On Getting to Know My Characters

12 11 2009

Secretly, I love those surveys that are circulated, usually via e-mail, that ask questions about yourself.  I’m not sure if I like answering questions in general or if the thrill for it is getting to answer questions about myself.  Sometimes the questions are silly, bordering on ridiculously shallow, but sometimes the questions probe at something deeper.  I tend to answer the questions but only send the survey back to the original sender.  I figure if they wanted me to know all that information about them, surely they would want to know it about me, too.


Thinking about questionnaires and surveys got me thinking about what questions I could ask to better get to know my characters.  One of the first impulses I had was to ask how my characters would answer the questions James Lipton asks all his guests on Inside the Actors Studio.  At the end of each of his interviews, he poses a set of 10 questions to his guest; those 10 questions are based on the Proust Questionnaire.  Here are James Lipton’s questions:


  1. What is your favorite word?
  2. What is your least favorite word?
  3. What turns you on?
  4. What turns you off?
  5. What sound or noise do you love?
  6. What sound or noise do you hate?
  7. What is your favorite curse word?
  8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
  9. What profession would you not like to do?
  10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?


The questions are short and quite simple, but if you take your time in answering them, a lot of interesting information can be gathered based on your answers.  For that alone, it would be helpful for any author to ask their characters these questions.  And yet, I know that my own answers would change for these questions frequently–my favorite word today may not be my favorite word tomorrow.  Maybe later on today I’ll hear the most annoying sound in the world, which will take the place of what sound I currently hate the most.  Experience changes these answers.  Perhaps it would be more useful if authors asked their characters these questions after major events in the novel to find out what changed and what didn’t change.


As I tried to get all my main characters in my novel to answer these questions, I found something else rather helpful about the questionnaire.  For me, it didn’t matter as much what my characters answered but how.  I found out that one character resented having to answer the questions and really had to be pushed.  When she did answer, her answers were all one-word answers thrown out there, just to get it over with.  Another character wouldn’t answer right away, telling me she’d get back to me later.  For her, pushing off answering wasn’t an act of “I don’t want to do this” but an act of “I want to do this right.”  I learned just how deeply she cares about the language she uses and why she is so reluctant to speak aloud in conversations: She wants to think through her words first to foresee any possibly consequences of saying what she’s thinking.  Her words reflect her inner self.  Yet another character thought the questionnaire was great fun and came up with answers that were semi-truthful but hilarious.  I learned more from how my characters approached the questions than from what they actually ended up providing as answers.


If you feel your characters need a bit of rounding out, perhaps you, too, could benefit from posing the short questionnaire to your characters.  How do they react when you tell them you want them to answer the questions?  Once they do answer, how do they answer the questions?


And then, of course, if you’re anything like me, you’ll reserve a separate document for yourself so that you can provide your own answers to the questions.  You know, just in case James Lipton ever comes knocking on your door to interview you.




One response

18 11 2009
On Characters #2: Showing, Not Telling « Jessie's Writing

[…] setting, etc.  I will explore the dialogue and flat character issues in other posts; the “On Getting to Know My Characters” post is what I am considering to be my “On Characters #1″ post and focuses on […]

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