In Part I, I recommended the Interview Method for building your characters. Today, I’ll post part of a sample imaginary interview that I created in the early days of writing Sail Away on My Silver Dream.
Interviewer: …Do you all go to church?
Sharon: No, just me and my mother.
Interviewer: Your father doesn’t go?
Sharon: He doesn’t get up.
Interviewer: He’s too tired?
Sharon: Yes. He needs a lot of sleep.
Interviewer: What time do you go to church?
Sharon: Eleven o’clock.
Interviewer: That’s pretty late for someone to still be in bed, isn’t it?
Interviewer: So what do you like about church?
Sharon: I like the music. It’s very peaceful there.
Interviewer: Isn’t it peaceful at home?
Interviewer: What is it that bothers you?
Sharon: My dad.
Interviewer: Your dad?
Sharon: He’s always sick.
Sharon: Yes. He drinks beer all afternoon and then gets sick. Mom has to help him up to bed at night. Then he sleeps until noon and gets up all mean.
Interviewer: What is he like when he’s not drinking?
Sharon: I don’t know. He’s always been like this. Maybe…
Interviewer: Maybe what?
Sharon: Maybe he wasn’t always this bad. He used to go to work.
Interviewer: He doesn’t work anymore?
Sharon: No. He lost his job at the factory, and he’s worked a little here and there, since, but he keeps getting laid off.
Interviewer: How does that make you feel?
Sharon: Scared, I guess.
Interviewer: Why is that?
Sharon: I don’t know.
Interviewer: Do you have enough to eat?
Sharon: Yes. My mom has some money…
Interviewer: So she can cover the expenses?
Sharon: That’s about it. Her mom sent her some money for clothes for school, and stuff.
Interviewer: So what are you afraid of?
Sharon: I’m not sure.
Interviewer: What’s he like when he’s been drinking?
Sharon: Really, really mean. He yells at my mom, says awful things.
Interviewer: Does he hit her?
Sharon: No. Not usually.
Interviewer: But he hits her sometimes?
Interviewer: When was that?
Sharon: Two weeks ago. They were yelling and she called him a drunk, and he hit her.
Interviewer: Did you see this?
Sharon: No. I heard it. I was in my bedroom.
Interviewer: How do you know he hit her?
Sharon: She sort of yelled and then started to cry.
Interviewer: How many times did he hit her?
Sharon: I think just the once.
Interviewer: You’re sure he hit her? It wasn’t something else?
Sharon: She had a big bruise on her face the next day.
Interviewer: Did she say how she got the bruise?
Sharon: No. She didn’t mention it.
Interviewer: Did he hit her any other time?
Sharon: Yes, I think he did, but I can’t remember for sure.
Interviewer: Does she get bruises often?
Interviewer: How often?
Sharon: Once or twice a year. Maybe three times.
Interviewer: Do you ever get bruises?
Sharon: No. He doesn’t hit me.
Sharon: Well, he was going to hit me once. He grabbed me by the arm and I couldn’t get loose.
Interviewer: What happened?
Sharon: My mother stopped him.
Interviewer: She stopped him?
Sharon: She yelled something at him. “Stop,” or something like that.
Interviewer: And he stopped?
Sharon: Yes. He let me go and I hid in my room.
Interviewer: Did he hit her, then?
Sharon: I don’t think so.
Interviewer: What else did she say that made him stop?
Sharon: Something like “Remember what happened…” [pauses]
Interviewer: There’s more?
Sharon: I don’t know. I got out of the way as soon as he let go.
Interviewer: Did she say anything after you went to your room?
Sharon: Yes, but I couldn’t hear.
Interviewer: It may come back to you. You couldn’t have been that far away.
Sharon: [shakes head]
Interviewer: Here is a little notebook. I want you to keep this in a safe place and write down any memories that come to you. Anything like what your mother said to your father, that time, or anything that’s bothering you. Anything at all. Okay?
Sharon: All right.
Interviewer: Your dreams are important, too, even silly ones. Write down your dreams first thing in the morning, too, before you do anything. Okay?
Interviewer: We’ll talk about something else when you come next week. I want to know how you’re doing in school.
Sharon: I’m getting all A’s.
Interviewer: That’s good. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Sharon’s character is displayed in what she says and what she doesn’t say. Her vocabulary and the directness of her answers give clues to her intelligence. When I finished this exercise, I had a much more complete grasp of her personality and what she’d do in a particular situation.
There was a similar interview for David. His responses are more reticent.
I’ll stress again that any backstory notes like these are intended for the author’s use for reference only. When writing, avoid copying backstory material into the manuscript; it’s almost always a mistake. Incorporating backstory can lead to telling instead of showing, or putting in too many details.