Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Question Is...

By Mandy Houk

As a creative writing teacher and frequent conference and workshop attendee, I’ve seen my share of character interviews. You know the ones I’m talking about:

“What is your favorite tv show?”
“Are you an only child?”
“What was your most embarrassing moment?”
“Do you floss?”

I don’t mean to be flippant--I actually enjoy character interviews. I use them with my classes, and I use them with my own characters. I don’t necessarily answer each and every question, but I do use the questions that I find helpful and intriguing.

Sometimes the questions trigger ideas for new plot points, or even new characters that lead to huge complications (aka: story). “Recall your scariest childhood memory” resulted in the creation of a horrible playground bully that impacted the lives of not just my main character, but two other major characters, as well. (Side note: in my scary childhood memory, kumquats played a major role. Since it’s difficult to sell kumquats as frightening, in my story they morphed into rocks and unripe pine cones. Behold the power of fiction.)

Sometimes the answers to character interview questions are just fun. They allow me to see my character a little more clearly, even if the details don’t make it into the manuscript. “What’s your biggest pet peeve?” or “Are you ticklish?”

There’s something about knowing the useless details about a character that makes them feel more like a real, tangible individual, at least in my mind. How many useless details do you know about your best friend? Your spouse? Your mom? Details foster familiarity, and familiarity is never a bad thing to foster between an author and a character.

When I’m aiming to get to the heart of things, though, I have two go-to questions, each with natural follow-ups. These questions allow me to see to the core of my characters, and to determine exactly what type of torture to put them through so that their natures are revealed, or their hearts are changed.

1. What is your greatest fear?
            a. What, if anything, would cause you to willingly face that fear?
            b. If there’s no answer to “a”, why not?

2. What is your deepest desire?
            a. Is there anyone/anything for whom/which you’d sacrifice that desire?
            b. If there’s no answer to “a”, why not?

My protagonist’s answers to these questions changed everything for him and for my book. Normally, he’s rock-steady, which makes him infinitely lovable, just not exactly scintillating. But these questions revealed his triggers (hint: he didn’t need to answer ‘b’ on either one), which helped me identify exactly what had to happen in my book to force him to do something bold, something dangerous.

In a completely different way, my antagonist pretty much laughed at both of the ‘a’ questions. And his answers to ‘b’ helped me define exactly how he would react to all the actions of my protagonist and other characters.

In short, I went from a story concept with characters that I felt I knew, and knew I loved, to an actual story, with conflict and tension and believable (I hope) resolution. Not bad for a couple of questions, right?

Try these questions out for yourself and see what happens. And, as with any interview questions, tweak them to your liking.

About the Writer:  Mandy Brown Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches at a small private high school in Old Colorado City. She's written for several magazines and anthologies, and has completed two novels--only one of which is worthy of the light of day. Mandy's work is represented by Sally LaVenture at Warner Literary Group. Her web site is

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