Creating a Character – An Unusual Method

In my recent post, I promised to share a writing technique recommended by Jeff Kleinman, a literary agent and co-founder of Folio Literary Management, LLC, to find the unique voice of a character in a novel. Jeff made clear that he “adapted” the technique from another writer/agent (I wasn’t clear which and didn’t catch the woman’s name) and that initially he had no faith at all that it would prove helpful. However, after trying it, he now promotes it as the best technique he’s ever used for getting to know a character and that character’s voice.

Yes, it would even work for cats.

This exercise is for all characters – Yes,  even cats.

In essence, Jeff advocates that you, the author, interview the fictional character, who is obliged to answer in the “first person.” And playing the role of that character, you must answer four questions in writing (or possibly voice recording) for 25-30 pages of text. Those pages do not go into the novel, although small gems from the text might be used. It’s Jeff’s contention that the true voice of the character, with an individual speech pattern, phrase selection, punctuation, etc., will not emerge for at least 20 pages, and meanwhile the character will self-reveal and you, the author will become very familiar with him, her, or it. Yes, the questions are to be the same regardless of gender, age, or status as an inanimate object (he gave the example of a tree as a point of view character). All questions have a follow-up of “why?” to prevent “yes,” “no,” or other brief responses. You, playing/becoming your character must respond in paragraphs.

What are the four questions?

  • Do you wear clip on or pierced earrings?
  • Do you like your marshmallows lightly toasted or burned?
  • Do you vacuum a room in straight rows or in random patterns?
  • Do you prefer a window or aisle seat on an airplane?

I know. I was as surprised hearing this as you are in reading it. But I’m in the process of trying this technique with a character in the novel I’m currently writing. So far, having typed 3 pages as fast as I can to avoid censoring what comes out as I role-play my villain in the “first person,“ I have two observations:

1. These apparently ludicrous questions are like a verbal Rorschach test, bringing forth responses and potentially useful information I might not have consciously thought otherwise.

2. It’s damn hard to write 25-30 pages as another person without repeating myself (in this case, herself). I’ll let you know how I did once I’ve finished or given up.

Jeff said it’s very important to pay attention to the emotion the character carries. Indeed, one can later interview characters in moments of emotion (love, hate, grief, fear, etc.) to get appropriate dialogue.

When the 25-30 pages are done, you look for the phrases, language and style of speaking the character has used. And that’s going to be different than what you, the author, uses. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Jeff recommends you do this for every character. I think I’ll forego the tree in my next novel.

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