How Do You Find a Character’s Voice?

Nat RussoCharacterization, How-To, Voice, Writing 39 Comments

Finding a character’s voice and personality comes easily to some, and with difficulty to others. In fact, even for those of us who don’t struggle with this issue, some characters are just more enigmatic than others. So what can you do?

In a couple of #writetip auto-tweets that I send out periodically (we’ll debate the merits of auto-tweeting later) I mention a process of interviewing your characters to get at the heart of that person’s character traits. I’ve received an enormous response to those tweets asking me to go into some detail, so I decided to write today’s blog entry on that subject.

In the past, I’ve taken a number of approaches to this problem that usually wind up being a type of exploratory writing: short stories, stream of consciousness, random scene from current project, etc. Those are all tried and true techniques, and they are worth experimenting with to see if they are more to your liking. But I’ve since stumbled upon another technique that has added more depth to my characters than any of the previous techniques I’ve tried.

Interviewing Your Characters

Before we dig into this further, I need to say this is not my idea. This isn’t something that came to me in a feverish dream, or kept me up at night. I’ve read a lot of craft books over the last couple of years, and I’ve long since forgotten where this came from, so ingrained has it become in my process. I actually spent some time digging through my books so I could give proper credit, but I just couldn’t find the original source. What I did come to realize, however, is that the idea of interviewing your characters is actually common.
Orson Scott Card, in his book “Elements of Fiction Writing: Characters & Viewpoint”, calls it “Interrogating the Character.” He starts out with a very free-flowing process, where he only knows a single thing about the character: the character’s age. From there, he ultimately begins asking causal questions “Why” and “To what result” that flesh out the character he knew so little about moments ago.
My process is very similar, but I begin with a stock set of questions that I plan to ask. The “highlights”, so to speak. Also, I tend to start out knowing a little more about my character than a single fact.
[Edit 1/6/2013 – I accidentally stumbled upon the source of this interview process today. The “seed” questions came directly from James Scott Bell, in his book “Revision & Self-Editing”.]

The Questions

These questions form my starting point:
  • Who are you?
  • What do you care about most in the world?
  • What really ticks you off?
  • If you could do one thing, and succeed at it, what would it be?
  • What people do you most admire, and why?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?
  • What do you look like?
The questions themselves aren’t particularly interesting from a fact-finding perspective. Remember, you’re not necessarily trying to arrive at factual information here (although that is often the result). Getting new ideas for your character is wonderful, so you shouldn’t suppress them. But keep in mind that the primary goal of what we’re doing here is getting at your character’s voice.
I find that on most occasions, the answer to one of the above questions leads to another question that is not on the list. Let this happen! This is your subconscious guiding you through streams of ideas you may not have been consciously aware of. You may discover things about your story or milieu through this process.
One question I would like to spend a moment on: “What do you look like?” When I answer this question, it’s not in the manner you might think. Sure, I could give textual descriptions in the voice of the character, but I’ve found another technique that works best for me: I “cast” my character with a professional actor who I’ve seen perform the way in which I would like to perform this character myself. I’ll often scour Google Images looking for a picture of the actor in question, and then use one or more pictures to serve as the answer, as if I took a snapshot of the character during the interview.  And…it’s fun! Let’s face it, unless you’re J.K. Rowling, this is the last chance you’ll ever get to cast your book, so do it justice and have fun with it.
I’d like to end today’s entry with an example from my own novel, so you can see how I put this advice into practice.

Example Interview: Tithian Bel-Enrog

Tithian Bel-Enrog is the PoV character of an alternate plot line that runs through my bestselling debut novel, Necromancer Awakening. He begins his journey firmly in the camp of the opposition and goes on an interesting character arc. There will be many terms used in the answers/questions that you may not understand, as they relate specifically to my milieu. Don’t worry too much about these. This is more about the process. I hope you enjoy this and, even better, find it helpful in some ways.
You’ll see that I deviate from the main list of questions almost immediately. But they’re always there in the background, waiting for me to come back around when I’ve mined all the information I can from a particular line of questioning.
  • Who are you?

    • I am Tithian, son of Enrog, Prime Warlock of The Pinnacle.  May I ask your name, sir?
  • I’m Nat…the writer.
    • The what?
  • That’s not important.  What do you care about most in the world?

    • That is not an easy question to answer, Nat.  I care about the state of our world and the depths to which we have sunk.  I worry about whether we can turn things around, or whether we are too far gone now.  This is not how I expected my life to turn out.
  • What were you expecting?

    • I was expecting to serve out my time with Lord Mukhtaar and the Archmage, but events took my life in a different direction.  Events I never would have foreseen or guessed at.  I had hoped to rise to a position of prominence in the clan…but that is not possible now.
  • Why is not possible?
    • I think Lord Mujahid blames me for much of what has happened.  I think he finds me weak, since I believed standing up to Kagan would be an exercise in futility.  This saddens me.  I counted Lord Mujahid among my friends.  I am not entirely sure what can be done to redeem myself in his eyes.
  • Is redemption important to you?
    • Redemption should be important to all men.  It does not rest well with me that I have greatly offended the Mukhtaar Lord…and not because he’s a Mukhtaar Lord either.  I think when a man does something to cause offense, he should do something to remedy it, regardless of his original intent.  But this…this goes beyond offense, I believe.  This is…something else.
  • What really ticks you off?
    • There isn’t much that truly angers me, but there is much that causes me concern.
  • Such as?
    • I do not believe our world can continue as it has for much longer.  I believe the world itself is fighting against us for what we did on that day forty years ago.
  • So why don’t you do something about it?

    • How can I do anything about it?  I have no real power in this world.  The power I wield is under the good grace of the archmage.  He was extremely powerful before the death of the old religion.  Now…he is an unstoppable force of nature.  And the gods speak through him, even to this day.  Sometimes it appears they answer his very questions.  I have seen him get the call…the call from the Book of Life…in the middle of a conversation, only to find out the gods themselves were commenting on the very topic we had been discussing at the time.  This can be nothing other than divine providence.  How can a man stand up against that?  For that matter, why would a man stand up against that?  Certainly a man standing against the gods is not a good man.
  • But isn’t that exactly what Kagan did?

    • I can see how it would appear that way.  Remember, interacting with the gods is not like interactions between you and me.  The average person is incapable of communicating directly with them.  We have known this since the gods revealed themselves to the Ardirians more than a thousand years ago.  Only an archmage may deal with them.  Archmage Kagan instructed me that I might not understand what was happening on that day, but that I should reserve my judgement and trust him.  And so, I trust him.
  • Yet you said you think the world itself is fighting back due to that event forty years ago.  Could it be you feel that…maybe Kagan got it wrong?

    • That is a question that haunts me.  If it is possible that an Archmage could be wrong…what are the implications of that fallibility for the rest of us?  The archmage is the arbiter between gods and humankind.  I cannot grasp the concept of the archmage being capable of getting it wrong.
  • Yet…you do think he got it wrong, don’t you?

    • Well…can we move on, please?  I’m not…entirely comfortable with this.
  • If you could do one thing, and succeed at it, what would it be?

    • I would find some way to bring balance back to this world.  True balance.
  • What does true balance look like to you?  How do you define it?

    • Balance is a perfect state of harmony between gods and humankind.  It is unnatural for humankind to war with the gods.
  • What people do you most admire, and why?

    • The Archmages, throughout history, have represented the pinnacle of human achievement.  I believe this, in part, is why their traditional home is actually called The Pinnacle, along with the place’s physical characteristics.  They are among the most admirable men who have ever walked this plane of existence.  They represent the infallibility of the gods, and the perfect connection of humankind with godhood.  Second only to the Archmages, I would have to say the Mukhtaar Lords.  They represent the source and summit of sacramental purification.  Without necromancers, who practice their arts under the auspices of Clan Mukhtaar, souls would not achieve purification.  The perfect state of balance, then, is The Pinnacle acting in unison with Clan Mukhtaar.
  • What was your childhood like?

    • The necromantic power was carried through my father.  I awoke to my power early in life…earlier than most priests.  I was in my mid-teens at the time.  I remember how surprised…and how proud…my father was.  He took me to our local coven leader where I was taken on as a postulant.  I grew in power quickly…some said frighteningly fast.  Word of my achievements reached our local governor, who brought it to the attention of The Pinnacle.  I entered service with the Council, and several years later rose to the highest position a non-Ardirian priest could hope to achieve;  Prime Warlock.
  • What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you? [Note: A “penitent” in my milieu is an undead servant that a necromancer summons from beyond the grave.]

    • That is actually a funny story.  Well, sad…but somewhat comical.  I was having a friendly argument with a fellow council mage one day…and it grew somewhat heated.  I told him I was upset because he wasn’t seeing reason, and I was going to leave.  I needed to summon a penitent and clear my mind by helping someone else.  He decided the argument wasn’t over, so he followed me.  I ignored him and summoned a penitent.  Quite unintentionally I had summoned the poor fellow’s mother!  She berated him for fifteen minutes before he begged me to release her!
  • What do you look like?
Do you use a similar process? Do you find it helpful or harmful to “cast” your characters? Leave a comment and let me know!

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 39

    1. Glad you liked it, Susan. I’ve used it for all of my major characters and have found it very helpful. I will probably use it on my minor characters, to some extent, to bring out more depth in them as well.

  1. Great post. I’m using this technique with my current WIP but it is always useful to see how another writer is using it. I’ve also found it can be a good trick to use when you are stuck with a scene, I interview the character to find out what they are thinking and what they would do next.

    1. What a wonderful idea! I hadn’t thought about using the interview process within a scene, but I can see how that would work.

      I tend to approach scenes with all of the high points mapped out, but I don’t always stay confined to my outline if the path is just begging to be changed during the course of writing. I may have to try this.

  2. Very helpful tips! I might just go make a blog post of this with MY protagonist. (Linking back to you of course.)
    I might make it more narrative, though, like… Why is he being interviewed? Where are they sitting exactly? Etc.
    It’s going to be hard to ‘cast’ a character that’s in two books and I haven’t even thought about casting before… A challenge awaits!
    Your character seems like a very respectable, very human person. Good job there. The interview process seems to awaken a lot of details even the writer might not know.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Maranda.

      I like your idea about making it more narrative. In fact, I can see how using a narrative process could help to flesh out a setting. Perhaps you’re wondering what one of your cities or buildings looks like…you could opt to make that the location of the interview, thereby taking the setting for a “test drive”.

      As you said, it really does awaken details I hadn’t thought of previously. If I posted the rest of my character interviews, you’d see that none of them stay confined to the original seed questions. I basically free write the character’s response, and allow the conversation to flow naturally, having it go wherever it wants to go. I’ve learned some strange and interesting things about my characters this way.

      The character above, Tithian Bel-Enrog, began his life as nothing more than a PoV device that allowed me to put the antagonist on stage without revealing his thought processes. After the interview, however, I realized I was squandering something wonderful, and Tithian found himself promoted to a major subplot line.

  3. Wow I thought I was the only one Googling images. My trick is once I have the characters name I Google it. Weirdly enough there are similarities between people with the same name. So I find the images that most fit my character and work from that.

  4. I ask leading questions of the characters. For example, I’ll ask the MC how they really feel about someone, and I’m always surprised what comes out. I also ask the best friend or sibling what they think of the MC, and I always get the most interesting quirks and flaws.

    1. Very true, regarding the questions. In the above example, I had no idea about the whole “summoning the poor fellow’s mother” bit until I asked him the question. It impacted not only the character, but the overall tone of my prose as well. It made me realize that it was ok to pepper in some humor or slapstick, even though I’m dealing with serious topics.

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  6. I read my MS like a playscript, skipping all narration. Sometimes I even record it. I can hear when dialog is off and if I got voice right. The interview process, though, would work to flesh out the character in the beginning. I’ll try it.

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  7. very well said Nat.. some characters are just more enigmatic than others. Very helpful tips!
    sometimes a picture message is most easy to understand.
    A child cannot understand a word/sentence meaning without pictorial content such as If you say a child to say A for Apple he will be blank but if ask with a picture of Apple say A for Apple, he also Remember word and alphabets and picture.

    1. Post

      The images I use during character interviews are very inspirational, in that they help me call to mind past performances of the actor in question. When I have an idea for a character, I usually also have an idea about what sort of attitude that character should portray. I love combing through my memory of movies and television shows to find just the right combination of actors/characters that are a close approximation of what I’m going for.

  8. Definitely wish I had stumbled upon this during NaNoWriMo. I was having a lot of trouble developing my characters and I just couldn’t get to who they were and what their motives were. Going to add this to my home screen and keep it in mind for next year. Thank you!

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  9. I love the idea of casting characters, but don’t know how to do it without wasting valuable writing time trolling the internet. Do you have a method for that?

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      I’m a firm believer that the overwhelming majority of work we do as writers takes place away from the word processor. The time you spend “casting” is time spent thinking about aspects of your character you may not have otherwise thought about.

      Example: I got sidetracked yesterday while casting a new character I’m introducing in Necromancer Falling. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment deals where I deviated from my outline because that’s just where the situation was going. But I hadn’t prepared for this character in the outline stage, so I had to shift away from 1st draft mode to planning. It took me a couple of hours, but in the end I wound up developing an entire subplot that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. This happened all because I saw a photo of a person in an interesting costume. Now my story is richer for it, but it wouldn’t have happened had I just kept on writing.

      The source material for what we write comes from absorbing experiences. All experiences, whether it’s actually writing, reading, or even playing video games. So embrace that away-from-the-word-processor time! Because whatever is drawing you away will invariably inform your writing. 🙂

  10. I have been finding your posts more and more relevant, and this one strikes a chord with me. I have been vaguely doing this interview technique already but I am going to formalise it slightly more to see if I can round out some of my more elusive characters. Cheers! 🙂

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  11. Pitch Perfect. Not one euphemism went over my head. Understood that there are fine points needing to be tuned along my own writings. Glad to receive and Grateful for additional directions along the way. Thank you. Ron

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  12. This was very informative. I know I’ve herd of this technique before and used a version of it myself, but I like the way you did it. And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who “casts” actors in the roles of their characters!

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      Thanks for stopping by, Wesley!

      Yeah, casting is a necessary step for me. And It’s not always just a single actor per character. I like to choose an actor or actors whose performances embody certain characteristics of the character in question. It helps me “perform” them better on stage.

  13. I’ve been using this technique of interviewing my main character as a postscript to the short stories. It allows me to develop or explain some ideas through pure dialogue as opposed to lengthy action-interrupting expositions by the narrator. But your post has helped me make the conceptual leap to the possibility of interviewing any and all characters as a means of developing them in some way other than writing pages of third-person character bios. Thank you!

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      I’ve found the interview does something for me that character bios do not: the interview turns a character into a real person. And that’s such an important part of getting characterization right.

      Glad you liked the article!

    2. Indeed. Just finished my daily 1000 words by interviewing a new character whose introductory scene has been a challenge to get started. Now I feel like I got a chance to get to know her, and looking forward to that scene instead of dreading it. Thank you!

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  16. Excellent and useful article, Nat. “Casting” characters is a tip I picked up from Raymond Feist, and I continue to be amazed how well holding “auditions” works to make indistinct characters distinct. It contributes to voice, too, since every actor brings part of him- or herself to every role.

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      A fellow Raymond Feist fan!

      Thanks for the kind words. Your comment about voice really hits the nail on the head. It’s a wonderful trick for discovering a character’s voice, particularly when they’re giving you a hard time.

  17. An interesting take, Nat. It reminds me a bit of James Lipton’s famous “Inside the Actors Studio” questionnaire, in turn based on Bernard Pivot’s questionnaire from the French program “Apostrophes” (which, in its own turn, was based loosely on a questionnaire discovered in Marcel Proust’s effects). I’ve always loved the skewed angling Lipton’s questions use to get at personality:

    What is your favorite word?
    What is your least favorite word?
    What turns you on?
    What turns you off?
    What sound or noise do you love?
    What sound or noise do you hate?
    What is your favorite curse word?
    What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
    What profession would you not like to do?
    If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

    Adopting Lipton’s questions helped me learn to interrogate characters, but I always felt there was something a bit inorganic about facing down a character in this way. Sorry. I don’t mean that to be harsh or dismissive, but consider how we usually learn about character IRL. Only in dating websites or legal proceedings do most people make themselves available to such direct interrogation. In other settings, we learn through less direct means: conversation, commentary, and—what I feel should be every writer’s favorite device—storytelling.

    I don’t mean to take credit for these ideas. Alice Walker, discussing the writing of _The Color Purple_, describes how she came to know Celie—before she had even written a word about her. Walker writes that her process included taking the incipient character with her on outings and social occasions, almost like an imaginary playmate. I don’t have the quote at hand (too bad—it was funny), but to paraphrase, Walker says Celie spoke to her, aside, about a group of people at a social occasion who all seemed determined to one-up one another in the depth of their pretentiousness. At that moment, Walker says, Celie had become real enough—her character had become clear enough to the author—to write about.

    Similarly, and closer to our chosen genres, the late Roger Zelazny used to write—strictly for personal reference—vignettes about his characters, vignettes unrelated to the plot of the novel in which the character is presented. Although these vignettes occasionally popped up as addenda within his novels, Zelazny claimed—and I concur—such stories helped him understand the character through example.

    To go a bit further afield (gah! Postmodern literary criticism!) Mikhail Bakhtin, in _The Dialogic Imagination_, describes this process of discourse between author and character as an essential element of the novel. Through discourse, characters become robust enough to hijack a plot, taking novels to surprising places (surprising even to the author) without sacrificing believability or violating coherency. Absent that discourse characters are flat, lifeless automatons, existing merely to fulfill exigences of plot.

    I hope this trek into dissertation-land hasn’t been too far off course. My point is: yes,such questionnaires can provider rich insight into character motivation, but I believe they should be employed sparingly and organically. If you really think about it, would every character sit still for such interrogation? Compare how a Susan B. Anthony might respond and compare how Caesar Tiberius would respond. Would your protagonist find it intrusive and arrogant, or playful and productive? The answer to that question, ultimately, might tell you more about your character than even the most thorough of Proustian examinations.

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      All excellent points! In fact, I can imagine a situation (the Caesar Tiberius example you mention) where the character might be so horrifically offended, rightfully or otherwise, that they either refuse to participate or even resort to violence (or authority) to stop the process. That, however, is also enlightening in my view.

      I’ve had characters who refused to participate, so to speak. Those characters I tend to take out for a “test drive” (the vignette example you mentioned). In fact, that’s how Mujahid Mukhtaar, one of the main characters in my Mukhtaar Chronicles series, came to be. I spent years playing the character in a video game. Ultimately, I decided I needed to really crawl inside his head, so I wrote a short story from his perspective. That [unpublished] short story allowed me to have a meaningful interview with him later, because I was already familiar with him in some ways.

      I look at these techniques as tools in a toolbox. It’s so important to develop the wisdom to sort through the toolbox and pull out the right tool for the job at hand. I’ve found in writing that it’s rare to find a “one size fits all” technique, and this definitely includes the ones I use and write about! 😀

  18. It really helped when you said that asking about simple questions first and following up with “why’s” will help you find the voice actor that you need. I will share this tip with a friend of mine who wanted to have an audiobook for the storybooks that she has made for children. She wanted it to be accessible to the blind as well. This will help her hire the right person for her needs. Thanks!

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