Saturday, February 8, 2014

Putting a Face on Character: Questionnaire Resources

clipart courtesy
"I like it when the deeper you go with the character, the more 
you see the layers start to peel away." --Edward Norton

Had a need this week to go deeper with a minor character, peel away the layers of his life--see his face a little clearer. Where to go for prompts?

Thankfully we don't have to go far. Some resources I've found helpful:

Pulling out some favorite questions:

"Look at your character's feet. Describe what you see there. Does he wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all? Is he in socks that are ratty and full of holes? Or is he wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by his grandmother?"

"When your character thinks of her childhood kitchen, what smell does she associate with it? Sauerkraut? Oatmeal cookies? Paint? Why is that smell so resonant for her?"

"Dear Character: How do you feel in a crowd? How do you feel alone?"

"Your two main characters have to change a flat tire in the rain. What do you learn about them from this?"

The danger is in getting lost in the lists, they pose so many possibilities!

Do you have favorite questions that help reveal who your character is and what motivates him or her? Glimpses into the past that helped shape your character's present? A favorite questionnaire source you frequent?


  1. I use my extensive knowledge of the enneagram to give me the overall concept for the character, and then add details that work with the personality type to flesh out the character. The enneagram works so well for finding their motivations, and predicting how they will behave in any situation. That helps me know what to throw at them to help them grow.

  2. I usualy wait for the character to let me know things about herself/himself. And then I start asking "Why did . . ," "Why does . . ," "What if . . ." Sometimes I clip a picture of what I think the character looks like. But I'm intrigued by Cathy's comment: I had to look enneagram up. It seems a bit of a complicated way to shape a character, but certainly an interesting one.

  3. Cathy, thanks so much for the reminder of the enneagram. I remember when you introduced the concept in the A-to-Z challenge one year. I've yet to utilize it much but it is an intriguing idea. For those who might want to go deeper, here's a link to your tab so others can check it out:

    Elizabeth, the 'what if' question is a classic. I remember in my early years of writing hearing Mary Higgins Clark talk about that at a conference once, and it has stuck with me, too. Like you I also use photos. But this week I had reason to need more information--more backstory than anything but necessary to understand this character better!--so I went to questionnaires. Based on one particular question I learned the character had a scar on his face. Hmmm, just what I needed to fill in a blank!

  4. Does my character have an annoying habit? it keeps me from writing 'too perfect' characters and makes them more believable.

  5. Super tip, Sharon--thanks for sharing :-)

  6. I have tried the various questionnaires and haven't had a lot of luck, but I think that's probably because I don't stick with it long enough. I took a conference Intensive on characterization from Franny Billingsley last spring, and her big focus was, "What does the character want?" (good question)

    I do intend to look up enneagram. I'm not familiar with that. Are there any really good books out there that focus on characterization?

  7. It's fun to go deeper with a character even if most of it isn't needed in the story because it helps the story become what it needs to be.

  8. Ooh, I'm bookmarking this. I'm going to be going a little deeper into my characters within the next few weeks so it's perfect timing!

  9. Peggy, at first I didn't think questionnaires helped me much either. Seemed pretty elementary. But then when I got stuck on my MC's family and needed background motive and conflict, answers started jumping out at me because I asked some deeper questions. It actually was fun to see the picture unfold. As for a book that focuses on characterization, I don't have one at hand but if I come across one, I'll let you know. Maybe someone will name one here?

    Barbara, that's exactly what I've found out! I won't need to use everything I've learned about the character in the actual writing, but the information will help shape my MC's journey...

    Jennifer, glad you found this helpful. Enjoy all those discoveries that will come along :-)

  10. This is wonderful Kenda! Thanks so much for sharing it. Bookmarking this post! )

  11. You're welcome, Karen :-) Glad it can be helpful. Thanks for dropping by...

  12. The thing with the enneagram is that it takes years of study. You reach a level of understanding, and then go deeper, and deeper. Most psychologists and spiritual counselors use it to understand their clients in the first place, but also to help their clients understand themselves better--to "peel the onion" so to speak.