Brainstorming a Plot through Character Interviews

Brainstorming richly detailed characters is another way to plot a novel into existence.

We usually think of a novel’s plot in terms of the actions and events that propel our characters to make choices and decisions that carry them to the desired end. However, we can also create a novel based on the relationships, interactions, and conflicts between two or more characters.

Starting with our characters is the reverse of starting with action and plot points. In this method of plotting, two or more characters with opposing goals and mindsets are set loose in a setting and must find their way to a satisfying conclusion. Depending on the genre, this could be meeting their goals or at least some of them, reaching or coming close to their dream, vanquishing one or the other, or living happily ever after.

Character-driven stories, such as those found in women’s fiction, romance, and psychological thrillers, particularly lend themselves to this reverse method of plotting. But any type story can be plotted this way. And even if you prefer a more linear or action-based way of plotting, deep diving into your characters can only make your novel better.

Creating the Protagonist

The protagonist is the person the main storyline is about. You may already have a type of person in your head that you wish to make your protagonist.

But to write a strong character you need to know that person intimately. To do this, you have to get inside the person’s head, right down to the very core of them.

How can we do this?

One method is to begin within details such as hair color, eye color, body build, age, etc.. However, I am going to suggest something different. The exterior a person lives in is really just a shell. I suggest working from the inside out. Knowing what the inner person is like will in the end, inform you of the best look and occupation for your character.


The Process of Brainstorming a Character

But how do we get inside a character’s head?

By interviewing them!

We can ask them to tell us about their loves, hates, and beliefs. We can dig deep and ask them to tell us why they feel the way they do.

When I am brainstorming a character, I like to create a journal. Then I “become” that person. I imagine I am keeping a diary and write in first person. For each question I address to my character, I not only answer it, but explain what in my background made me (as the character) feel that way, in other words, the why.

The Interview Questions

So what kind of questions do we ask? Here is a list of the types of questions you could ask your protagonist and other important characters. Do not just answer with one word. Remember to follow each with that all important WHY?


EMOTIONAL STATE QUESTIONS

  • What is your current state of mind?
  • What do you like best about yourself? Least?
  • What’s the worst thing that’s happened in your life? What did you learn from it?
  • What are you most ashamed of in your life?
  • What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to someone?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • Are you lying to yourself about something? What is it?
  • What, if anything, would you like to change in your life?
  • What do you envy about others?
  • Do you tell lies? When? Why?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What makes you nervous?
  • What makes you angry?
  • What makes you sad?
  • How do you react to confrontation?
  • How do you react to violence you see? Violence done to you?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  • When and where were you the happiest?
  • What is it that you most dislike?

LIFE QUESTIONS

  • What is your occupation. Why did you choose it?
  • Do you like your job?
  • What do you do for enjoyment or when you have free time?
  • What do you hate to do?
  • What talents or skills do you have?
  • What can’t you do?
  • What physical limitations do you have?
  • Did you turn out the way you expected? The way your parents predicted?
  • Is one of your senses more highly developed than another? (Are you more visual, tactile, or auditory, etc., or do you rely on the famous sixth sense?)
  • Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done? What would happen if you did it?
  • How would you like to die?

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS

  • What impression do you make on people when they first meet you? How about after they’ve known you for a while?
  • What’s your idea of a good marriage or partnership? Do you think that will happen in your life?
  • Who is your best friend(s). (“How did you meet? What do you like about them? What do they like about you?”
  • What do you most value in your friends?
  • Do you like working with a group or on your own?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  • How do you decide if you can trust someone? Experience with others? with this person? First impressions? Intuition? Do you test the person somehow? Or are you just generally disposed to trust or not to trust?
  • When you walk into a room, what do you notice first? Second?
  • When you walk into a room, what do you expect people to notice about you?

STATUS QUESTIONS

  • What are you most proud of about your life?
  • What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  • If you could spend the day with someone you admire (living or dead or imaginary), who would you pick?
  • What is your greatest extravagance?
  • What is your most valued possession?
  • How educated do you think you are compared to other people?
  • What do you consider are your strengths?
  • What do you consider are your weaknesses?
  • What is one physical attribute you are proud of?
  • What one physical attribute would you change?
  • What do you consider your strongest skill?
  • How do you feel about your life right now? What would you like to change?

BELIEF QUESTIONS

  • What saying or quote guides your life??
  • What do you believe about God and religion?
  • What really moves you or touches your soul?
  • What’s the most important thing in your life?
  • What do you value most?
  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • Which living person do you most despise?
  • Which living person do you most admire?
  • Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
  • Who are your heroes in real life?
  • What is the person you love or wish to love like?
  • How do you feel about your family, now that you’re an adult?
  • In your relationship with others? how do you behave differently with family than with friends?
  • What do you need forgiveness for?
  • What should you be honored for?
  • How do your political beliefs, if you have any, shape your life?
  • Do you believe you can make a difference in the world?

DREAM QUESTIONS

  • Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done? What would happen if you did it?
  • What do you want from life?
  • If you were granted three wishes, what would you ask for?
  • What do you wish your special talent was?
  • If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you wish it would be?

ROMANCE QUESTIONS

  • How do you fall in love? At first sight? Over a long period?
  • What parts of loving come easy for you? Hard?
  • What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is the quality you most like in a partner?
  • What was it that drew you to your partner?
  • Where do you like to be touched?
  • Where don’t you like to be touched?
  • What are the most seductive words you know?
  • What type of clothing makes you feel sexy?
  • If your partner wants to seduce you, what should they do?
  • What is your deepest, most well-hidden sexual fantasy? Would you ever try it?

Finding More Interview Questions

Some of the questions above come from the Proust Questionnaire. Others I made up myself. For more questions check out any of these.

10 Interview Questions that Reveal Character

45 Questions to Ask Your Character

The following you take online. Just pretend you are answering for your character not yourself.

16Personalities Free Personality Test

123 Test Free Personality Test


Interviewing the Antagonist

When plotting through character, interviewing one character is not enough. Once you have a protagonist, you need to develop the antagonist. This is the character who is in conflict with the main character. It could be the villain out to destroy the protagonist, a toxic friend or relation, a competitor, or a flawed lover who needs to be wooed or kept at arm’s length.

As you did for the protagonist, you will be imagining yourself as the antagonist. This may not be as comfortable as being the protagonist, but it is important to do so. Digging deep into the enemy can turn what is often a cardboard figure into a living, breathing human with both flaws and strengths.

Creating Story Conflict

Now here’s the trick for getting maximum conflict and story momentum using characters. In brainstorming answers to the above questions for your antagonist make sure the answers are as different as possible. Certainly they can share some commonalities, but the more conflicting differences between them the better. If the protagonist gets nervous on heights, have the antagonist love to fly and climb mountains.

One way to do this is to make the character interview journal two-sided. Record the protagonist’s answers on one side and the antagonist’s on the other. In a way, think of them as talking or arguing back and forth.

Developing the Character-Based Plot

Once your protagonist and antagonist are known to you inside and out, build the relationship between the two. Ask some of these questions:

  • Do they know each other? How?
  • Do they live together, near each other, or far apart? Why?
  • What are they in agreement on?
  • How are they in conflict? Why?
  • What would make their relationship worse?
  • What would make their relationship better?

As you work through the questions you will start to picture places and events that would put these two characters into conflict. So let the encounters unfold and see how the plotline develops.

And finally, once you have gotten to know your characters, you can solidify the more basic details of these two people–their outer shells. How old are they? What do they look like? What are their names?


Do you decide on your characters before or after creating the plot?


5 thoughts on “Brainstorming a Plot through Character Interviews

  1. I love this. I ask a lot of these questions as I’m writing but I think the process would go more smoothly if I actually formalized it through the interview process . Thanks for sharing

    Like

    1. The important thing is asking the questions. But I do find approaching it in a journal format, especially the double entry protagonist/antagonist entries before plotting helps me capture their voices.

      Like

  2. Great questions for writers to answer before they start writing. Saves time later on. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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