Last time I wrote, I implicitly compared the act of filling out character questionnaires to finding barf in your refrigerator. By ‘character questionnaire,’ I mean questions writers ask themselves about the characters they plan to put into a novel. Most writers have a vague idea of the character’s age, appearance, occupation, and personality, but of course it’s useful to think ahead of time about the character’s background and the things that motivate her. The more you know about those, the more you know how she will respond to external forces. Response=action, and that’s plot, baby!
That said, so many writers I know cringe as they face, or even consider facing, a character questionnaire, and I’ve been one of them. So many of the questions are overly generic or, worse, silly but without ammunition–no power. Until I found one that included questions like this:
- How does the character handle stress and problems?
Such a good one. I have a character whom I pictured as an uber-confident, uber-cabaple, uber-connected uber-goober, but when I got to this question, I realized that in a crisis, the character blamed others as much as he possibly could. Will that create action? You betcha!
So will this question:
What does this character notice when he walks into a room?
From the get-go, I might think that’s a refrigerator question (my new term for useless questions like, ‘What does your character keep in her refrigerator?) On second glance, though, the answer to this question will generate action as well. Does this character notice things first, or people? A character who obsessively
notices if something’s out of place will try to fix it and maybe other people will react to that, creating action once again. A character who desperately hopes no one in the room will embarrass her will become tense if the room contains someone threatening, and maybe do something embarrassing just because. Maybe she’ll even do something suspicious, which, in a mystery, would further fuel the plot.
A final series of questions I really liked:
- Best trait?
- Worst trait?
- What is this character’s opinion of self?
- What kind of person do others think s/he is?
Answer these back-to-back and you’ve got multiple dimensions.
This does not provide an exhaustive list of the questions I found helpful, and if you find these loathsome, no worries–don’t answer them. I was just pleasantly surprised to find some useful questions that went beyond, “What do you want? What do you fear?” and I thought I’d share.
Final note: strange to say, although I thought these all came from a list I was going to share with you, apparently I’d cobbled them together with other lists,
and cut and pasted. Maybe Google is hiding what it once gave me so readily; maybe I forgot my search terms. In any case, here‘s the closest thing I can find to the list of questions I’ve been using, although it must be said that there are a great many herein that give me the barfs.
ps If you get my picture-pun, put it in the comments.