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:
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 guessed it. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. (C’mon, you saw that coming, you know I love that book).
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 NOW)?
- 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? How? Who?
What is your goal?
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.