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Writing Characters Using The Proust Questionnaire

09-07-10a Samcoran, jaz-55

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.

Full Name:

Nick name:

(Married, Partner, Girl/Boy friend), Their name:

Child 1, Name, age, birthday, …

Child2, Name, age, birthday, …

Age, birthday:

Occupation:

Ethnic origin:

Colour Hair/Eyes/Skin

Build/Weight/Height

Religious beliefs:

Emotional stability:

Fears:

Strongest belief:

Biggest secret:

Biggest regret:

Political persuasion:

Favourite colour:

Favourite type of movie:

Favourite food:

Strongest personal relationship:

Unique mannerisms:

Dependability:

Peculiarities:

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.
T
Writing Characters Using The Proust Questionnaire” by Andy Shackcloth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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25 comments to Writing Characters Using The Proust Questionnaire

  • Lady Adellandra

    Thank you for this great information! It’s like the Characterization Sheets I use now, but better!

    –LadyAdellandra

  • Hey Andy,

    To be honest (and I know I’m going to get shot by a million writers and editors here) I never do this before writing a draft or while creating the character.

    I’m one of these organic seat of the pants writers. What I do is, when the first draft is written, I do a pass through just for characters and I gather all the info on each character then make sure it weighs up at the end and we get no eye/hair colour changes. If I design my characters before I write, they don’t surprise me any more so I don’t enjoy working with them. I love it when my characters twist around and tell me about themselves in their own unique way.

    The way I see it is the ‘first draft’ albeit 300 pages, it the plotting and character creation all rolled into one.

    I can hear the screams of terror eascape many a writer’s lip…

    Natalie

    • Hi Natalie. How’s your mug of tea?

      If there is one thing above all else I have learned about the scribbling game it is that there is no one single way to play the game.

      I am a plotter, I go through concept, then outline plot, then draft plot, then I produce the time lines (bored yet?) then each plot scene and beat gets pseudo-scripted (short descriptions, events. Very succinct and put down at breakneck speed i.e. there is no “writing” involved only story telling), then I juggle scenes and events till the story is exciting. After all that I start to play with the words and about that time my characters have evolved into actors. (Natalie, wake up, I’ve finished describing.)

      I have trouble with “seat of the pants” writing since I don’t know when to stop. I have a writing task set by our local writing group that should be about 500 words MAX, at the last count it is 35,000 and has no end. Ho hum, that’s just the way I am.

      I’ll not shoot you for doing what works best for you. I couldn’t do what you do and I doubt you could follow my controlled regime.

      As long as it works, do it.

      I will ask you a favour though. Take one of your actors, sorry characters and talk with him/her using this questionnaire. I would like to know if your character came immediately to mind like mine have done for me. You see I still don’t know why this works so well for me, when the previous sheets have been torture.

      Like most things, it must depend on what is your mug of tea.

      Andy

  • Oh my goodness, Andy. It’s fiction not world war! Goodness, I feel trapped, I’m drowning in plotting, I’m dying…heeeellllp!!!! The walls are closing in…it’s so military.

    Okay. Time to be serious. I do agree everyone does things differently. It’s just that I’m such a spontaneous person in general and my life is so random, I get bogged down with plans and plots and designs, and It turns out to be an inspiration killer. I just can’t. My brain tries and my hand denies.

    I tried the proust on one of my main characters. At fist he sniffed in it’s general direction, so I told him he had to be serious and take part and I promised the character I wouldn’t do it to him again. He began answering “no comment” to all the questions. When I told the character I would write in an alien space craft and he would be abducted and probed, he stomped his foot, trotted off and is now refusing to come out even for his favorite food – jellied eels.

    Oh dear…I’ve got some serious making up to do…

  • I hate character bio sheets. Too many of my writing friends use them as a form of procrastination and don’t ever really write anything but a glorified list of superficial questions.

    However-I LOVE these Proust questions. I don’t think I’d sit down and do them all at once. Maybe if I’m blocked or feeling a need to delve deeper into a character I’m working on, I’d choose one that resonates with me at that point. In fact, I think a few of them would lend themselves well to possible plot events in the story.

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Our writing processes are so individual but finding new ways to refine our own process is the best way to infuse our writing.

  • Love it! I’ll confess that while I’m quite fond of the interview as a method of fleshing out the characters, I often don’t use them until I am partway into the first draft. “Take my advice, I’m not using it.” It’s that writing that gives me a handle on my characters, an introduction of sorts. When I naturally come up for air during the first draft, I know it’s time to explore the characters more closely.

    Thanks for posting this. I’ll be using it in my interviews as well as recommending it to others.

  • Natalie, Beth, Jessica Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Natalie: Sorry to have cause a rift between you and your sulky character. Promise him some ink, then maybe he will come out.

    Beth: Your first paragraph, that’s me with the old sheets. put off and put off, hated filling them in and most of the time skipped majority of it.

    Jessica: Interviewing, that resonates. How do you conduct it? What do you ask? Tips? You wouldn’t be considering doing a post on interviewing would you? (Totally unsubtle hint) Very happy to do a follow on cross post to your post if you do.

  • Hi Andy, excellent post. I really like the Proust questionnaire and I’m applying it to my characters now. I find even though I’m an organic writer, it helps to have some loose guidelines for characters, plot and setting in place or the inspirational flashes sometimes take me in a direction totally wrong for the piece I’m writing.

  • Nice. I find the questions on the blog Come in character to be helpful for staying in touch with my characters.

    • Andrew, thanks for stopping by. “Inspirational flashes”, been there, bought the tee shirt.

      Livia, What a wonderful concept for a blog, act out your characters. It seems to me to be like method acting for writers. I will add that to the next Sunday Wash-Up.

  • This is a great resource. I am currently working on a novel from the 1st person point of view and find that I need to use character sketches and bios. By far, this is the best one I’ve seen.

  • [...] highly, HIGHLY recommend reading Andy Shack’s article on “Writing Characters Using the Proust Questionnaire from last week’s There Are No Rules Best Tweets. You will want to set up a template with these [...]

  • Hi, Andy.

    GREAT post. I’ve just discovered you via Teresa’s “lunch hour links for writers”. I felt compelled to visit you and to see what the questionnaire was like. Alas, I am a ridiculous plotter, which doesn’t really matter. I am currently “unpublished”, but I remain “undaunted”.

    I have been using a questionnaire/interview sheet I came across years ago which oddly seems a lot like the one you’ve been using. We must’ve been using the same textbook :)

    This new one you found is…in a word…brilliant!! I just interviewed my main character. Unlike Natalie’s character, mine cooperated fully (Although, since she’s just been resurrected after 3,300 years, she did get stumped on the favorite heroines of history. She just turned 10,000 the other day, and she’s a bit touchy on the word “history”!)

    Anyway, consider me a new subscriber, Andy. Keep Writing!

  • Makasha, very glad you liked it as much as I did.

    Lynda, You can’t recall the name of the text book can you? I intend to keep writing, try and stop me. Plus if I find any good tips you will all hear about them.

    I would like to point out that if anyone has any good tips to pass on, then I am all ears.

  • Colin

    “A compilation of lessons, reviews, tips and advice that has helped my writing.”

    Do you mean, “have helped”?

  • Thanks Colin, anyone who reads my blog will notice, there are still large areas of the English language that I can improve on. Grammar is at the front of my queue.

    I have just had another look at the sentence and to my understanding, that “has” is referring to the “compilation” and not to the contents of the compilation. Now not being strong on grammar I have re-written the line, removed the different subjects and swapped has and have in both locations.

    “A compilation that has helped my writing.”
    Replace has with have,
    “A compilation that have helped my writing.”

    or

    “Lessons, reviews, tips and advice that has helped my writing.”
    Replace has with have.
    “Lessons, reviews, tips and advice that have helped my writing.”

    I must admit you got me worried there for a while. I now realise that the “has” of the sentence refers to the compilation which is singular, so I am happy to stick to has.

    I just wish grammar wasn’t so difficult.

  • [...] So let’s apply the actor’s character study to writing. Most writers are familiar with the character sketch of occupation, hair color, eye color, etc. These are all superficial qualities that are necessary, but don’t actually give you the emotional make-up of your character. So in addition to the standard character sketch, I would suggest a great tool to use is one that Andy Shackcloth presented in his post Writing Characters Using the Proust Questionnaire. [...]

  • [...] This post was Twitted by aliciagregoire [...]

  • I just had to add a comment here about how Natasha Grey-Angel has enhanced her use of this questionnaire. By noting physical reactions of her characters as they answer. Here is a clipping from her blog post;

    “…I’m using the Proust questions as though I’m literally sitting in a cafe having an interview with each character. Along the way also I’ve written down physical reactions my characters have – expressions, ticks, emotional charges in their voices – to each question, which in turn has given me tremendous insight into their natures, and driving influences in their lives. I’ve discovered, for example, that the heroine in the Zombie Romance doesn’t fully trust the hero for a reason she can’t quite explain…”

    Read the rest of her post at http://natashagreyangel.wordpress.com/2009/08/22/deadlines-poking-characters-brains-and-michael/

  • Renee Mineart

    Thanks for the Proust questions, I like them. I’ve answered them myself and thought they were really interesting. I did think several could have been more open ended – such as: “who is your favourite hero and why” as opposed to just “who is your favourite hero”.

    Guess it’s time I sit down and write these bio pages for my characters.

    After, of course, I rewrite chapter 1. :-)

    xx

  • [...] two questionnaires I found online.  If you want to see the questionnaires they can be found at http://www.andyshack.com/2009/07/09/writing-characters-using-the-proust-questionnaire/.  The author of that blog entry pretty much has the same idea I had about character creation.  [...]

  • [...] Comings and Goings includes an article I find fascinating on the subject. It’s titled Writing Characters Using the Proust Questionnaire. Quite a questionnaire it is, too. Andy leads the reader through the whole process. Personally, I [...]

  • irina

    I will give this method of charecter development a try, I am writing my first novel. Its a unique story with unique charecters- that come from differant backgrounds. however I need to think of a good way to connect my subplots. Ive had the story in my head since i was in high school. Thank you for the advice.

  • Callen

    I like your questions! I have found some that I like, although they were not meant for novel writing. Hope you like them! http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474976908598