Capturing Character Voices


Starting a book can be really difficult when you can’t get a handle on a character’s voice. Or characters’ voices. I will frequently write a full 25 to 30 thousand words before I actually get it figured out. I need to write it out, to put the characters in situations and learn who they are. But that’s not very efficient. That’s okay, but sometimes a book won’t come together at all unless the characters are cemented in a writer’s head.

In that situation, there are a few things that you can do. One is to do a character sheet and learn everything about a character that you can. A good example of that can be found in Nancy Kress’ Dynamic Characters. You can go through and get at the character’s childhood, fears, desires, favorite colors, foods, most embarrassing moments, and on and on. This can be a very useful tool.

But for me, that still can be not enough. I can know the details about a character without knowing his or her voice. I start writing the story, and everything comes out stilted and clunky. So I have to go further. I have to do an interview. This gets a little bit complicated and schizophrenic, even for a writer. Let me explain.

For The Turning Tide, I needed to get acquainted with Fairlie, Shaye and Ryland. I could not get the book launched without a firm grounding of their voices. I hadn’t managed it, and nothing was working. So I decided to interview them. I started with Ryland. I came up with a set of questions about him and asking about the other two. The questions were based on some of the character information I’d already sorted out about him. Then I set about interviewing him. It went well. He wasn’t forthcoming, being politically adept and cautious with his words and well-used to deflecting interest, but I found as he went he would start revealing more than he meant to. (what makes this weird is that I as author am writing inside his head, while at the same time I’m in the head of the interviewer and in my head as writer, trying to figure out if this is working to do what I need. But wait, it gets worse!)

I next interviewed Shaye. Again, I came up with questions specific to him, and using things I’d learned in the interview with Ryland. Only he refused to answer. I (as interviewer) had to argue with him and remind him he’d promised (only he is me and the interviewer is me and I am me and . . . well, you can see how this was confusing). Anyhow, I finally got him talking. He’s a sarcastic pain in the ass. Full of snark and yet with deeply felt emotions. His interview was the key. After that, I had his voice nailed. It also helped me finish hammering out Ryland’s voice. I finally did Fairlie’s. But her voice was a lot easier. She’s a much more straightforward character. Well, until certain things happen, but by that time in the book, I was deep enough inside her head that the shift was very natural.

The interview was successful. But there were several important keys to making it work. First, be sure to develop questions that will allow the character to speak in his or her own voice. Questions that are fraught with conflict and emotional triggers. Second, make them talk about each other. That does double duty of revealing the character’s voice, and also telling you about other characters and helping you to formulate questions for the next character. It also can help you figure out the world, plot and tensions that you hadn’t figured out yet. And Thirdly, you must be willing to play the character of the interviewer as the interviewer. That character must respond to the answers of the other characters and must be willing to prod and follow up. In other words, treat this as a very real exercise in interviewing. Don’t stop halfway through. Finish it and be thorough. Besides, if it works out, you can always publish it on your website or something else when you publish the book.

This technique is tremendously useful. If you try it, please let me know how it works for you. I’d love to know.


ETA: To give you an example, I’ve posted the interview I did on my website.


22 comments to Capturing Character Voices

  • Rhonda

    Ha, I’m with you on not being able to properly write a character until I’ve written enough of that character. For me, character sheets are a record of what I’ve learned about the character while writing. Every time I’ve tried to build one before writing the character, it’s come out stiff and arbitrary. The throw-away stuff that comes up while writing, that stuff is golden.

    I’ll have to try the interview thing. As much fun as exploratory writing is, it really isn’t efficient. And I can’t plot until I know what the character most wants and most fears, and I can’t know that until I know the character…

    (Also, arguing with your characters is schizophrenic? Crap.)

  • Rhonda: I probably shouldn’t have said schizophrenic. Writers understand that’s a normal part of the process. I’ve just tried to describe this to non-writers and they usually start getting this wide-eyed look with darting glances as if they are looking for the exit. But writers totally get that characters can be recalcitrant and difficult and argumentative.

  • I play/run RPGs and I’ve actually written up my characters before as RPG characters, character sheet, stats, and all, to try to get a feel for them. One thing I had to do recently with a particularly stubborn character that I had to expand upon was to write a short about his past, the turning point that made him what he was. He was very tight-lipped with his past in the book and so I didn’t even know much about him until I delved into that past and figured out just what he’d hidden there. If (WHEN) the book gets picked up and becomes successful, I think I might do the same thing even for the rest of the characters and offer ’em up to the readers. It was a fun exercise and will give readers that extra bit of insight into the past lives of the team. And yeah, it was like pulling teeth until I got a few drinks down him and he gave me the ol’ film noir line, it started with a woman. πŸ˜‰

  • Diana, I had never interviewed my characters until I did the Jane Yellowrock books. Then, I did a character interview for a PR piece, and I learned so much about her. It was fabulous fun! Now I interview characters often, and you are right, the voice comes through so much clearer. I even did an interview with Jane and Beast together. Oy — now *that* was shizoid!

    And … surely all writers are schizoid, which makes that a normal state for us.

  • What Rhonda said. πŸ™‚ And thanks, Diana. I think I’ll use this for a character who’s been holding out on me.

  • I’ve been considering doing an interview of this sort with the lead character for my next series — for the website or my blog or something. Never thought of it as a writing tool, but of course it makes all sorts of sense. Thanks, Di. You’ve inspired me!

  • MaCrae

    I’m having trouble coming up with questions that ” that will allow the character to speak in his or her own voice. Questions that are fraught with conflict and emotional triggers.” Could you show me some examples? I’ve always been bad at this sort of thing. I always say what I think the character SHOULD say, in keeping with the character I want them to be in my head and it comes out really forced.

  • Daniel: I bet RPG character building is incredibly useful. I never play. I would totally get involved and never surface to write or live or anything. I’ve contemplated doing shorts also to acquaint myself with characters. It’s good to know it works.

    Faith: we’re normal. It’s only to outsiders that we are odd. Because they have no idea how to talk to themselves and make it normal.

    Laura: Good!

    David: yay!

    MaCrae: I went a head and posted a link above to my website with my original interview, if that helps. My questions seem rather normal, but I knew I was skewing them toward their issues. I knew enough about the characters to pick things that would make them open up in some ways. But have a look at the Shaye section to get a sense of what happens when the character won’t cooperate. One thing that you can do with the choosing of questions, is think about what the characters do not want to talk about. Or how to make them reveal what’s hidden. Or ask blunt questions that they haven’t told you the answers to yet and see what happens.

  • […] a post today up on Magical Words on Finding your Character Voices. Have a […]

  • Unicorn

    I’ve interviewed quite a lot of my characters and does it work! Especially for the more minor characters who just seemed to be a face in the crowd until I started delving into their issues and finding out what makes them tick.
    Recently, I’ve written scenes in both my novels from a point of view other than the protagonist’s. It was fascinating. One scene was from the POV of a person who appeared for about a paragraph in chapter one and has suddenly become a very interesting and important character in chapter sixteen. The other was from the POV of the protagonist’s sidekick, who just so happens to be a horse. Now that really was interesting, trying to see the world out of a horse’s point of view, and it gave me plenty of new angles on other characters.
    Thanks for the interesting post, Diana. I’ll definitely have a look at your interviews.

  • I do something similar but slighlty different. Rather than an interview, I write a First Person account of each character’s backstory. I mostly write it as though the character is speaking, telling me their story – everything that comes before the start of the real story. Since it’s first person, it helps me capture their voice.

    Even so, I still find that the character’s voice evolves somewhat over the course of writing a story.

  • Lady Ash

    I’m with Stephen Watkins. I generally find myself writing first person accounts of things the characters want to talk about in order to get a good grasp on what my characters are thinking. It also sometimes offers something I can add to the overall story.

    Shortie Blog about it on Creative Chaos.

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting this Diana (and for posting the results). I haven’t tried an interview yet but I’m looking forward to giving it a spin.

  • MaCrae

    Thanks so much for posting that! It helped me a lot and now I’m bubbling over with ideas! *runs to hammer out an interview*

  • Unicorn: The alternate point of view in a scene is cool. I’ve done it before too. Thanks for reminding me!

    Stephen: My only issue with that technique is when the characters refuse to talk about what I need to. I know, I’m in charge, but sometimes they just refuse to give me what I want. I suppose that happens in the interview, too, though . . . Hm.

    Lady Ash: I find that when I do this sort of thing, a lot of good story stuff comes up too. Good point.

    Ken and MaCrae; You’re welcome!

  • Razziecat

    I’ve never tried interviewing my characters. Usually I write a bit of backstory in first person; sometimes I write about a character from another character’s POV. In one case, it took me almost a year to understand why my MC killed somebody (which is the action that sets off his story)–because he was lying to me all along about why he did it. And who figured it out? Another character, who saw right through him. Why I couldn’t see it myself when all of these people are in my own head, I couldn’t begin to guess. So yeah, I totally get the weirdness of all this.

    I’m going to try all of these techniques to get a handle on an important character in the book I’m doing for NaNoWriMo. The interview should be fun! Thanks, Diana!

  • Rhonda

    I wonder, if a character doesn’t want to answer questions in an interview, and doesn’t want to tell the story in a first person scene, if you can write the event in question in a third person scene and find out what they did…

    I know I had to figure out the antagonist’s story and why she was doing what she was doing (mysterious bad guy doesn’t work for me so well) so I wrote (3rd person; I rarely write 1st) a bunch of scenes showing the development of her attitudes. About half of them ended up in the novel; I seem to have a fairly sympathetic antagonist. She’s completely wrong, but she thinks she’s doing the right thing for her people.

    And regarding schizoid: I generally don’t talk about the other people in my head unless in the presence of writers. Most people look at you funny when you say you hear voices. And chat with them, argue with them, and sometimes wish you had listened to them πŸ™‚

  • You mean there are some people who don’t argue with … oh, wait. They’re in my head? Whew. That’s a relief. I’ve done the first person backstory thing, too. The interview sounds like it could be fun, too, if I can just figure out how to make the ones not being interviewed to shut up. They will generally stay quiet and listen when another is telling his/her story, but whoa… if I ask a question, I’ll get an answer, but three will call him a liar, one will try to tell me what he really meant to say, another will remind the first about some small tidbit, and three more will sit in the corner whining that *they* wanted to answer that question and I just don’t like them as much as I like him and …. you get the point. I think I’ll need doors first.

  • @Diana: It’s funny – I know having recalcitrant characters is a common thing for a lot of writers, but I’ve never had that problem. Not because characters don’t lie or aren’t manipulative, or whatever. I guess it’s the way I interact with them. I don’t separate myself from my characters – they’re all in my head, but when I think about a certain character, I don’t really think about them as a separate intelligence with which I can communicate or interact. Rather, the characters inhabit their own world and can interact with other characters there, and with that world. I find it most useful to be able to inhabit the same mental space as the characters – to try to “be” the character, in a sense.

    In that way, as the author I don’t feel like there’s anything a character can “hide” from me – if I don’t know something it’s not because the character is obfuscating, but because I haven’t thought of it yet. But when I get into the first person account – I’ll be able to figure out what the character thinks about themself. I’ve found it useful to have character believe things that were not true, or deliberately lie to themselves about what they’ve seen or known.

  • Razziecat

    Stephen, my characters live in my head, too…or I live in theirs. We definitely share headspace. But people can lie to themselves. And one of my characters is so good at distracting, obfuscating and prevaricating…oh, well, outright lying…that even I bought it. I wrote a lot of first-person stuff so I know his background in intimate detail, but that was actually the distraction. Another character, who has a very straightforward, down to earth, full-speed-ahead and damn-the-torpedos personality, figured him out before my conscious mind did, and that gave me the clue I needed to understand his real motivation.

  • […] Words had a great post titled Capturing Character Voices about interviewing your characters to get to know them better. My story opens with an altercation […]