Monday, April 18, 2011

Developing a Character Questionnaire

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

With our recent first page critiques we've spoken a lot about the importance of a compelling main character - one that draws readers in from the very first page and which transcends (as best you can) the stereotypes common in our genre.

One tool in developing a fully-realized character is to create a questionnaire in which your character gets to answer some key questions about their background, belief and aspirations. An example of such a questionnaire can be found at The Script Lab website, but I thought it may be fun to outline some of the key questions we at TKZ believe are important to know about your character. After all, how can your readers possibly believe in a character that you, as its creator, hardly know yourself.

So here, in no particular order, are some of the key questions I think need to be included in a character questionnaire.

What is it you fear most?

What is it you want the most?

Who are the most influential people in your life, and why?

How do you feel about your mother? Your father? Other members of your family?

What were some of the defining moments in your life?

What tragedies or disappointments have you endured thus far?

What could you not live without? What is your greatest weakness?

What are your strengths?

What do you like the most/least about your appearance?

What is your home like?

How would you describe your appearance?

Do you care about what other people think about you?

Whose opinion do you value?

How do you view authority? Religion? Politics?

Describe your ideal 'mate'

How have your relationships progressed in the past?

What was your biggest heartbreak?

What gestures do you use?

What speech patterns do you use? Do you swear? Are you self conscious about how you speak?

What is the biggest chip on your shoulder?

So fellow TKZers, do you have any other questions to add to the list? (I'm sure I've forgotten something!) Do you use any software to help develop character dossiers or backgrounders? What other techniques do you use to get beneath a character's skin?

25 comments:

  1. What habit would be hardest for you to give up? How would you disguise it?

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  2. <>

    I'm afraid questinnaires are not particularly helpful to me. I just toss the characters into the story, and they happen. This is one of the few writing elements that I don't have to think about.

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  3. I tried to do the question thing the last time...it wasn't coming, so I did some free writing. Somehow my character just stepped in and wrote her whole own back story and history in less than and hour and it's the most complete character study I've ever had. I guess sometimes, you just have to get out of your own way. That being said, one of the most helpful questions for me over the last few characters has been- What would they never do?

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  4. My last 4 thrillers were a series with the same main female character. The biggest question I asked before starting the book was "what else does she need to find out about herself."

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  5. I'm more of a seat-of-the-pantser when it comes to character development--meaning that I'm disinclined to actually write the answers down--but it's interesting that I could easily answer all but one of those questions on behalf of Jonathan Grave, my recurring character, so at some level I must have done the questionnaire, at least in principle.

    The one I couldn't answer is what Jonathan looks like. When I write him, I'm so much in his head that I don't pay attention to his exterior. Weird, huh?

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  6. Like Chaco, I come at characters with free form writing, primarily a voice journal, where I just type fast in the character's voice (which develops as I go), letting the character give me info (sometimes prompted by an "interview question"). I do have a few essential questions I want answered. Greatest fear is one. Also: what is one secret you don't want anyone else to know?

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  7. John, That's odd, but I don't know exactly what my main character, Winter Massey, looks like. I had a general idea of his size, hair color, eye color, etc, but I can't see him. Now I learn that's because he looks like John Gilstrap.

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  8. Great feedback - and I am by now means advocating the questionnaire approach. It's just a tool and for many new writers I suspect they wouldn't be able to answer many of these questions. I usually do more of a dossier myself rather than going through a series of questions but I do think knowing these fundamentals really helps. I like Jordan's what's worth dying for and JJ's habit hardest to give up. I also think the secret is a great idea, Jim. Joe, I think with recurring characters it is essential to work out what the character needs to learn next. JRM - that's interesting but JG, really??:)

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  9. JRM--What motivational questions did you have for the wharf rat?

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  10. While I don't actively make a list of what they do I think I do it subconsciously because I know all the answers to those questions for at least 8 of the characters I have written. And unlike John & John I know what they all look like too. I just wish my artistic abilities extended to graphics design so I could show folks what they look like, but alas my stick figure representations are somewhat inadequate.

    While I think I intimately understand certain characters and their motives, feeling that I have built them complete (Marcus Johnson & Lonnie Wyatt from 65 Below, Mike Farris & Paul Hogan from Faithful Warrior, Karl from Karl's Last Flight) there is one who stands out, even though he is not the main character of any of the books he is in.

    Kharzai Ghiassi, the "Fuzzy Persian" CIA agent from KLF & FW & Cold Summer, erupted on his own.I am so closely tied to him that I don't even have to think about what he would do next, it just happens. I think he lives in the dark space where stuff I really shouldn't do comes from. Lucky for me, he's a good guy...mostly.

    Basil
    www.basilsands.com

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  11. Best I recall, the rat's motivation was food and avoiding the hit man who was whacking two mobsters. He'd been laid 18 times in the past hours and was hungry and attracted by a pan pizza from Mario's that was on a desk.

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  12. pizza...babes....man, the life of a rat....

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  13. I find that it sometimes helps for me to have a vague notion of my main character's appearance, but that eventually fades once I get into his/her head. They almost evolve into someone else, more unique.

    When I was writing my YA, my niece showed me 'ModelMayhem dot com' and she came up with my whole cast of characters. My main character, Brenna, was inspired by a single photo of a young model and her quirky hair and clothes. I made up her backstory from that one image. The girl had real vulnerability too. An expressive face.

    This model portfolio website allows you to query/search for a specific type, age, hair color, ht, wt, etc. It was fun using it.

    But Basil--If you queried "stick figure," I doubt you'd find inspiration. Guess you're stuck with your crayons and Big Chief tablet.

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  14. JRM---Only a man would say "18 times" with a straight face. I think you should revive the rat story.

    Come on. $.99 novella on Amazon.

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  15. Jordan - the model wesbite sounds intriguing. JRM - I think you would need to add 'exhausted' to the wharf rat's dossier...though you don't specify how many hours. Basil - I think there are always those characters which just spring out fully formed...weirdly enough they often come from the dark spaces:)

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  16. Did any of you writers ever have a story & characters come to you whole? Like you never had to think of all that stuff but rather they were just...there. In my first novel, that was the case. It was all just there. But now that I'm starting to plan for my second, I'm a bit concerned that I won't be able to repeat that magic. I'm new to this site (via JSB) & I am absorbing as much info as possible. I find having to think of & plan for all these things overwhelming and that while I used to consider myself a planner because I used an outline, I'm realizing perhaps I was actually more of a pantster that first time around.

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  17. Hey, Nancy. I'm a pantser. I continue to try different methods that suit my impatience, but haven't found anything that's stuck yet.

    I've found that each book is different. Some write themselves while others can be more of a struggle. Some days I can barely write 1500 words, but have had 6000 word days too.

    My advice is not to expect magic. That's too much pressure. We all deal with our own insecurities as people, but trust your talent. And I would say stay open minded to all possibilities to improve your process. Some may surprise you. Good luck.

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  18. Good advice Jordan - when the creativity flows just let it come!

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  19. Good post idea. Thanks Clare.

    I've tried using questions, but they don't work for me. I find it better to write out some paragraphs of backstory which answer some of these same questions.

    That said, of those already mentioned Greatest Fear, Weakness, and Regret/Failure are useful.

    I've also found the following information useful:
    (1) What is your Problem-Solving Approach?
    (2) What Titles or Nicknames have others given you?
    (3) Time Perspective - For this you *must* watch “The Secret Powers of Time” by Philip Zimbardo on YouTube. Fascinating stuff for a writer. As a teacher observing young people grow up and the choices they make, I'm absolutely convinced this is a core-level value for humans and no one knows about it. Options include:
    (a) Past Positive – Focus on the "good old days", past successes, nostalgia.
    (b) Past Negative – Focus on regret, failure, everything that went wrong.
    (c) Present Hedonistic – Live in the moment. Seek pleasure. Avoid pain. Seek novelty and sensation.
    (d) Present Fatalism – Life is governed by outside forces, fate. “It doesn't pay to plan”, etc.
    (e) Future Materialistic – Focus on being industrious, saving, and making sacrifices for future payoff. Work now to play later.
    (f) Future Transcendental – Everything is God’s. Therefore, life is a stewardship of what He’s given you.

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  20. I just write what the voices tell me.

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  21. Daniel--I had to free your comment from the spam gremlins. It seems a post with a link may cause issues, but thanks for your interesting ideas. Very thought provoking.

    And Basil...your comment explains a lot. :)

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  22. Thanks Jordan for doing this (I checked the spam gremlin earlier but I guess none had arisen yet). The time persepctive approach is really interesting Daniel, thanks for passing this on.

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  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  24. Jordan, thanks for releasing my comment. I'd hoped it would pass through.

    Jordan and Clare: Hope you enjoy the time perspective information. There is apparently a lot more. What I have included is really a very simplified and limited portion of the research. Still, it's fascinating and has helped me flesh out the core characters in my WIP.

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