Write to Your Strengths

Laura Ayo

Laura Ayo

I spent this past weekend doing a character interview with the antagonist in my work in progress. I’ve shied away from doing character interviews in the past because, frankly, they seemed silly. My characters lived in my imagination. I created them. I didn’t need to ask a series of questions of, in essence, myself pretending to be my character to figure out their weaknesses and goals. So why did I change my mind? I realized I was neglecting one of my greatest strengths as a writer.

Over my more than 20-year career as a journalist, I have interviewed thousands of people. More than I can count or remember, to be honest. I’ve asked pointed and thoughtful questions of government leaders, educators, health care advocates, event organizers, philanthropists, scientists and even criminals. I’ve listened as survivors of horrific crimes and natural disasters, grieving parents, self-made business owners and innovative entrepreneurs, selfless volunteers and everyday folks have recounted their experiences to me so I can, in turn, share their stories with my readers. I’ve coaxed information from fast talkers, spin doctors, side-steppers, deflectors and outright liars. I’ve become adept at asking the kinds of questions that get to the heart of what makes a person tick, what they stand for, what they’re passionate about and why they do the things they do.

Those skills have taken me years to hone, but I didn’t realize until I attended a business reception last week that I wasn’t fully appreciating my expertise as an interviewer. The reception recognized the 40 people under the age of 40 that I interviewed late last year about their contributions to our community. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the program and I have been the primary writer since the first year.

At the reception, one of the honorees came up to me to thank me for the profile I wrote of her.

“I don’t know how you took my rambling during the interview and turned it into something so concise. You really understood what I was trying to say,” she said.

My response was sincere, even if it sounds otherwise: “I had good material to work with.”

She then went on to marvel at how I managed to do the same for each of the honorees, year after year. The truth is, the interview is my favorite part of the process. I genuinely enjoy hearing what people have to tell me. I always learn something new when I interview someone and appreciate whatever they have to teach me.

Then it dawned on me – why would I not feel the same way about interviewing my characters? If I have to ask someone questions to learn more about them to be able to write about them, why wouldn’t I do the same for my characters? Why wouldn’t I apply my vast knowledge of being an interviewer to the people living out their lives on the page? I decided it was time to find out if it was worth the time and effort.

So this weekend, I composed a list of questions to ask my characters. I borrowed some that other writers have posted online. If you Google “character interview,” you’ll be directed to several such lists. But I also drew on my years of interviewing real people to draft my list. Here are some of my favorites:

  • What’s your most prized possession and why?
  • What’s your ideal way to spend a day off?
  • What’s your fondest/worst childhood memory?
  • Do you have any catch phrases or sayings others would attribute to you?
  • Do you have any gestures or mannerisms you use when you’re worried? Scared? Excited?
  • How would someone who knows you well describe you?
  • What are you good at doing?
  • What do you wish you could do better?
  • What’s your biggest regret?
  • What are you most afraid someone will discover about you?
  • How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?

It took me the entire weekend to get through just one interview, but I already feel like I have a better sense of who my antagonist is and how he will act and react as my story unfolds. I started with him because he’s a character I’ve been struggling to write. Perhaps my trouble stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did. Now that I’ve interviewed him, I have a feeling the writing will come much easier.

Next up, my protagonist. I have so many questions I can’t wait to ask her.


2 responses to “Write to Your Strengths

  1. I’ve never tried character interviews either, but I have interviewed plenty of people in real life. Maybe it’s time I tried it. I might borrow your list!

  2. Pingback: When Antagonists Aren’t Bad Guys | write owls

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