Have you ever had a Q and A session with your characters? Matthew, one of my writing group buddies, has. He asked if he could share his Q and A with you, and I welcomed him with this blank page. Here’s how he filled it. Thanks for this idea, Matthew!
I recently bought the Char-Griller Grillin’ Pro Gas Grill for summer and snowy winter cookouts, but the grill needed assembly first.
I was strangely excited to find the instruction book and get started. I enjoyed the intricate process of putting each piece in its place and using every single bolt and washer. It was refreshing.
During the assembly process, I didn’t look ahead to the next step. I didn’t want to know how the wheel connected to the frame, or how the temperature gauge fit into the cover. I wanted to enjoy the process of getting to the end. But at some point I needed to see where I was going so I didn’t end up with the handle on the backside.
As a fiction writer, I don’t look far ahead in my stories either. Initially, I don’t reveal my characters–even to me. Sometimes it’s too early in the process for me to know how a character’s decision connects to the frame of the story, or if the hero has an emotional temperature gauge. But at some point, I have to look ahead. I have to know my characters well enough to draw readers in.
I found a useful exercise to uncover the thoughts behind my main characters in The Writer’s Digest, written by Brian A. Klems. In a column about writing thrillers, Klems suggested interviewing our characters. The interview could help us learn about our characters’ worldviews.
You might say, it forced me to look ahead in the instruction book.
Klems said, “Many aspiring thriller writers, perhaps seeing the genre as action-driven, avoid thinking about theme (or meaning, or premise). They prefer to let the characters duke it out, and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, as long as you realize that you need to be saying something. Why not be intentional about it?”
The Dickens Approach
Here’s an exercise Klems calls “The Dickens Approach” (named for Charles and his time-traveling story, A Christmas Carol):
“Go forward in time 20 years after your story ends. Your lead character is now 20 years older and has had time to reflect on all that happened in the story you told. You’re now a reporter, and you track down the character and ask, ‘Looking back at everything that happened to you, why do you think you had to go through that? What life lesson did you learn that you can pass on to the rest of us?’”
Let the character answer in a free-form way, for as long as possible, until you sense that it’s right.”
I did an interview of a character of mine named “Matt Barnes.” He was recruited by government officials to return a secret device full of proprietary data. To ease his responsibility, Barnes recruited a young teenager, who was the son of an old friend. The boy admired Matt Barnes and would have done anything for him. The recruitment entangled another teenage girl and brought them to the grip of a dangerous villain.
After the interview, Matt Barnes turned out to be an interesting guy. Most notably, he was a rationalist with a distinct view of the world.
Here’s what I asked him:
Q: Do you think the plan to involve the two teenagers went well for you? How about for the others?
Barnes: Sure, it went well for me. I put some people in bad spots, I brought them some trouble, but, in this world, people always fall into the line of fire. I can’t help it, no one can, that’s just the type of world it is. I have choices to make. Do I save myself and maybe a nation, which impacts millions of others’ lives, or do I let the information fall into the wrong hands? I think saving a nation, and myself, is the best choice.
Listen, I’d like to give you a heroic answer, a great reason for choosing what I did. But I can only say that hanging onto a government secret that long, for several months, will lead people who are looking hard for it to you directly. You become a target. After a while, I got nervous, feeling like everyone was watching me. I needed to get it out of my hands for a little bit. My choice may have saved my mind.
Q: So the consequences that the two teenagers now face—the constant concern for their safety from retaliation from Louis Von Bargen—are a result of your decision. Does that matter to you?
Barnes: It does, but what can I do? Everyone gets tangled up in something in their lifetime, and often it doesn’t go away—ever. Any relationship has ties to trouble. A lifetime of trouble.
The world isn’t black and white. Choices have consequences. The choices I faced were no different. I made a decision and went with it.
The interview unveiled a lot about this Matt Barnes character. Instead of being quite mysterious, even to me, I got see into his head and figured out what he was thinking. I learned about his temperature gauge, and it helped me figure out how to connect the wheel to the frame of the story.
This is from Michelle because I love to brainstorm and make writers think: Since Matthew is in my writer’s group I can push him a little and he knows I still enjoy his writing.
The way Matt Barnes answered these questions tells me a little about his character. Here’s how I see him:
He’s a bit selfish and doesn’t think twice about putting others at risk for the sake of the world–even kids. He’s able to make decisions rapidly and not look back. He’s not a character who second-guesses himself. He’s a little aloof and definitely not an empath. He doesn’t empathize with others or let his emotions get in the way of doing what he thinks is the right thing.
But will readers like him? Why or why not? What does he sacrifice? Doesn’t sacrificing something make the reader like the character more? Do you think that most readers prefer heroes who make sacrifices?
If one of the kids’ lives are at risk will Barnes feel comfortable knowing he drafted the kids’ help?
Here’s something that would reveal even more about Matt Barnes. Ask him if he had to make a choice between saving a nation or himself, which would he choose? We know he’d choose the nation over the kids based on this Q & A, but what about himself?
What Q and A’s do you ask your characters?
Matthew Weigelt is a freelance writer and journalist. While in Washington, DC, he wrote about the legal world for several trade publications. He covered Congress, the White House, and other federal agencies. He also has worked as a congressional staff member on Capitol Hill. He has been published in the Washington Post and was featured in the Post too. He began writing on a dusty word processor as a young teenager because of summertime boredom. Visit MatthewWeigelt.com. He also blogs at Read Between The Pages.