Something I’ve been struggling with lately, in writing, is character development. Recently, I sent off a manuscript to an agent, but instead of getting back the standard ‘your manuscript is not right for us’, email, this time I got a more detailed response. This agent told me that she liked the idea and the writing, but she found the main character boring. What? I was astounded! What was wrong with my main character? But I had another read through the manuscript and after a few hard looks at it, I had to admit that she could be right – the personality of the main character wasn’t really that interesting, and I wasn’t always making it clear why she behaved as she did.
How could I do something about this? Luckily, I had just joined a writer’s critique group, so I took the manuscript along, and got some good feedback. When I got home I re-wrote the manuscript with the suggested changes, but it still felt as though something was missing. I had another think about it, and realised that I didn’t really know what made my main character tick at all. I had to do something about this, but what?
Browsing around for advice from other writers, I came across a really useful Facebook thread that dealt with how writers can get to know their main characters, and it gave a suggestion that I thought I could try, even though it sounded strange… The advice was to interview your character.
Hmm. But, how can you interview someone who doesn’t really exist?
Various people contributed to the thread, and suggested questions to think about – what response would your main character be most likely to give? Some of the questions were –
- What are their favourite and least favourite foods?
- Are they neat and tidy, or a bit messy?
- Are they quite uptight and controlling or a bit more free and easy?
- How would they react to waiting in a bus queue?
- What do they do to recharge their batteries?
- What do they keep in their pockets?
- If they had a magic wand, what would they wish for?
- What do they want more than anything else?
- Where is their favourite place?
- What is their ideal job?
- What does their bedroom look like?
- What is their favourite animal and why?
- What is their biggest regret?
- What lies do they tell themselves, and why?
I decided that I would have a go at it, but before I could get started, the dog suggested that I should try the questions out on him, first.
Hmm, right, okay…
- Q. So, what are some of your favourite and least favourite foods?
- A. What do you mean by favourite? All food is great, isn’t it?
- Q. Are you neat and tidy, or messy?
- A. Tidy, of course. What do you mean, my toys are all over the floor!
- Q. Are you controlling or easy-going?
- A. Easy-going – unless there’s food involved!
- Q. How would you react to waiting in a bus queue?
- A. I don’t think I’d have any problem with that at all – so long as there are plenty of people to make a fuss of me, while I’m waiting – and maybe some snacks to keep me going.
- Q. How do you recharge your batteries?
- A. Plenty of beauty-sleep, and as much food as I can get!
- Q. What do you keep in your pockets?
- A. Are you serious?!
- Q. Hmm. Moving on… If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for?
- A. More food… and the chance to chew the wand.
- Q. What do you want more than anything else?
- A. A few moments alone with the kitchen bin.
- Q. Where is your favourite place?
- A. In the pub, having a huge meal, with a few ice-cubes to refresh my palate between courses.
- Q. What is your ideal job?
- I’ve always thought I’d make an excellent sheriff dog. I certainly suit the hat!
- Q. Really, I didn’t know that! Anyway, next question – what does your bedroom look like?
- A. You’re standing in it – some ill-informed people call it the kitchen.
- Q. What is your favourite animal?
- A. Me!
- Q. What is your biggest regret?
- A. Not rushing quickly enough to eat that pie that fell on the floor, before it was taken away.
- Q. What lies do you tell yourself?
- A. I never tell lies – I’m always a good boy. Can I have a treat now?
Right – that’s the dog done. Now it’s time to get to know my main character…
(With thanks to Jenny Shippen, Michele Simonsen, Mandy Rabin, James Nicol, Andrew Guile, Kathryn Evans, Emma O’Brien, Tracey Mathias Potter, Kathryn Kettle Williams, and everyone else I may have missed, who contributed to Jenny’s original SCBWI British Isles Facebook post).