What do you do for a living?
8. (If in school/a student): What grade level are you in?
9. Do you like your job (or school)? If so, why?
10. Do you have any talents or special skills? If so, what are they?
11. Record physical appearance – Again, I personally do not like to include personal appearances in my work, but I do like to know what my characters look like for my own personal needs.

Questions regarding the point in the story that your character finds themselves in.

1. How did you find yourself here?
2. What is it that you want?
3. What is it that you need?
4. Who do you trust?
5. What do you know that no one else knows?
6. What does the ideal situation look like to you?
7. What do you think is going to happen?
8. What is your greatest fear?
9. What makes you happy?
10. What is your ideal situation?

You can also break up these interviews into other categories, depending on the needs and the genre of your story. If you’re writing a romance, you can ask your character more complex questions about their relationship status, ideal relationship and so on. You may find that many of the questions you ask might be specific to your story. However, there are a lot of questions that you will ask that may not be specific to your story but will help you in shaping your character’s personality.

The purpose of this exercise is not to include all of this detail in your story. The purpose is to know exactly who it is you are writing about. The more that you know about your characters, the more confidently you can write about them.

About the author

Cina Pelayo is the author of Loteria, Santa Muerte, The Missing, Poems of My Night, short stories, poems, and more. 

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