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