Monday, March 19, 2012

Romance Author, Alicia Rasley, Shares a Character Building Technique

Here's Alicia's Special Technique, Which She Used in Her Sweet, Discreet Romance, Allegra's Song, A Regency Novel:

Character Interview Example by Alicia Rasley

Here's a technique I used to get into my hero's heart and mind, and you might find it a helpful exercise for your own writing, especially with those strong silent gentlemen! I think of myself sitting across the table taking notes as I "interview" the character.  I ask leading questions and record (well, type) the answers in the character's first-person voice.
Here's an example.  Nicholas is a soldier who returned from the war to a wife he hardly knows.  Months later, he's still distracted and disoriented, and she has given up trying to reach him.  He doesn't really wake up to her unhappiness until she's left him for a few days.  Now what I'm going to do is start with an unthreatening question, and then, when I have the poor fella relaxed, get more intrusive.  I'm also going to ask him to describe the exterior– where he was, what he saw, what he heard– so that I can use that to write the setting details later.

The interview with Nicholas:
You must be glad to be home again with your family....
I don't know.  It should be....  It was just so strange, being home.  It was my home, but it was so different from what I remember.  My parents both died while I was gone.  I knew it, of course, but I don't think I really understood it till I got home and they weren't there.  And there we were, Allegra and I, in the master suite.  My parents' room.  I couldn't sleep there.  So I took to sleeping in my old room, down the hall.  I'd visit Allegra, of course.  Odd, isn't it, that I could do‑‑ that, but I couldn't sleep there afterwards.
And Allegra?
She was grown.  A woman.  I hadn't really noticed that.  She'd been just a girl when I married her.  You know.  Foolish notions.  Stars in her eyes.  She used to write these letters to me, while I was away, and she'd dot her i's with little fat circles.  And I didn't notice at the time, but last week I was looking through all those letters‑‑ hundreds of them, almost seven years worth‑‑ and I realized somewhere a few years ago she stopped using those little circles. 
Why were you looking through those old letters?
Looking for her.  She's been gone for a couple weeks. And I'd forgotten what she is like.  I felt like it had been years, not days, since I'd seen her.  I couldn't remember what she looked like when she's frowning and biting her lip as she reads through a piece of music and imagines how it will sound. Or at night, in the moonlight, with her hair down on her bare shoulders.  I couldn't remember any of those memories.  So I read over her letters.
Tell me where you were, when you read the letters.
I was in the attic.  I went up to find a chair to replace a broken one in the dining room.  And I saw that leather satchel, the one from when I was in Portugal, the one I used to put her letters in. 
Wasn't it dark in the attic?
Not at first. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the light was streaming in through the gable windows.  You know how the light is that time of day?  Kind of white golden, and up there in the attic, it sparkled on every bit of dust in the air. Sometimes I could smell her perfume on the letters. I could smell that perfume over the dusty smell, and sometimes I could sense her but not see her.
Was there any noise?
It's an old house, so sometimes I could hear the rafters creaking. You know how old beams rattle, like an old man coughing.  Other than that, all I could hear was the paper crackling when I opened a letter.
It must have taken a long time.
Yes, but it was good. I could remember her better then, after I read them.
But you've been home for months.
I know. And she was there, I remember that‑‑ in the house, at the dinner table, in the bed.  And she made everything comfortable for me, which was pleasant‑‑ except I'm not used to comfort, and sometimes it was annoying, to have her keep asking what did I want to do.  Did I want to redo my father's study, did I want to buy a few more mounts for the stables, did I want to go to London for the season.  Did I want salt on my eggs.  Did I want to hear that new sonata she'd learned.  Did I want to have another child. Did I want to be alone. That's all I remember, really, all those questions.  I was supposed to say yes or no, when‑‑ when I didn't really have an answer.  So sometimes I said yes, and sometimes I said no, and she'd go off and do what she thought was best anyway.   So I remember she asked me, do you want me to go, and I said‑‑ I don't remember. Yes or no, one of those two. And she did what she wanted to do, went her own way.  That's the problem with us.  We never needed each other. Oh, we thought we did, and each time we parted, I felt that need, sharp like an arrow, right in my heart.  But we had to go on living, and we did, both of us, and so we just learned not to need each other. It hurt too much. But it's time now, I think, for us to start needing each other again.
How we can use the interview:
The advantage of this technique is that you almost "channel" the character.  The character (or your subconscious construct of him) takes over and starts directing the answer.  (Trust me on this– just let go, and it will happen.)  
And you can probably see how easy this would be to "translate" into a first-person narration, but it's also helpful for third-person passages.  Use the sensory details to embellish the relevant parts of your story, to add description from within the character.  Use the emotion to give the reader an understanding of why he behaves as he does.  And use the voice to give a sense of immediacy and clarity to the characterization.

You won't have to do this with every event in the book.  Once you get a sense of a character's POV, you won't ever lose it entirely.  It's as if that channel is open in your mind, and you just have to make the decision to switch to it when appropriate, letting the character's own perspective on each event dictate the narrative.

If you'd like to read the story about Nicholas and how he finally came home from the war, check out Allegra's Song, a Regency novella.  You'll recognize some of the lines from above!

Amazon Buy link:

Alicia Rasley is a RITA-award winning Regency novelist who has been published by major publishers such as Dell, NAL, and Kensington. Her women’s fiction novel The Year She Fell has been a Kindle bestseller in the fiction category.
Her articles on writing and the Regency period have been widely distributed, and many are collected on her website, She also blogs about writing and editing at  Check out the Amazon page for other Regencies by Rasley.

v    Rakish heroes.
v    Reckless heroines.
v    Elegant stories.

Please welcome Alicia by leaving a comment.


  1. Thanks for stopping off at Sweet Not Spicy and sharing one of your techniques, Alicia.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Madison, it's a good way to "channel" the character, and is especially good at avoiding the generic for me, you know, "Heroes are supposed to..."

    Thanks for having me, Morgan!

  3. Is that cover gorgeous? I immediately ordered the book for my Kindle. As I've often told you, your workshops and techniques influenced my writing greatly. Thank you for this one and all of them!!!!

  4. I love this idea. I think it would work for any genre even writing for children and teens. Thanks for sharing. Blessings for great success with your book.

    Author of The Cancer Prayer Book and a PB to be released in 2012.

  5. It's an interesting way to get the character to reveal his deeper self. Thank you.

  6. Hi, Alicia: I don't know if you remember me, Paula Gorgas, but I've always rembered working with you on my story for THE MAGIC WITHIN anthology. And the delicious chocolate bar and the note you sent to "the future Judy Blume" when my first YA novel sold. I've used the interview technique you describe above since then, and I agree it's one of the best ways to get to really know your characters. One of the gals in my writers group writes regencies, and I'm printing off your article for her. I know she will appreciate it.

    Take care.

  7. Alicia,
    Technique is interesting, I'll have to try it.
    Thank you.
    Margot Justes]

  8. I do this often when I'm in the plotting, pre-writing stage. Very helpful to get to know my characters. I'm often surprised at what they tell me.

  9. What a great suggestion. I have interviewed my characters for a blog piece, but had not thought of starting with an interview as the character develops. I can see the benefits, and you are so right about how the interview will evolve and become driven by the character. That happened when I interviewed the central character for my mystery, Open Season.