I’d heard that advice before, but every time I worked on my novel I had the urge to move forward with the plot, to write more pages, and I thought interviewing my characters would take time away from that more urgent task. But interviewing Evan, a fifteen-year-old boy in my young adult novel, Challenge Challenge, revealed things about him I never would have learned from writing the story beginning to end, no matter how many drafts I wrote, because the interview questions were about why Evan wants what he wants. These weren’t questions about important issues like world peace or the fate of his friends and family. These questions dealt with smaller, more personal matters, like whether he preferred liquid or powder detergent, or vacuumed the floor in straight lines or a random pattern.
This revealed preferences beyond the scope of real-world rationality. He answered “Would you rather use liquid or powder detergent?” with
Liquid, because it’s going to become liquid anyway. You want it to be liquid. Why put solids in there? Solids are wrong for water. They have to dissolve. Liquid’s dissolved already. All liquid has to do is blend in, which is harder for powder to do. You lose that extra step when you choose liquid. No granules that way. Who wants granules in their wash? On their dishes? Clothes? What for? You start with liquid, because liquid’s what you’re going for.”
What a weirdo. But it’s a weird question, and the weirder aspects of Evan’s personality are crucial for helping convey his character believably. The worst weirdo of all would be someone without such opinions. That would be a boring weirdo. Opinions, even unjustified ones, help make characters interesting.
Some of Evan’s answers strayed far from the questions’ topics. When I asked him if he would prefer a window seat to an aisle seat on an airplane, he responded,
Yeah. Hell yes. A million times yes. Those clouds. They make the coolest shapes. And you can go down in them, and come back up again, so it’s all white and then it’s blue. Or you can get the gray that’s in between. Or when you fly over the tiny little cities, the ones between the mountains. They’re so small down there. The mountains are so big. Let’s go hiking.
The window seat reminds Evan he wants to go hiking. He is a cloud-gazing nature lover, an aspect of his personality I haven’t given enough consideration to. In one part of the novel he watches water striders at the edge of a river, but he’s only there to hide from some security guards. Too much nature gazing could make the story boring. I should be careful with it. No matter how I use (or don’t use) nature, this airplane seat question has alerted me to the issue by a circuitous route I never would have expected. Such surprises can lead to good stories.
My novel is realistic fiction, but that doesn’t seem to concern Evan. He doesn’t know he’s in a realistic story. Like many real-life people, he has an imagination that veers far from reality. Evan’s answer to the window seat question seems more like fantasy when he continues,
It would be cool if you could make the plane a teeny tiny plane, like the towns look, but for real, at least small enough to land on one of the motorboats, and have all the other passengers disappear, the whole plane disappear, except for my seat, or even better, except for the flotation device under it. I’ll float up beside the motorboat and get on in.
Even though I want Evan’s story to seem real, his fantastical musings remind me that everyone’s mind has a little magic. Many people have imagined what life would be like if they were taller or stronger, or if they could fly.
Evan’s answer is part of his interior world, his imagination. No matter how I handle what he actually does in the story, and how he navigates the real world around him, his responses to such interview questions remind me not to lose sight of whatever unreal things a realistic character would think about.
Throughout Evan’s interview, he maintains the personality of an adventurous teenager, answering another transportation-related question, “Would you rather have a sedan or a station wagon?” by saying if he had a “large Russian military surplus cargo truck,” he “could strap a sedan and station wagon to the roof.”
To other questions, Evan gave darker, more disturbing answers. When asked whether he would prefer pierced or clip-on earrings, he made a crude comparison between earrings and staples. I’d rather not repeat the most offensive things he said. Interviewing him has showed me what a creep he can be, and how important it is that I make that side of him understandable.
But he has attitude, and I can work with that. The interview reveals his weaknesses as well as his strengths. He will learn from his faults as I continue this interview. I’ve been breaking it into twenty- or thirty-minute sessions. I’m not sure that’s the best way to do it, but writing about Evan without moving forward with the actual story makes me anxious.
Since the novel is in third-person point of view, answering for Evan in first-person has made it hard to distinguish him from myself. When explaining that he likes his marshmallows burnt, he said, “I pay attention to my health.” I had never seen him as someone who paid attention to his health. That was my brain butting in, giving him the same diet advice it gives me. This confusion is the only pitfall I can find in interviewing my characters this way. But maybe it’s not a pitfall. Maybe Evan really is interested in having a healthy diet, at least moderately so. He says to “burn them when you have them,” adding “I don’t have them often.”
Interviewing Evan will help me get as deep as possible into his mind, uncomfortably deep, and this discomfort is needed to truly know a character. More than just the plot, the character’s most hidden biases, irrational fears, and secrets he would never reveal to anyone must be revealed. Evan won’t hide anything from me. If I need to know something, I'll ask him.