Getting To Know You:
A Series on Character Interviews
By: Kait Nolan
Getting To Know You: Unstructured
by Kait Nolan
As many of you know, my background is in clinical psychology. After a brief stint doing
therapy, I now occupy the paid portion of my days with research and teaching. When Joely
suggested a Character Clinic last week, I immediately knew that I wanted to talk about character
interviews. This has been my latest obsession, a spinoff from my other obsession with Debra
Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, & Conflict. Pot and I have both used these with considerable success
over the last month or so, and I’ve turned Zoe into an enthusiast as well. It’s a technique with
lots of room to play and adapt to your specific needs, so I thought I’d share it here.
Now as someone in psychology, when I hear the term “interview”, I get a slightly different list of
things in my head than most people. Most folks, when they hear “interview”, think of job
interviews, or interviews with important people for the news or talk shows. I think of interviews
as a form of assessment. There are three types of interviews used in psychology: unstructured,
semi-structured, structured. As such, I’ll be doing three posts in the series. Today I’m going to
talk about unstructured character interviews.
Unstructured interviews are exactly what they sound like. These are interviews that have no
predefined form, where you just allow the interview to unfold as it will. From a therapeutic
standpoint, it’s not the most efficient as there’s often necessary information you miss, but from
the perspective of interviewing characters, it’s one of my favorite techniques to use.
This technique (in fact, all the types of interviews I’ll be discussing the next few days) is most
effective when you have someone to interview you. My crit partner does it for me. The idea is
that you have someone who can ask you questions and your job is to respond as whichever
character is being interviewed. You should think like they do, speak like they do, be that
character. You could do this in person with a tape recorder, or if your interviewer is not in the
same physical locale and/or you prefer to avoid transcription, you can do it via chat or email
(most chat programs allow you to save the transcript of the conversation–I am particularly fond
of GoogleTalk for this feature as it neatly integrates our conversations into my Gmail archives
and allows me to tag them as I desire). For unstructured interviews, I find that chat works the
best, as it maintains the spontaneity and allows you to respond on impulse, which often reveals
interesting things about your characters that you didn’t know.
I like to use the unstructured interview at the beginning of a story. I find it’s a fantastic way to
get to know my characters and begin to learn their voices. And since I often begin with only a
kernel of an idea for plot, this allows me to explore the possibilities. I personally find it most
useful if the interviewer takes on a particular role (as characters will respond differently to
different people just like real life people do). For my current WIP, Pot decided to interview my
characters as if she were the ghostwriter who’s going to chronicle my hero’s rise to Alpha in his
pack (of werewolves, in case you didn’t know). I, in turn, tend to interview other people’s
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characters as if I was their therapist–and depending on the character they could be there of their
own volition or have been mandated by someone else. Hey, you can take the girl out of the
therapist’s chair, but you can’t take the therapist out of the girl. You and your partner find what
works for you and go with that. Just remember that the name of the game is staying in
Depending on the role your interviewer chooses to take, s/he may want to begin with some
What’s your name?
Where are you from?
What do you do?
If you know absolutely nothing about your characters, these sorts of get to know you questions–
the sort you’d ask anybody you were just getting to know–are a good place to start. If you
happen to start out knowing a bit more about your characters (for example, I knew that Conall,
the hero of my current WIP, was a werewolf and a doctor) that can open up all sorts of
interesting lines of questioning. I find it most helpful if the interviewer has some idea of what
I’m planning to do with a piece–no matter how little or how much that may be. As the answers
to the questions come out, new questions get asked at the whim of your interviewer. Things that
s/he is curious about or doesn’t understand about your character. More detail about something
In a recent interview I did with Zoe’s main characters for her third novella in a trilogy she’s
working on, she knew only that the heroine wound up with the hero (as in physically in the same
place…he winds up being responsible for her). As interviewer, I knew the circumstances that
the heroine would be leaving, and I went with that, asking progressively more probing questions
until in 20 minutes she’d figured out the entire opening set up, which was interesting and
surprised us both! After that we did her stoic alpha werewolf hero (yeah we’re both writing
paranormals), about whom she knew exactly…nothing. The interview allowed her to find his
voice and even in the questions she (he) didn’t answer (because he didn’t want to talk to a
shrink), she figured out a lot of information about him in what he wouldn’t say.
As a general rule, interviewers should stick to open-ended questions. These would be questions
that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. Open-ended means that the character has
room to elaborate. So instead of asking, “Were you scared when the ninjas broke into your
house?” ask “What was going through your head when the ninjas broke into your house?”
Interviewers shouldn’t put words into the character’s mouth. Give him/her a chance to say what
s/he was thinking or feeling about something. And always ask follow up questions: Who?
What? Where? When? Why? How? Follow the trail until the character runs out of answers,
then pick another branch and do it all over again.
Check back tomorrow for my discussion of Semi-Structured Character Interviews.
And as I get such a kick out of conducting such interviews, if you’re interested in my services as
a character therapist, send me an email at kaitnolanwriter (at) gmail.com. I’m happy to help!
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Getting To Know You, Part 2: Semi-
Structured Character Interviews
by Kait Nolan
Yesterday I talked about the value of unstructured character interviews. Today I want to move
on to semi-structured character interviews.
A semi-structured interview is the type of interview conducted when you have sort of a lose idea
of where you’re going and what you want to know. So for those of you who have a vague (or
even not so vague) notion of “this happens in my story”, you’re going to find this really helpful.
The semi-structured interview is going to help you flesh out that plot. The semi-structured
interview, when used in real life in therapeutic situations, is the most common form of
interview. At an intake interview, there’s a list of information the therapist needs to fill out the
initial paperwork, but if something comes out, there’s room to go explore it. The same kind of
principle applies to characters. You begin with a specific set of information and go from there.
First up, you’re going to want to write out that stuff you know. Whether it’s your one sentence
summary of the plot or a bullet point list of stuff that happens. Your interviewer needs this
information as a base to work from. I suppose anyone could act as an interviewer at this stage,
but I personally think that your CP or another writer or whoever you use as a sounding board for
story ideas would be the most helpful. Anyone could ask questions, but the most productive
ones are going to come from someone who understands story and craft. A skilled interviewer
can direct you toward a specific goal by making you think about things that hadn’t occurred to
Once they have your base information, it’s their job to jot down questions relevant to your base
information. You can then conduct the interview via email or chat (or again, I suppose in person,
but who’d want to transcribe the recorded interview?). I personally prefer this in email because I
often need time to think about the answers. Being a huge Gmail advocate, I have lengthy
“conversations” of back and forth with my CP such that we began with a limited list of questions
based on my loose outlines (which were really bulleted lists of scenes I knew happened between
the beginning and the end, sometimes very vague stuff), and then additional questions are added
to clarify or because something new comes up.
For example, my current hero, Conall, left his pack at age 16 and has spent the last 20 years
denying his wolf nature and devoting himself to medicine. This lead to the inevitable question of
“Why did Conall leave his pack?” “Why medicine?” The answers to those questions gave me a
rich backstory for him and very clear illustration of a lot of his character.
Now in my case, because I’m trying so hard to plot this whole thing out, Pot asked me for a loose
3 act outline. She then gave me sets of questions for each act, directed to specific characters. I
now have separate files relevant to each act. (e.g. Marley Act 1 Q & A; Conall Act 1 Q & A;
Act 2 Q & A; etc.). We had separate interviews for Act 1 because Marley and Conall are
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separate at that point. After the end of Act 1, they are together for most of the rest of the book,
so it was handy to answer the questions from both their perspectives (particularly since I don’t
always know who’s head the scene is going to be in). From those Q & A sessions, I’ve been
working on a formal, full outline of the entire book.
Again, the idea here is to stick with those open ended questions–questions that require more than
a “yes” or “no” answer. That way you’re not limiting the response of the character. Ideally, this
exercise should help you to get through the process of figuring out exactly what happens in your
story. It’s a process that can be repeated as often as necessary and in greater and greater detail.
At the moment I’m in the process of doing this to flesh out one of my subplots.
As helpful as it can be, you probably won’t figure everything out with the semi-structured
character interview. That’s where the structured character interview comes in to play. Check
back tomorrow to see how you can use structured interviews for troubleshooting.
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Getting To Know You, Part 3: Structured
2009 February 15
tags: Character, Personal, Plotting, Pot, Writers, Writing
by Kait Nolan
I’ve had a lot of fun writing out these posts. I love, love, love doing character interviews and
playing therapists to recalcitrant heros, heroines, and villains. So far we’ve covered
Unstructured Character Interviews and Semi-Structured Character Interviews. Today I want to
talk about the structured character interview.
Now a structured interview from a clinical/therapeutic standpoint is a very specific and detailed
list of questions. You are aiming to get certain information, and you would ask these same
questions of anyone in the exact same order. It’s a standardized method that’s very often used in
research. The point is that the standardization of administration allows cases and groups to be
compared and analyzed. Don’t worry, I’m not having you design a formal experiment around
your characters. In many ways, this is very similar to a self-administered survey. Character
worksheets would be the fictional equivalent. An example of a Character Worksheet (something
you would fill out for every character) is this (snatched from my Simplified Novel Notebook):
Individual Character Worksheet
Role In Novel:
Most notable personality trait(s):
Notable Facial Features:
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Place of birth:
Significant Family Members:
Wardrobe/Personal Style (Clothing, shoes, jewelry, accessories, etc.)
The “line test”: You can tell a lot about someone by how they react to being forced to wait in
line at Walmart for a long time. How does this character react to that eventuality?
The difference between a self-assessment or survey and a structured interview is that in a
structured interview, someone else asks those questions.
Now you could use the above as a character interview, but that’s not really maximizing the
utility of the structured interview. Stick with those kinds of questions for the beginning when
you don’t know your characters or you’re starting your unstructured interview.
The structured character interview that I have in mind is most useful for troubleshooting. There
are certain things that you really need to know about each and every one of your characters (most
especially your major characters–hero, heroine, villain) in order to have a strong, well-structured
plot that the reader believes from beginning to end. And that comes down to…yeah, you
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guessed it. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. (C’mon, you saw that coming, you know I love that
For each character you need to answer:
What is your external goal?
What is your internal goal?
What is your motivation for pursuing your external goal?
What is your motivation for pursuing your internal goal?
What conflict prevents you from obtaining/reaching your external goal?
What conflict prevents you from obtaining/reaching your internal goal?
What makes these goals immediate (as in, why should readers care that this is happening
What is at stake for the character?
It’s a relatively short but very powerful list of questions. Characters may have a single answer
for each of these, or there may be more than one. That’s fine.
These questions are the thing that you will use as yardstick for every single action taken by any
character. Even minor characters should have developed GMC (which you may never directly
address in the book, but you as author need to know about them). GMC is the thing that snares
the reader. You have to give the reader something they can identify with, some reason for them
to care about the character. GMC provides the context for that identification. When you place
your character in a given situation for a scene, you need to come back to the answers to these
questions and look at that situation with those answers in mind. Knowing the GMC of a
character allows you to more clearly understand why s/he does whatever s/he does in the scene.
Whenever you read a book or story and you think to yourself that the author has the hero acting
out of character…it’s probably because whatever he did was not in keeping with his GMC. You
don’t want your readers to say that about you.
Now this can certainly be done as a self-assessment. Something you ask yourself and respond in
character. I still personally find it more helpful to have this conversation with my CP. A lot of
that is that she is fantastic at zeroing in on the important stuff and distilling my long ramblings
into the nice formula presented by Dixon:
A character wants [some goal] because [of some motivation], but [has some conflict].
See how neat that comes out?
But I digress–this post was supposed to be on structured character interviews rather than more
slavish adoration of Debra Dixon’s book on GMC.
For the purposes of interview, your interviewer should focus on those questions of What? Why?
What is your goal?
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Why is that your goal?
Why can’t you reach your goal?
What’s stopping you?
This is another one of those things that might be better done via email, as it will require some
thought on your part to answer well.
As for when you would want to do a structured interview, that’s up to you. You could do it
before you do any of the other interviews. Knowing a character’s GMC on the front end will
probably make it easier to figure out the rest of your plot and keep you from going down a lot of
false avenues. At the same time, it’s useful to come back to on the back end to troubleshoot and
narrow down the possibilities. It’s also possible that you will wind up changing the GMC once
you get to know your character a little better, so keep your mind open.
However you wind up using your interviews and whether you end up using all three types of
interviews or just one or two, the important thing is to have fun with it.
And remember, if you’re interested, I’m happy to be the character therapist and run you through
some interviews myself.
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