Sunday, March 15, 2009

Character Questionnaires – Useful Tool or Total Time-Waster?

Michelle Douglas joins us this week on how she delves into the wonderful world of Character!

I remember the very first time I discovered character questionnaires. Actually I was given one by a writer’s group I once belonged to. Yes! I was so excited. This was the tool that would finally turn me into a real writer. I clutched it in my hot little hand and raced home. I grabbed pen and paper, started to answer the questions... and promptly fell asleep.

Oh Good Lord! Who cares what colour eyes, hair and skin my heroine has? Weight? What do you mean, weight? I’m not going to divulge my heroine’s exact dimensions. I mean... how unromantic. On and on it went – height, distinguishing facial features, birthmarks and scars, characteristic gestures and mannerisms, way of walking...

I dropped my head to my hands convinced I was wasting my time. Did it really matter who my heroine’s best friend in fourth grade was? Or how many pets my hero had between the ages of 4 and 16? So what if my heroine prefers strappy heels to gym shoes? Does any of this really matter?

At first my answer to that was a resounding, No.

But then my mind started ticking over. What if the heroine’s best friend since fourth grade has gone missing and that’s the reason the heroine ends up in the hero’s tiny town in the Outback? What if the hero is a vet and between the ages of 4 and 16 the only pet he had was a dog...and what if that dog died and he couldn’t save it and from that moment on he was determined to become a vet, even though it meant defying his father? What if, in the opening scene, it’s raining, the heroine’s car is bogged, and she doesn’t own a pair of gym shoes let alone Wellington boots?

Hmm... okay then, some questions do matter, but how was I going to decide which ones to ask? It took me a long time to work it out, but I discovered the answer depended entirely on the context in which I approached the questions.

Let’s tackle questions about physical description first. Other than the fact that we don’t want our heroine’s eye colour changing from blue to brown halfway through the story, who cares what colour her eyes, hair, and skin are? There’s one person who cares and he cares a whole lot – the hero. He’s fascinated by the colour of her eyes, mesmerised by the way her hair shines in the sun... and he can’t get the exact shade of her skin out of his mind – is it the colour of peaches and cream, or more English rose? If she’d stop ranting at him and moved into the light a little more then perhaps he could work it out. Only if she moves into the light that glossy hair of hers is going to distract him all over again.

See what I’ve done? I’ve asked the hero to describe the heroine for me. I like to ask him to:
a) describe the heroine the very first moment he sees her
b) describe her looking her worst,
c) describe her looking her best.
Then I get the heroine to answer the same questions for the hero. What’s more, I get her to tell me how she thinks the hero sees her at each of those moments above.

These descriptions now contain a power my boring checklist lacked. They work because they not only tell me something about the heroine, they tell me something about the hero too. I’m not only discovering what my heroine looks like, but my hero’s physical and/or emotional responses to her too. The descriptions now start to sizzle with emotional punch. And if I want to look at this in a purely practical light, these descriptions add to my word count – I can use them in my books.

How else can character questionnaires be useful? Sometimes I just like to play with them. They can, on occasion, help me generate plot ideas – as in the instance above with the heroine stuck in the outback looking for her best friend since fourth grade, getting soaked in the pouring rain in her high heels. For some reason I’m finding this an intriguing opening, but at the moment that’s all it is – an opening. I need to flesh it out. So I start asking questions. And do I have favourite questions I like to ask my characters? You bet – these ones especially:
What do you want?
Why do you want it?
What’s stopping you from getting it?

What my characters want throughout the course of the story can change so these are questions I ask my characters at the beginning of chapter one, end of chapter three, and usually again at the end of chapter seven (for some reason these are the points in the story where I need to double check that I’m on the same page as my characters). My characters usually want more than one thing too – so I list them all. My heroine wants to find her missing best friend, but she also wants to become managing director for her software firm in Sydney. She’s not going to find that an easy goal to accomplish while she’s stuck in the outback. Hence, Plan A is to find her best friend and hightail it back to the city as soon as she can.

I also like to ask my characters:
What do you want relationship-wise?
Why do you want that?
What prevents you from achieving this?
If my heroine is hell bent on never getting married, then I want to know why. I’m writing a romance so she’s going to have to overcome her reservations about marriage at some stage. Which leads to a very important question:
What will you learn, how will you change?
Sometimes I don’t discover the answer to this question until after I’ve finished the book. Sometimes it’s not having the answers that matter, just knowing the right questions to ask that keep me writing.

Some time ago, I stumbled upon a set of questions in a book called Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen (Writers Digest Books, 1999). I love these questions – and I hate them – because I find them SO hard to answer. But I find, once I’ve answered them to my satisfaction, everything falls into place.

Placing the Obstacle, from Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen (pg 30)
“What would make the attainment of my character’s goal the most difficult?” Once this has been identified, the central obstacle in the story will become much clearer.
In Casablanca seeing Ilsa safe means that Rick must let her go.

“What is my character’s greatest weakness?” Exploiting this vulnerability will provide a rich source of drama.
Hamlet’s course of action is clear – expose his uncle. His weakness is his indecisiveness.

“What is my character’s greatest fear?” To draw the most depth from your protagonists, they must face their greatest fears.
In Vertigo, Scottie’s greatest fear is high places, yet he must go into the bell tower to expose the murderer.

“What is my character’s greatest strength?” This will give you a clue as to how your protagonist will eventually overcome the obstacle.
In The Fountainhead, Howard Roarke is able to succeed only through the tremendous force and conviction of his principles.

Kernen claims that, Answering these four questions should point you at the right obstacle that will give your story the greatest drama and create the utmost tension.

And that’s what we’re in the business of – giving our readers a darn good story. Drama and tension are vital in a darn good story.

I’ve listed the ways character questionnaires (or simply asking my characters questions) have helped me with characterisation, plotting and building drama and tension in my stories. If I searched there would probably be other benefits I could add to the list. I’m of the opinion that anything that helps me to write is a damn fine thing – whether that’s filling out character questionnaires, creating a collage, or making a soundtrack for my novel... whatever. My challenge to you is if at first a seemingly useful tool doesn’t work... can you think up a new approach that brings it to life and makes it relevant for the way you work? If and when you do, don’t forget to share it with the rest of us!

Be sure to grab Michelle's current release, The Aristocrat and the Single Mom - out this month!


  1. Interesting post, Michelle. I certainly have to sit down and think about this a bit more. Thanks for sharing :-)

    Oh, and well done on the new release!

  2. This was very interesting, Michelle. A character questionnaire isn't a technique I've ever used, but now I'm wondering if I should try it!

  3. I always start with a questionnaire, and I can tell when I haven't. Even if what I've profiled changes, it does ground me and gives me a more complete starting point. Great post Michelle!

  4. I really like the questions you ask at chs 1.3 &7, Michelle. I'm sure my editor would be happy if I did that. Great post.

  5. Character questionnaires are an interesting idea aren't they? I can't say I'm like you Donna and always start with a questionnaire - but I have found that if I'm struggling with the 'realness' of a character then a questionnaire can help me pinpoint the trait that make that character unique.

    Sorry, I meant to add a link with the post to some examples of character questionnaires. There's even one by Marcel Proust - obviously even the greats used them :-)

  6. Great post, Michelle. I tend to be lazy about characters sheets and, like you, have a love/relationship with plot questions. I do find that when I get down to it and tackle the Donald Maass Worksheet, it does force me to face the gaps!