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Micro Lesson: Building Characters from Real Life with Madeline Ostrander

Posted Thu, 4/06/2017 - 8:01am by  |  Category: , ,

Last fall, I met a pair of reclusive military veterans at a house that lay down a leafy, mossy backroad of the Quinault Valley. I told them I wanted to hear their thoughts about noise pollution—the rattling Navy jets that had begun flying more often over quiet, remote parts of the Olympic Peninsula.

The noise from these jets had profoundly aggravated the men’s symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The men wanted to tell me all the research they had done. They handed me reports and described the meetings and hearings they had gone to. They spoke passionately about how the Navy had, in their view, misled the public. But I wasn’t there merely for expert opinion. I wanted to know who they were—their motives and habits, their inner thoughts, origins, spiritual and political beliefs, fears, and hopes. And I had about three hours to get them to trust me and tell me as many relevant details of their lives as possible.

I felt sheepish when I asked about the deaths of their friends and their mental health struggles, but I wasn’t prying gratuitously. I am a storyteller, and I needed protagonists, someone to lead my story into the wilderness and explain what it meant to do battle with the terrors of noise, anxiety, and trauma. During those three hours, their answers gave me material for the story, “Quiet: A Soldier’s Fight for the Most Silent Place in America,” which appeared this winter in Seattle Met Magazine.

Whenever a real person enters the pages of a writer’s manuscript, they become a character—simplified and slightly distorted, as if viewed through a dark mirror or a wide-angle camera lens. The trick to writing a gripping narrative is to give these characters as much depth as possible. But many people, even people we know well, don’t reveal their inner struggles and stories without prodding. One of the best ways to explore the inner landscape, thoughts, habits, and quirks of someone else is to ask difficult and probing questions. To interview for character is different from having a conversation, getting a quote, or just gathering information—and it can be as effective on people you know as on strangers. You are trying to see into someone’s life, to listen deeply, to look for the ways that someone else constructs a story about their identity.

Here are five tips for interviewing for character.

1. Ask about a person’s origin stories—the experiences that have made them who they are now.

How did they get involved in their profession? How did they come to make particular mistakes or have particular successes? Why do they live where they live? What experiences have shaped their convictions, political views, or passions?

2. Listen for the images and memories that have become defining symbols in someone’s story.

I often ask about someone’s tattoos, clothing, pictures hanging on their walls, and jewelry. A scientist I once interviewed had a tattoo of a crow on her arm. When I asked, she said she thought of herself as a crow—intelligent and scrappy. Sometimes a person will volunteer a memory that is especially telling. One of the men I spoke with in the Quinault Valley had moved there because he had hiked the rainforest with his father, also a military vet, just before he died. The trail they had walked lay across the street from his house. Even if these details don’t become part of the story, they help deepen your understanding of your characters’ motives and personal myths.

3. Ask about turning points in their lives that are relevant to your story.

Did this person ever have an “aha” moment, a sudden realization, a time when things changed for them either dramatically or subtly (in ways that were apparent either immediately or later on)? These can sometimes define the structure of your story—the turning points, the moments of drama, the climax.

4. Ask for examples.

For instance, if someone says to you (as a Kentucky woman once told me during an interview), “I’m a fighter. I always have been,” ask about specific moments when this person has shown strength, stood up for themselves, engaged in conflict, or fended off bullies.

5. Listen deeply and attentively.

If you are talking with someone in person, watch mannerisms. See if you can detect someone’s attitude or feelings based on body language or facial expression, and then check your assumptions by asking them how they feel. The interview should be about your subject, not you. As much as possible, suspend judgments about whether this person is right or wrong, misguided, or heroic. When you are interviewing, you want to be as open as possible to someone else’s ways of mapping and framing the world.


How do you write an authentic, gripping tale involving real people—whether it’s about yourself, your mom, or a stranger whose life you would like to understand better? Madeline Ostrander writes nonfiction and journalistic tales about science and the environment for publications like The New Yorker, Audubon, and Seattle Met Magazine. Practice and explore techniques for writing about real-life drama and characters in essays, nonfiction, and journalism in her six-session workshop, Building Characters from Real Life, starting April 17.