Character Interviews & Why You Should Use Them

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons & Horia Varlan.

Every writer knows what it feels like to get stuck somewhere in the middle of whatever he/she is writing. It could be something as small as a scene or something as large as an entire chapter. Regardless of where or when it happens, writers block, in any of its various forms, is never fun to deal with.

Maybe writers block isn’t a problem. Maybe you’re just looking to learn more about your characters. Knowing your characters is the best way to get into their heads, especially if you’re writing through the first person point of view. I had never considered this to be an option until a professor mentioned it. She said it would be easier to write forward if I knew who my characters were, what they liked and disliked, how they felt about themselves and others, and how they would respond in certain situations.

What is a Character Interview?

It’s exactly what it sounds like. An interview with your character. Come up with your own questions or google “character interviews in writing.” You’ll come up with plenty of sites with lists of questions. Depending on what I’m writing, I either make up my own questions or follow a list. With the characters I have in the novel I’m currently writing, I use my own list of questions. Much of the time, you’ll end up using a list that “feels right” to you as the writer.

Character interviews are most fruitful when you have a synopsis or general outline for whatever you’re writing. Keep this in mind as story ideas come and go.

Why Should I Interview My Characters?

Because not only do character interviews help in further developing a character, they also help to kickstart the creative wheels and get you through writers block. Interviews help to discover character motives within the story and also give you a chance to write yet another story (the characters’ backstory).

What Else Should I Know Before I Begin?

When interviewing your characters, it’s always important to remember that you should never censor them. Allowing a character to speak his/her mind will add another dimension to that character. Their answers will surprise you and those surprises are the fruit of non-censorship. By avoiding censorship, you’re allowing your subconscious to flow freely—a good idea since that is where story ideas originate.

Avoid questions that will involve a “yes” or “no” answer. After all, the reason for the interview is to get your characters to open up. Ask leading questions that will achieve that. It’s okay to dig. Your characters aren’t going to feel hurt or embarrassed. Ask tough questions. The more personal, the better.

By the end of the interview, you should have several pages of information—all backstory about your characters. You should also have a better idea of where your story is going to go. Once you have character backstory, it’s much easier to flesh things out about characters during certain scenes, and this will only make those scenes that much stronger. If you’re writing forward and happen to get stuck again, conduct another interview. The more, the better.

[Do you use character interviews? What kind of questions do you ask? Would you like to see a list of questions posted? Let me know in the comments!]

The “What is Plot?” Series: Definition & Categories (Part One)

Photo courtesy of mpclemens.

Plot is traditionally defined as “the story or scheme of connected events running through a novel or story.” Each event that occurs in this chain always has a cause, which then causes other events in the plot as it moves along to the climax. In her book “Writing Great Books for Young Adults,” literary agent and author Regina Brooks says, “Plot extends well beyond the boundaries of the story both into the past and the future.”

Nowhere is it written that authors have to explain every event within a story. In fact, most authors prefer to let their readers figure out those connections for themselves. Why? Because that’s what keeps people reading.

Three different categories of plots exist in the world of writing, no matter your intended audience.

  • Integrated: In this plot, the plot and the story are very closely related. Cause-and-effect events are what moves the story along and forces characters to solve whatever problems they’ve discovered.
  • Episodic: This kind of plot involves a number of incidents that more or less don’t affect the rest of the story in a big way. Brooks says, “They are often connected by a central theme, location, conflict, or character.” A novel with an episodic plot can sometimes be mistaken for a collection of short stories. Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” are two good examples of this.
  • Plotless: These kinds of stories, nearly non-existent in the young adult genres, have points that center around what life is about. Most of, if not all, of the story is symbolic of something bigger, such as the meaning of life.

[Which of these categories is your favorite and why? Which do you see the most in the books you read? Which is evident in your writing? Share in the comments!]

Writing Prompt: An Interesting Message

Photo courtesy of Rennet Stowe.

Writers block, defined as “a usually temporary condition in which a writer finds it impossible to proceed with the writing of a novel, play, or other work,” is a plague that we’ve all dealt with at one point or another in our writing careers. Ideas are hard to come by sometimes. Ideas are like fireflies; they flash in and out of vision, but are hard to catch.

Keeping this in mind, a writing prompt will be offered here every Sunday (in different formats, of course). The length of what you write is your decision entirely. It is my hope that these prompts will spark creativity and kickstart the writing process.

This week’s prompt: You come home from a late night at work and check your phone messages. You get to the third message and freeze. Begin from there.

[How did this prompt help you? Please feel free to let me know in the comments below, or send an email!]

This Week in Links: 8/8/10 – 8/14/10

I subscribe to quite a few interesting RSS feeds in the book/writing niches. Perhaps you do as well, but in any case, I’d like to share my starred links from this week:

Sunday, August 8, 2010:

Monday, August 9, 2010:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010:

Thursday, August 12, 2010:

Friday, August 13, 2010:

Saturday, August 14, 2010:

Guest Post: Joel Heffner: 25 Down to Earth Writing Tips

[This post originally appeared on Joel Heffner’s website/blog on Jul 18, 2010 and is re-posted here with permission. The original post can be seen here. Joel Heffner is a writer, speaker, and creativity consultant. He is the creator of The Story Starter ( You can find him at and @JoelHeffner on Twitter.]

25 Down to Earth Writing Tips

  1. Do not blame anyone for your mistakes and failures. — Bernard Baruch
  2. Switch your point of view. Would that make your story better?
  3. You can restart your life right now! If you weren’t a writer yesterday, you can be a writer starting right now!
  4. Life begins every second. Don’t waste time thinking about it, start writing.
  5. To be creative, you might want to do things the un-techie way (for example, postcards instead of emails).
  6. Start your next short story by writing the last line…first.
  7. Go for perfect! Book writing has never been easier. Years ago, when I had to change a word I had to re-type (with a typewriter) the whole chapter.
  8. Can you tell your “story” using a series of pictures (with and/or without captions)?
  9. Try writing a short story that incorporates a line from
  10. Follow less, lead more.
  11. Watch less TV and write more.
  12. All of the writers on the best sellers lists had (and probably still have) the same doubts as you.
  13. Read a magazine you never read before. It’s full of ideas…for writers.
  14. Starting a sentence with an “ing” word is a great way to start.
  15. Whenever you want to say “someday” substitute “today” and you’ll do better.
  16. Many procrastinators masquerade as writers. If you want to be a writer…write. Period.
  17. Gardeners will tell you that you have to be patient to see the fruits of your hard work…sometimes years!
  18. Get a 2010 almanac! Read through it when you have time. You might (probably will) come up with story ideas.
  19. Fine writing, like fine wine, doesn’t happen over night.
  20. If you can write a 5 paragraph composition, you can write a magazine article. Same thing…just a bit longer.
  21. Does your character transform for the better or worse? What would happen if you switched it?
  22. You can learn more going to a place you’ve never been than spending hours online. It must be the air!
  23. Going to the movies is nice…reading a movie script gives you a sense of how the story comes together.
  24. To learn how to write, study gardeners, photographers, poker players, pizza makers, etc. Learn from everyone.
  25. Just like the tango, it takes TWO to write…one writer and at least one other person to read. I’m not big on writing for myself.

Quotes Corner: Edgar Allan Poe

With such plagues as writers block and lack of motivation constantly lurking around every corner, quotes from other writers (who have most likely dealt with these same problems) can be a saving grace of sorts for the rest of us. Hence the reasoning behind the creation of “Quotes Corner.”Certain weeks may be themed (by author), while others may be random. Many will be writing-related, others may not be.

Writers need inspiration, and need it often. It is my hope that you’ll find some here.

  • “It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.”
  • “In our endeavors to recall to memory something long forgotten, we often find ourselves upon the very verge of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember.”
  • “They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”
  • “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
  • “Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger portion of the truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.”
  • “I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of Beauty.”
  • “In criticism I will be bold, and as sternly, absolutely just with friend and foe. From this purpose nothing shall turn me.”
  • “With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion.”
  • “Never to suffer would have been never to have been blessed.”
  • “The true genius shudders at incompleteness – and usually prefers silence to saying something which is not everything it should be.”

[Were these quotes helpful? Is there anyone you’d like to see here? What inspires you the most? Let me know in the comments.]

Novel Progress: An Experiment of Sorts

I had originally planned to reserve Wednesday’s blog posts for news about my own writing and novel progress. I don’t plan to deviate from this too often and will only do so if I have absolutely no news or information. This kind of post may be a work-in-progress for a few weeks until things get rolling again, but it’ll become more structured as I start writing more often.

  • That being said, it’s pretty obvious that I haven’t worked on the novel itself since mid-May. I have done some researching and additional reading for it, though. I’ve been jotting notes here and there and really should be keeping them all in a notebook (which I will do eventually, I promise), but for now, they’re scattered everywhere.
  • I’m currently re-reading “Columbine” by Dave Cullen. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Nonfiction on the Columbine incident. My first time through was jarring, not because of the writing or anything like that. It was because of how factually interesting the entire book was. I picked it up back in April because I thought it would give me a bit of insight into school shootings. The book offered so much more than that. I won’t go into details here because I plan to review this book after I finish reading it again, but I do recommend picking it up. It’s a fast read and oh so interesting!
  • Topics I am continuing research on include psychopathology, writing as healing, PTSD, and there’s also been a bit of research on firearms and pipe bombs (expressly for further structuring of one of my main characters and nothing more). I’ve found so much that’s it’s hard to sift through and try to process everything. I don’t think I could ever use all of the information, but it’s nice to have it all.
  • Later chapters are still being planned/outlined. I’ve written through six, all of which will be revised again countless times, I’m sure. Revision is a large part of the process, after all.
  • I’m also toying with a new title for the work. I’m not sure if “Forward Together” will continue to fit as I move on with writing. I have a few other ideas, but I feel like those would only fit if the story was written through Andrew instead of Jackson.

There is much more to talk about, but rather than spew it all in entries such as this, I’m hoping to add structure and hopefully put much of what I’d like to say into separate entries. We’ll see how it all turns out. That is one of the fun things about just starting out–the trial and error process.

[Are you working on a novel right now, too? How are you handling the process? Sound off in the comments!]

Notes on Event and Meaning in Scenes

In early 2009 I was taking a graduate workshop in fiction from the online MFA program at National University in La Jolla, California. One of the books I needed for that course was “Writers Workshop in a Book: The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction” edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez. The essays in this collection include topics ranging from writing a historical novel to sense of place and point of view. Authors include Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, and Sandra Scofield among others.

I’ve been re-reading this book lately (it’s so helpful), and took some notes from one of my favorite essays, ” Event and Meaning in the Scene” by Sandra Scofield. Writing enough relevant “event” into a scene is something that I struggle with now and then, so when re-reading this essay, I did some highlighting and took some notes. I’d like to share some of those with you here.

  • Scenes lay the groundwork for something that has already happened or something that will happen. The story is always moved along by each scene and it’s impact is an emotional one for readers.
  • Regarding event, Scofield says, “Event does not have to be huge, but it does have to be important enough to merit the attention of the scene … Keep in mind that ‘event’ is the sum of the scene’s actions, which can be spelled out in steps or ‘beats’. This happens, then this happens; it all adds up at a crucial turnpoint.”
  • One of the biggest things to remember is that at the end of a scene, readers should not feel like they are back at square one. Scenes and the events in them need to move the story forward.
  • Movement and meaning within scenes is what makes readers keep reading.
  • To make movement and meaning stand out in your scenes, Scofield says, “Start by closely reading scenes in stories and novels you admire. Choose scenes that stand out in the narrative with an identifiable structure of beginning, middle, and end … Identify the occasion for the story (why are these characters in place doing these things?), the event of the scene, and the consequence of the event, with its emotional reverberations.”

[Were these notes helpful? How do you make sure to include enough event/meaning in your writing? Share your methods in the comments!]

The 100+ Follower Giveaway at Roof Beam Reader!

Adam over at Roof Beam Reader is holding a fantastic giveaway in honor of his blog reaching 100+ followers! To be eligible, all you need to do is visit his blog, follow a few simple steps, and share the news about his giveaway.

It’s simple, and he’s offering up one of four great prize packs to the one lucky winner. The prizes include Salinger, Twain, and Harry Potter book packs, as well as an open one of your choice.

Adam has worked hard to get his blog where it is. Return the favor and spread the news about his generous giveaway!

Act quickly. The contest ends on August 15th at midnight CST! For more information and to get yourself entered, go here.

Congrats on the milestone, Adam! Keep up the good work!

Story in a Novel

If a writer remembers one thing, it should be that plot and story are not the same thing. Regina Brooks, author of “Writing Great Books for Young Adults,” defines story as “the full sequence of events in a work of fiction as the reader imagines them to have taken place, in the order in which they would have occurred in life.”

Two different types of stories exist in fiction writing, plot-driven stories and character-driven stories.

  • Plot-driven: In a plot-driven story, the pre-determined story line is the main focus. The behaviors/actions of the characters revolve around what the events in the plot that lead up to the climax in the story.
  • Character-driven: In a character-driven story, the characters and their actions are the main focus and help to moved the plot along. This type of story involves a lot of emotion, internal conflict, and revolves around character behavior. The character-driven story has a high point of a character realizing something about him/herself (usually a weakness or overbearing problem) and then deciding to fix/overcome it.

The kind of novel/story you are writing and your intended audience will almost always determine which of these two story types you will use. Novels/stories written for young adults are almost always plot-driven, whereas things written for an adult audience are character-driven. I imagine this is not always the case, however.

[Have you come across plot-driven books for adults? What about character-driven stories for young adults? Share with me in the comments!]