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.