With thanks to Emily Rubin, who was reminded, as we read Frankenstein aloud in The 24-Hour Room this week, of the three questions Anna Deavere Smith asked her interview subjects when she first began writing her plays, comes an approach you can use to probe your characters' depths. For ADS, the strategy was about accessing authentic language in the people she was interviewing. For a prose writer, the same questions may lead them to discover critical, formative incidents in a character's backstory that determine who they are and why they do what they do.
Ask of your character:
1. Do you know the circumstances of your birth?
2. Have you ever been accused of something you didn't do?
3. Have you ever come close to death?
The questions are very open ended, but note that all allow for a negative response, which would be telling in itself. With the first question, if the birth story is known, it is of necessity known through hearsay, meaning another character's narrations are being quoted or summarized through the filter of the speaker. With the third, the death might be a near-death experience of the character, but could also be the death or near-death of someone else.
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