Interview with my Main Character

I’m taking Holly Lisle’s ‘Create a Character Clinic”. One technique she uses in getting to know your character is a personal interview. My main character is a 13 year old boy and I wondered if he might prove too difficult for me to get inside his head. However, my first book is written from the perspective of cats, so I must like the challenge. This kid was proving too elusive though, so I tried the interview technique. Here’s how our talk went:

“You’ll have to let me get to know you if I’m going to write a story about you.”

”I know.”

He stands quietly in front of me about 10’ away. I can’t tell what he looks like yet. He appears smudged, like people on  TV when they don’t want them to be identified. I am peeling garlic for tonight’s soup. Multi-tasking.

Now what? It’s so awkward when you get two shy people together.

“Can I call you Maxx? That’s the most recent name I picked out.”

“But it’s not my name.”

“O.K.” I was a tad bit disappointed. I liked that name. “You want to tell me your name?”

He bit his lower lip. He hasn’t look at me yet. We’ve moved into the living room where we can sit. I’m waiting, pen poised in my hand. I’m going to have to be patient. Why did I pick such an unassuming character? Is he going to cooperate? I know more than he does about his future, and he has an interesting story, but he’s not making it easy.

“O.K. You can tell me later,” I suggest. I’ll try another route. Something simple. “How old are you?”

“Thirteen. And a half.”

I remember when those half-years carried such weight. That age when one is still charging full speed ahead towards adulthood.

“Have you thought about what you want to be when you grow up?” I could kick myself for asking such an ‘adult-type’ question.

“Be? I just want to be me. Only bigger. And smarter.”

It was a better answer than the question deserved and I was intrigued.

“Do you think you are smart now?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know, maybe.”

“Why wouldn’t you think you are smart?”

“I don’t feel smart.”

“When?”

“What do you mean?”

“When don’t you feel smart? Or where?” I take a wild guess. “At school?”

“Yeah, mostly.”

“What are your grades like?”

“B’s. Some A’s.”

“Really? That seems pretty smart.”

“He gives me a look like ‘the grades don’t really mean much if you still feel dumb look’.

“What about at home? Do you feel smart there?”

“No.”

Unequivocally ‘no’. I was clearly treading on sensitive ground. I took a step forward to see how far I could go. “Can you tell me a little about your family?”

“What do you want to know?” He seemed like he was squirming inside his skin and I could see him chewing on his lip. Oh God, help me understand this kid without scaring him half to death.

He shot me a look I couldn’t interpret and he is saved by the ringing of my phone. When I return he is fiddling with his cell phone.

“Sorry about that. Where were we?” I see his hands manipulating the buttons on his phone. They struck me as being extremely clean and I found myself oddly wondering if other 13 year old boys had such clean hands. His fingers were long and thin, but not delicate.

“Oh yes.” I was answering my own question, wondering if I’d lost him. “I was asking you about your family.

He closed his phone and slipped it in his pocket. He seemed to be thinking about how to answer this, even more than the other questions. “I have a mother,” he said with a slight edge of defensiveness. His answer was filled with worlds of unspoken heartbreak.

I took a deep breath. “You live with her?”

“Of course.”

“Can I ask where your father is?” I don’t make any assumptions in our ‘broken-family’ society.

“Don’t know. He died. I mean, he left when I was little. I don’t remember him much.”

I don’t know if his slip and instant correction showed a slight edge towards wanting to tell the truth, or just opening up.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. I really meant it, but it sounded like such a canned, insincere response.

The kid looked hard at me, evaluating whether I was sincere or not. Now who was interviewing who, I wondered.

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“No.”

“How does that feel? I mean, do you think you’d like to have a brother or sister?”

“Sure.” There was the slightest hint of a spark in him.

I decided it was time to open myself up now, rather than just prying into his life like a school counselor or CPS worker. “I always wanted a big family,” I told him. “I have a sister and that’s pretty cool, but I think big families look like a lot of fun. Messy, but fun.”

His face is coming into a little more into focus. He’s wearing glasses and his eyes popped open in a funny way that changed the configuration of his whole face. He pushed his glasses, too big, back up on his nose. There was something charmingly innocent about this boy. Refreshing.

“Let’s play a game,” I said impulsively. I already knew that this kid’s reality was troublesome to say the least. After all, I made him up. Maybe I could get to know him by entering his fantasy world. His face transformed into a big funny question mark.

I said, “Let’s pretend we could pick our ideal family.”

“Yeah?” It was like I had opened a door that he’d been standing outside of and I just gave him permission to go through.

“Sure. You want to go first?”

“Hmm. No, you go.” Hesitant, but clearly looking forward the game.

“O.K. Let’s see. I’d definitely have a brother. An older brother who would tease me terribly, but who would defend me from anyone who might want to hurt me.”

The kid’s face relaxed and changed again.

“I like that. I think I’d have a brother too, but he’d be a twin. I would always have someone to hang out with.” There was a definite twinkle in his eye.

“You’d always have someone to blame for the broken window too,” I teased. He got my joke right away.

“Course it works both ways, but twins do seem to have a lot of fun. Playing pranks and stuff,” I said.

“What about sisters?” He’s asking me questions now. This is turning out better than I anticipated. “Do you want more sisters?”

“Well, I have an older sister, but I think I’d like two younger ones. And a baby brother. A chubby little boy who everyone would spoil, but he’d still be loveable.”

We’re interrupted by the phone again and I have to finish making the soup. When I return to the living room, he’s gone. I think I’ll be able to coax him back again pretty easily though and I’m encouraged, but I’ll have to keep our sessions short.

Passing the table where I keep my hodgepodge collection of rocks, I notice they have been neatly arranged and grouped by their basic compositions. I was fascinated with his subtle way of communicating.

Maybe next time I’ll learn his name.

9 thoughts on “Interview with my Main Character

  1. I believe in our writing fiction or nonfiction,we are really writing about our self or an autobiography…in this dialogue I find myself more fascinated by your thought processes than the boy’s…I will naturally learn more about you than your imaginary character and ask why do you select a 13 year old boy rather than someone else ?

    1. The choice of a 13 year old boy was from an idea that I wanted to write something for troubled young children with reading difficulties, but I have no idea how it’s going to end up at this point.

      Naturally I must draw on my own experiences to create a character, but if that’s all I had to work with, they would be pretty limited. I’ve never been a 13 year old boy :o) so I’m still wondering if I’ll be able to pull this off, but it is much more than an autobiography.

      In creating characters I start with tools like archetypes which are very general. Then I find a good astrological sign that helps round him out. The character clinic I’m taking poses all kinds of questions I have to ask him which adds further layers of depth to his being. It’s a fascinating process, like watching a new species of plant grow before your eyes.

      To add another metaphor here, I think writing fiction is kind of like making soup, using ingredients from your own story, adding bits and pieces of other people’s stories, then throwing various and sundry spices in to see what brings the flavor out. Then you have to let it simmer and see if all the elements work together to make it into something you want to serve to others.

    1. Very much so. It’s the first time I’ve done it and I was surprised at the results. I have another one I’m planning to do with him as well.

      I’m just wondering how it will be when I interview the antagonist: a multi-layered, creepy sort of person. The idea is frightening.

  2. Hi, Rahma.

    I followed your bread crumbs from your last blog!

    As I stated before, I think the interview is a great tool if you can get your characters to talk to you. I love how I learn so much about your boy (and you : )) through the actions. It adds so much depth to your character already.

    1. Catwoods:
      Glad my bread crumbs led you back here. My blogger.com was shortlived and it made more sense to revive this one.

      I am enjoying your blog so much. It’s such an interesting way to get to know other writers and thinkers.

      Glad you liked the interview. I am hoping to do another one soon.

    1. I was wondering how this technique would work for the other characters. I can see how some might resent it as you say, especially the antagonist. But I’m going to try it anyway. Should be interesting!

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