Today, I will attempt to do the nigh impossible–tie together my day job with my moonlighting gig of writing. I’m sure if I was to write something about my job as a manager with a national pharmacy chain, I could come up with a story or two, but they would likely be boring. I write, in part, to escape the stresses of work, not to relive them after hours.
There are areas of my retail gig, however, than can benefit my writing. For years, I have trained other manager, particularly in areas involving personnel and human resources. I have taken numerous managers under my wing over the years, teaching them my non-standard method of interviewing job applicants to find the best fit for the way I do things. I don’t look for the most qualified person, necessarily, or the person with the most experience. In many cases, those people have bad habits to break, poor attitudes, and preconceived notions from their previous jobs. What I look for is someone with the things I cannot teach–a good work ethic, integrity, intelligence, and a positive attitude, among other things. I can teach anyone how to put up stock, run a cash register, or take care of customers. What I can’t teach are those things that come with the initial package.
How I arrive at these choices varies a great deal from most of my peers, however. Most managers hate doing interviews, largely because they don’t do them enough to be good at them, preferring to interview only when the need for new staff is too great and they must hire someone yesterday just to survive. I, on the other hand, spent years interviewing at least three people a week. In doing so, I achieved several benefits–keeping a fine edge on my interviewing skills, a steady stream of possibilities in case of need, and the knowledge among my staff that if they do not perform, I can and will replace them with someone better.
Even odder to my fellow manager, is the nature of my questioning. Most interviews consist of the same boring stock questions, classics like “Tell me why you left your last job?” and “Where do you see yourself in X number of years?” and, my personal favorite, “What led you to apply with us?” I do ask a few of these chestnuts–I would be remiss in my duties if I did not give the applicants something familiar to grasp onto before I sweep the rug out from under them–but I mix things up with a series of questions that are completely unrelated to the job I’m hiring for. Federal law prohibits certain questions due to their possibilities of discrimination, but the questions I ask do not come near those lines. They may not be work related, but by their simple subject matter and off-the-wall shock value, they tell me more than just about any work-related question I can ask.
For example, I might ask a customer if they read. If they say no (which unfortunately happens more often than it should–see my last post), then I can make a general observation about the person that they might not even make themselves, usually one that suggests the person is lacking in intelligence. Most smart people I know read something, even if they aren’t spending their time plowing through Umberto Eco or John Milton. If they say yes, then I follow up immediately by asking what they read, and as anyone who reads can tell you, a person can be defined in simpler terms by the words they consume than by almost any other measure. Say what you will about eyes, but books are the true windows of the soul.
Other questions I might ask include “Do you follow sports?” followed by “What’s your favorite team?” Usually, a guy who follows sports has traditional male values and traditional views of male roles in society. If he follows teams close to home, then he has strong roots and ties to his family. If he follows teams far away, he generally longs for escape and has looser ties to home and family. I might ask “Who’s your favorite musician?” Again, a person’s musical tastes are very personal and show aspects of personality that one cannot hide. If I ask “Who do you admire and why?” I’m looking for a sense of the applicant’s values, usually without them having the slightest clue as to why I’m asking such odd questions.
I will say that these questions and the answers I receive from them allow my only to form general opinions about a person and that I don’t base my hiring decisions solely on the responses to these unorthodox queries. They do, with the proper follow-up questions, give me a true glance at what makes the person tick. And for anyone who suggests that a person might feed me false information in an effort to appear what they are not, I argue that I’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s very hard to get something past me in an interview. I’m not saying it hasn’t or doesn’t happen, but you better eat your Wheaties if you think you’re getting something phony past me on my turf.
Now, what the hell does any of this have to do with writing?
Well, this. I have learned to pick out the best employees possible by asking questions that allow me to learn the true nature of the person I’m talking to. For writers having trouble getting to know your characters, I would suggest something similar. Imagine, for instance, your problem character sitting before you, wringing his or her hands, waiting for you to decide their fate. You are, after all, the employer of all your characters. You decide who is the right fit for your story based on what they have to offer. So, sit them down and ask them questions. For example, if I have a female vampire that I’m just not feeling it for, I might start out with . . .
Me: So, you’re applying for the position of antagonist?
Vamp: (nervously wringing hands over her leather-clad lap) Yes, that’s correct.
Me: Well, what are the top three strengths that would make you a good candidate for this job?
Vamp: (considers for a moment) Well, I suck blood. That’s pretty scary. I’m hard to kill. I think that’s important. And . . . gee, this is a tough question . . . um . . . I look really good in leather.
Me: (careful not to nod in agreement to the leather comment–don’t give them false hope or a reason to think your sexually harassing your applicant) Okay, what’s your favorite board game and why?
Vamp: (after a long, confused stare) Huh?
Me: Your favorite board game. And why.
Vamp: (another long silence) Um . . . I’d have to say Battleship.
Vamp: The . . . the implied violence. (Raises voice in mock surprise.) You sank my battleship!
Me: (makes a note on my pad) Uh huh. What’s your favorite television show?
Vamp: Shows that vampires are people, too. We can be sympathetic characters as well as terrifying fiends.
Me: (makes another note)
Obviously, this character would not get the job. When I interview an applicant for any job, I’m already set against hiring the person. All I’m looking for through my questioning is a reason to justify my initial bias. Only when I’ve asked all the questions I can think of and have found no facts that back up my preconceived views, do I consider hiring the person. In this case, the attitude of my vampiress toward sympathetic vampires proves to me that she would make a poor antagonist, who I’m thinking of as the incarnation of evil. No room for sympathy there. Of course, I would ask a few more specific job-related questions to fill out the interview, but at this point I’ve made my decision. The rest is just to make the applicant feel better.
If your character is feeling like a character, sit them down, pull out a notepad and get to know them a little. Ask them odd questions and see how they cope, how they respond under stress. You don’t want your POV character to back down in the climax, but at the same time you don’t want them to go out of character and start kicking ass o’plenty after being a wuss for 300 pages. See if they have a backbone first, then allow them to show it in bits and pieces, a vertebrae here and there, until the final conflict.
In my store, if I don’t have the right people in place, the whole staff falls apart. Backbiting, gossip, and frustrations spread like a plague. A story is the same way. If you don’t have the right characters, with the right motivations, the tale doesn’t hold up. Choose your characters, get to know everything about them, then they will seem to act on their own rather than you dictating how they should act. That, more than anything, leads to interesting, believable characters.
Work on Superhero has been improving and I have made decent progress the last few nights, including a rather scary scene that came, literally, from nowhere. I’m also working on a new short story that is going rather well and I hope to have it finished in the next few days. Dead and Dying is currently in the hands of three different literary agents, so I’m spending way too much time with my email open. Ah, the life of the anxious writer!