Some of you know I’m big on characterization in fiction. Yes, novels must also have plots, a theme, and all sorts of other stuff…but characterization is at the top of my list. (My friend and author, James Scott Bell, and I will be debating this topic again at the Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference this summer. I enjoy these exchanges immensely and the audience seems to like them too).
Like many novelists, I’ve composed an interview sheet for characters applying for parts in my books. I really need to get to know them well if I’m to determine if their story is worth telling. On my list are all the usual questions, such as:
* where were you born?
* what is your worst memory from childhood?
* what’s your political persuasion?
* who was your first love?
And so on. I have two pages of questions I ask, and of course most of the information will never appear in the book. The questions are simply designed to help me get to know the character. My final question is my favorite one and the answer usually doesn’t come from the character at all….it comes from….well, to be honest, I don’t know where. That question is: how will this character die? Even if he or she doesn’t die in the book, I’d like to know how and at what age (presumably years after the book ends) the character dies.
I bring this up now because I was just looking at an article that quotes William E. Barrett, author of Lillies of the Field. He brings another interesting element to this discussion that I’ve not thought of . He writes:
“I give each character a name and also a twelfth birthday observance. I have to know each person and in a formative stage. The twelfth birthday just struck me as being a time when somebody is shaping. He’s neither one thing or another. When I know a person when he’s twelve years old and still dominated by adults, and he’s got his own mind reaching out for things, it’s a very good time. I know his comrades, the people he plays with, his adults, his parents, all the casuals that come into his life. It makes me feel I know the character before I start to write a book about him.”
I like that. Age twelve. Yes, I think that knowing what was happening in the life of my now adult character when he or she was twelve would help me immensely in understanding his or her present situation. I’ll be adding that twelfth birthday observance to my list.
But while we’re at it, do any of you have interesting questions you ask your characters as you get to know them in their pre-book existence?