One of the most interesting professional development sessions I’ve attended as a reporter dealt with character development.

Yes, character development in the writing of non-fiction text.

Intrigued, I attended this session. One of the best decisions I have made as a writer.

The session leader took out his wallet and showed us what was in it (except for the money of course). There was a gym membership card, the discount card to the local grocery store, his license, pictures of his family, his work I.D., and business cards.

The contents of his black leather wallet were boring to say the least but they spoke to who he was–a working family man who likes to keep trim. And that was the point. The wallet, a personal artifact, told me more about him, what was important to him, and who he was than a ten minute conversation.

That is characterization, the apex to telling a good story.

No doubt that good stories are driven by interesting characters. I don’t have if you have the best plot in the world, if the characters can’t interact with it, if they aren’t interesting…what’s the point?

One of the techniques that has helped me as a writer and a journalist is the character interview. It’s the best way I’ve found to get down to the heart of the character, their motivation and their story.

But what to ask? Here are some articles with some interesting questions to ask. In general you want to ask questions that will reveal something. Open ended is best. I think the best interview include the reaction to the questions. For example, does the character grimace when you ask about certain topics? Does the character smile and a serious question? Does the character even answer the question. Remember, what is not said is just as important as what is said to get to know the character.

Here’s something from my interview with my character Jennie Manning. Manning was a detective with the Reno Police Department who recently returned home to Houston. I interviewed her when I was stuck on her story. This unstuck me quickly.

What brought you back to Houston?

 She slumped down again and began playing with the necklace around her neck while looking at one of the corners of the room. Her lips pouted. She sat there in silence for awhile before answering.

“I wanted to be a good sister.”

How so?

Her pair of chestnut eyes looked directly into mine as if beaming a laser from them. Jennie stopped playing with the medallion, the gold chain in mind motion. 

“To catch my sister’s killer.”

Here are some other interesting links that talk about character interviewing. The bottom three have sample questions.

Happy interviewing!