This week had one of those wonderful moments when you find a resource that instantly “talks” to you. As is often the way I was looking for something else in an area that I would not normally be browsing, when I came across an odd and isolated reference that made my heart skip.
The reference was something like this, “Authors wishing to know their characters can do so by completing the Proust questionnaire.” Do we? I’d never heard of it, so a quick Google later and I had a screen full of sites all exposing my ignorance.
Now the questionnaire was not conceived as a tool to assist author’s with characterisations. It was a questionnaire that Proust formed in order to discover himself and which he then continued to ask of himself throughout his life. It was a questionnaire he designed to gain a clearer understanding of his own thoughts, and it was when his answers later became published that led to its recognition.
Then the wonderful moment occurred. Here was a questionnaire where you could really KNOW your character. Up until now I had used a bio sheet copied and slightly modified from a text book. One that unfortunately I can’t give any credit since I can no longer recall the book. There are many sites with these bio sheets on them, all slightly different but also, all very much the same.
Any book on characterisation will tell you, probably in the first chapter, that you need to know who your character is, what he/she wants and how they will change throughout the arc. Until you do this your character is half formed and subject to unwanted character shifts though the book. Therefore, it is stated as being necessary to fill in your characters’ bios and learn them at the start.
This is the bio template I was using in my journal.
(Married, Partner, Girl/Boy friend), Their name:
Child 1, Name, age, birthday, …
Child2, Name, age, birthday, …
Favourite type of movie:
Strongest personal relationship:
Faults and flaws:
I would sit and spend ages completing these; it’s dry, it’s boring and they are always wrong. Necessary but wrong. My problem with these is that I end up playing the role of a scribe, one who is filling in a form on behalf of another person. Of course that is wrong but the above list somehow guides me that way and produces short, closed and incorrect answers.
Scribe, “Mr Character; emotional stability?” Mr Character, “Oh, yes.”
The Proust questionnaire totally ignores age, partner, colour of hair and instead asks leading questions of who are you, what are your values. I found it impossible not to don the characters head and fill out the questionnaire as if I were he/she. For some reason the very way he/she thinks pops into your head and then it becomes the character filling in the form.
Also I found it compelling to give rich reasons for my answers as if discussing it with an interviewer. I can’t explain why but if there is a psychologist reading please do explain it for the rest of us. For example;
Question “Your favourite occupation? “ Answer “I love working with wood, small things with grain and form. Then when I am done there is something new and beautiful and I know when holding it that I made it.”
Here is the Proust questionnaire that I am now using. There is another variant out on the web but for my/your purposes I doubt there is any significant difference.
1. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
2. Where would you like to live?
3. What is your idea of earthly happiness?
4. To what faults do you feel most indulgent?
5. Who are your favourite heroes of fiction?
6. Who are your favourite characters in history?
7. Who are your favourite heroines in real life?
8. Who are your favourite heroines of fiction?
9. Your favourite painter?
10. Your favourite musician?
11. The quality you most admire in a man?
12. The quality you most admire in a woman?
13. Your favourite virtue?
14. Your favourite occupation?
15. Who would you have liked to be?
16. Your most marked characteristic?
17. What do you most value in your friends?
18. What is your principle defect?
19. What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?
20. What would you like to be?
21. What is your favourite colour?
22. What is your favourite flower?
23. What is your favourite bird?
24. Who are your favourite prose writers?
25. Who are your favourite poets?
26. Who are your heroes in real life?
27. Who are your favourite heroines of history?
28. What are your favourite names?
29. What is it you most dislike?
30. What historical figures do you most despise?
31. What event in military history do you most admire?
32. What natural gift would you most like to possess?
33. How would you like to die?
34. What is your present state of mind?
36. What is your motto?
There is still a need for the character’s bio sheet. After all, the Proust questionnaire does not cover age, partner, colour of hair etc, and we would not want our hero’s hair changing colour inadvertently during the novel. For me though, I can now breeze through the dry bio sheet since my character has already talked to me. Then finally I can merge the needs of the plot with the nature of my actor.
I also think it’s time I revised my bio sheet. Time to sling out the closed questions and ask some open, searching questions. So, “Political persuasion:” would become, “Why do you follow your political persuasion:”
The Proust questionnaire and your creative journal; to get the most from the Proust questionnaire I recommend that you either keep a copy of it tucked into the back of your writer’s notebook or store the questions as a data file in your smart-phone. The questions can be, should be, answered more than once and all of them do not need to be completed in one session, so it makes for an ideal exercise in the otherwise idle periods during your day. Simply write the characters name and one of the questions on to the top of a clean page, then let the character’s answer flow on to the page. It is during these entry moments or whilst later reviewing your creative journal that you learn a bit more about, and get a little bit closer to, your character.
So what do you think? I would love to know how this affects you.
Give it a try and let me know.
Photo credit: Jaz-55, by Samcoran.
“Writing Characters Using The Proust Questionnaire” by Andy Shackcloth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.