The Character Questionnaire

questionnairecolourguideI’m diving in to my next novel at the moment. I’m rather excited about the prospect of writing something new, and I’m also looking forward to telling the story which is in my head.

However, I’m trying to do a few things differently this time. The character driven approach has really influenced me recently and it’s something I want to try to get to grips with. A story only has a chance of engaging the reader if the characters are believable and worthy of feeling emotion for. By building solid characters, you can then take them wherever you want and the reader will stay with it. I heard of the questionnaire approach as a way to create a multi-dimensional character from Julian Barnes (Booker Winning Author) and so, here it is.

It makes sense to me that you should really know your character inside and out before committing them to paper. You have to know how they look, how they think, how they move, what their habits are, what they’re dreaming of, what they’re after and loads more things as well.

I think you have to know your characters as well as you know yourself. Some writers probably know their characters as well as they know one of their family members, or a best friend, but that isn’t enough. You don’t know what these people think about in real life so how would you be able to get inside their head to write them.

It’s probably called something like, Method Writing, because, like Method Acting, you’re really becoming that person in order to reflect them authentically. So, like the acting equivalent, we need to think of some techniques which will help us to draw out enough information to make them stand up on their own.

The questionnaire is an objective process which will help to compare characters on the same measures, hopefully meaning that you don’t fall into the trap of getting to know your hero at the expense of diluting everyone else.

It’s a questionnaire, so that part doesn’t need explaining, and the 28 questions I’ve used are below.

  • What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname?
  • How old are they?
  • What is your character’s hair colour? Eye colour?
  • What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?
  • Does your character have a birthmark? Where is it? What about scars? How did he get them?
  • Who are your character’s friends and family? Who does she surround herself with? Who are the people your character is closest to? Who does he wish he were closest to?
  • What do they do for a living?
  • Where was your character born? Where has she lived since then? Where does she call home?
  • Where does your character go when he’s angry?
  • What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?
  • Does she have a secret?
  • What makes your character laugh out loud?
  • When has your character been in love? Had a broken heart?
  • What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?
  • Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there. Does he wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all? Is he in socks that are ratty and full of holes? Or is he wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by his grandmother?
  • When your character thinks of her childhood kitchen, what smell does she associate with it? Sauerkraut? Oatmeal cookies? Paint? Why is that smell so resonant for her?
  • Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?
  • It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. If he’s eating breakfast, what exactly does he eat? If she’s stretching out in her backyard to sun, what kind of blanket or towel does she lie on?
  • What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
  • Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where is she going? What does she wear? Who will she be with?
  • What does she believe about:
  1. Religion
  2. Politics
  3. Music
  4. Films
  5. Life Philosophy
  6. Career
  • What’s their educational background?
  • What’s their dream?

Until next time…


2 responses to “The Character Questionnaire

  1. I am familiar with this method, but am not using it as I complete planning for my next novel — I find the questionnaire takes too long and makes me focus on too many details that will never matter. So I use a briefer version (e.g. belief system, overall personality notes, hopes and fears, sometimes a back-story influential event, etc.). Other writers post photos of faces taken from newspapers (not celebrities) for each character, and let that trigger what they need when they need it. Still others model some minor characters on friends or people they have met, a very handy method to get plausible details of affect, speech, emotional blind spots, etc. Whatever works, let it work! — there is probably a Latin maxim for that.

  2. It’s something I’ve been playing around with recently as well, but a slightly different version (one I found on tinternet by French author Marcel Proust). It’s really helped me get into the motivations of the character and understand their values. But..When I’ve tried before I’ve struggled with it. Personally I need to have some of the story fleshed out so I know what the characters are going to go through. Going to take a look at some of the above questions though and see if they give me some inspiration.

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