A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a character questionnaire, and I felt like I hit the lottery. I can’t remember where I found the first one, or how I came about using it, but since that fateful encounter, I have come to depend on them.
Within the Bad Girl ranks, we have several plotters, several pantsers, and several plotsters (is that what you’re calling yourselves? Idk idk idk). I am solidly in the former category, hardcore like. If I don’t plot out every detail—every chapter, every scene—I hit a brick wall. It’s inevitable.
I’ve attempted writing without my roadmap and, while I can do it, it generally takes me three to four times longer than if I’d just sat down and mapped it out in the first place.
I know a lot of authors feel the first 10-20k words they write of a book could, potentially, be throw-away because they’re getting to know their characters in that time. A character questionnaire does the same thing for me, but I do it upfront and pre-story instead of within my writing. It shows me exactly who that character is who’s sort of foggy in my mind…allows me to flesh them out completely.
A quick search on google will turn up quite a few options for questionnaires. Over the years, I’ve amassed several, and because I was flying from one project to the next, I didn’t have time to really sit down and consolidate or figure out which questions are the most important and which questions are the ones my characters always skip over (thus the ones I don’t need).
Well, after a year of going gangbusters, I had a little break in December, and I set out to do this. I compiled all my questions, printed them out, then color coded them based on the type of questions they are. Then I went to good old Scrivener and created a section in my template sheets for character questionnaires. Instead of filling out question after question with no rhyme or reason (and thus having a hell of a time trying to find an answer when I’m on chapter 20 and need to know right now what that traumatic event was that happened when the character was five), I broke them up into twelve (yes, twelve!) sub categories, each containing multiple questions—as few as ten all the way up to 105). Some of you totally just groaned and rolled your eyes, while others had a mini orgasm, amirite?
Some of the sub-categories are:
- Basic info (things like name, birthdate, hometown, etc)
You’re probably not going to find out much useful information in this section, but it’s good to have for facts later on in the book.
- Physical description (besides the standards here, there’s also questions asking about scars or tattoos, how the character feels about his/her body, if they have any nervous physical habits/gestures, etc)
This is a surprisingly eye-opening set of questions. Sometimes something as simple as “How do you feel about your body?” can bring about something that shapes your character—say a history of an eating disorder, or maybe a parent who has one and has pushed his/her beliefs on their child.
- Personality Traits (what’s their biggest fear, street smart or book smart, etc)
This was really a catch-all for me, because so much of how we view things make up our personalities. This section has, I would say, the biggest opportunity for specifically helping with storyline.
- Childhood/History (everything from what kind of childhood did they have, to how many siblings, to are they keeping any deep, dark secrets)
This is another great section for digging deep and getting answers you might not have thought about otherwise.
That was a very minimal snapshot of what kinds of questions I answer before I start any project. In the end, I generally end up with roughly 10k words worth of questions and answers (in total from both characters). And I’ve never once done the questionnaire and had it be completely useless. There has always, always been something that’s been incorporated into the storyline based on something the character’s told me during the questionnaires.
I take some time before I sit down to plot my outline and fill these in for the two main characters, and I do so as if I were the character. If my character is a forty-year-old plumber named Bob, I answer those questions just as Bob would, so I’m already putting myself into the head of the character. It’s a great way to get a sense of what kind of personality your character has, what kind of sense of humor they have, and their general disposition.
One other thing to consider when filling these out: not only do you get great information from what your character answers, but you might also find you get insight on them from what they don’t answer, so pay attention to that, too!
Do I have any other plotters out there who love questionnaires like I do? Or maybe you’re not a plotter, but you do this anyway? Or maybe these make your left eye twitch… Tell me how you connect with your characters and figure out who they are!