Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Building Your Characters One Interview at a Time

Interviewing can be a valuable part of your research process. Why should you consider the phone, interview, and email interview essential in writing your novel? I'm going to provide some answers to that question as well as a few tips for conducting them.

The idea for my first novel emerged from listening to a guest on a local TV show in Utah. With just a little bit of effort I was able to establish a telephone interview with the host of that show. The host had herself escaped from a dangerous cult on the cusp of her marriage to a much older and very abusive man. Twenty years later she became a Christian believer and now helps women in precarious situations.

Phone interviews with her and email follow-up helped me to capture the emotional landscape of my main character's world. Listening to Doris, I was able to better immerse myself in main character Rachel's head.

While writing nonfiction articles for publication or online, I often use email interviews as a source of information. Yet I'm convinced interviews are equally valuable for fiction writers. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Interviews can bring the little details that bring your fiction alive.

Memories are often captured by the senses. Omelettes will forever remind me of late night political talks with my father in the years before his illness. The smell of burning leaves reminds me of watching our neighbors dog and my children jump together in a pile in the middle of the cul-de-sac, memories that again remind me how fleeting their childhood runs past. Seeing a Hawaiian print shirt reminds my husband of his father.

Whether you are writing historical or contemporary, details are key. What can help you capture the scents, tastes, sights, and sounds of the Alamo or the Middle East? What might your heroine have worn to celebrate D-Day?

2) Interviews can also alert you to errors in your writing.

An interview is a great opportunity to find your own mistakes before they go into print. The internet doesn't show the whole reality of a historical period and there are differences in region that we don't always realize. When we interviewed a New Yorker from World War II, we were able to find out what she used to make birthday cakes and it wasn't the same as the recipes we had found online. You may find a new perspective!

3) Interviews can help you capture the emotional world of your character.

One author says the interviewees would describe their ordinary world, then the tone of their voice would change. Little nuances in the spoken word, in facial expression, gestures all can help you to see into your character's emotional landscape. As I listened to online interviews of those involved in a cult, I noticed the flat tones of their voices, the blankness of their facial expressions. I tried to capture these in my novel while letting the reader through tiny detail (a slight voice inflection when certain topics came up, the fidgeting of a hand) know there was an undercurrent of feeling beneath the surface.

Here are seven tips for conducting an interview for your novel:

1) Think of what types of people you can interview to help with your novel.

What is your main character's career? Think about interviewing those in his or her field to get the feel for an ordinary day on the job. Don't forget to include those who live in your chosen locale, someone of your character's denomination or ethnic background, etc. Consider hobbies, too, if knitting is an important part of your story, think about interviewing some knitters if you don't know how to purl.

If you write historical, librarians and museum curators can be valuable sources for your novel and many are more than happy to provide information.

2) Take advantage of technology.

You may not be able to travel to Russia (or even California) to conduct an interview, but such programs as Skype and Google Hangouts are a viable alternative. A video allows you to see and record details such as changes in facial expressions and even minute gestures. Such small changes are more often seen than dramatic gestures.

3) Note what isn't being said as well as what is. 

Are there certain topics your interviewee avoids or seems to gloss over? Is he uncomfortable when you mention an event or place? Might your character be feeling the same way? Don't forget to record nonverbal signals as well.

4) Pay attention to colloquialisms, slang, and phonetics.

Does your Georgia interviewee call all soda "coke"? Does "youse guys" pop up in the conversation? Note these little details, slang, what may very well be local expressions. These will add color to your novel.

5) Note people mentioned in the interview.

Its possible one interview may lead to another. Often if a professional is unaware of an answer, they may lead you to someone who can better answer your questions. If historical people or places are mentioned, take special note, you may want to do more research on these topics later.

6) Be conscious of your interviewee's time. 

Make sure you stay with the alloted interview time. Be willing to change around your schedule if needed to accomodate your subject. They are taking time out of their day to help you! If you have further questions ask if they would be willing to follow up later or through email.

7) Above all, be courteous.

Most people are happy to help with interviews, but recognize that it can not only encroach on their schedule but also may be challenging emotionally. Discussing life during war or another emotional event can be very taxing. Give the person you are talking to time to pause during their conversation if needed. Be cognizant of the difficulty they may be having. Be sure to follow up after your discussion with a thank you note and a small gift if appropriate.

Interviewing can yield so many benefits for a fiction writer. Take advantage of those opportunities and always appreciate those who are giving them to you.

What about you? Have you conducted interviews for your novel? What was the experience like? How did it help you moving forward? If not, is this a method you would consider using for your research?

 Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys writing for Library Journal magazine and the blog Wonderfully Woven. 




Sarah Forgrave said...

Great tips, Julia! I haven't done any formal interviews yet, but I did ask my sister a lot of one-off questions for my latest book since the main character is a heart transplant recipient. I feel like the emotional depth of my story is more authentic because of her openness to share.

Casey said...

I love what you said about paying attention to what is being said, but also what is not being said. I love subtext in dialogue for my writing and body language is so huge when it comes to building our characters. I hadn't thought of using the same application for interviews. Though you would have to be careful not to let your imagination run away with you. ;) Great tips!

kaybee said...

This is good, Julia.
I interview a lot in my day job (print journalist) but haven't done it too much for my fiction. Right now I'm majoring in the Oregon Trail, so most of my sources are dead. But I still need to talk to history professionals, so this works for me. Good post.
Kathy Bailey

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Great post, Julia.

I've done interviews for each of the books I've written. My characters have a knack for liking professions I know nothing about. So, I have to learn enough about the profession to be able to write it accurately.

A couple interviews I've done in person. One person has answered questions via email. BTW, you reminded me I haven't given her anything as a thank you yet. Thanks for that! :)

You offered great suggestions here. Thanks!

Sally Bradley said...

I'm going to be the weird one who says interviews shut the book down for me. I did that, two books ago. Got all the info on the characters, their family history, background, upbringing, etc. But then when some of those details popped up in the story, they didn't fit the direction of the story. So the plot fizzled and died.

In my last book, I asked my characters nothing beforehand. I thought about my two main characters a lot, thought about scenes I already knew, thought about subplots--but none of that was forcing it. Just thinking. Then I wrote. And when those details came up, I created the character to be whatever fit that point in the story and plot. And the story flowed!

Clearly, I'm a pantser!

Julia M. Reffner said...


I remembered that and am excited to hear it is a part of your novel! Always so glad to see your name here!


That's a good point about not letting your imagination run away with you, ha! I do so enjoy using the nonverbal cues of RL people.


I'll bet print journalism helps you a lot with researching your writing. Be sure to let us know how those interviews go with experts on the Oregon trail.

Julia M. Reffner said...


Your interviews sound interesting. I love reading about strange professions.


Definitely sounds like you are a pantser. Maybe its the librarian in me that causes me to be a research buff and an overplanner with my fiction. I can see how it could go both ways.