The Things They Carried or Why You Should Quiz Your Characters

I admit it, I’ve never met a quiz or questionnaire I didn’t like. It didn’t matter that I knew I didn’t like boys in middle school, I still took the “Which guy is right for you?” quizzes in my friend’s Seventeen magazines. You know why I still miss Myspace? For the quizzes! Maybe this makes me a narcissist, but I prefer to think that it has something to do with my writer’s brain. I find the cumulative detritus of a person’s life to be endlessly interesting. I don’t really care what you do for a living or whether or not you believe in God, but I do want to see what items you won’t leave home without.

If you haven't read Tim O'Brien's story "The Things They Carried," it is a great example of the way the contents of a person's pockets can add up to a life.

So my approach to my characters is similarly detail focused. I care a lot about what records they listen to (or make fun of others for listening to), what foods they hate, smells they love, clothing brands they wish they could afford to wear, and so on. Admittedly, I am a very slow writer, plodding even, but I have chosen my pace intentionally, choosing to “hang out” with my characters so that I can know them intimately enough by the detritus of their lives that I can know what they will do when I come upon a situation that surprises me.

That’s why I love a good character questionnaire. You may not need to do these for all your characters, but I wholeheartedly believe in doing them for most of your characters ESPECIALLY those to whom you are having difficulty connecting naturally.

Below are two of my favorites, the first was originally created by French author Marcel Proust but you might recognize the questions as those which James Lipton asks movie stars on the television show “Inside The Actor’s Studio.” The second set of questions is from The Gotham Writer’s Workshop Writing Fiction Book.  So what are you waiting for, embrace your inner quiz-taker or talk show host and get to know your characters better. What they have to say might surprise you.

Marcel Proust’s Questionnaire

  • What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • What is your current state of mind?
  • What is your favorite occupation?
  • What is your most treasured possession?
  • What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your favorite journey?
  • What is your most marked characteristic?
  • When and where were you the happiest?
  • What is it that you most dislike?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest extravagance?
  • Which living person do you most despise?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • Which talent would you most like to have?
  • Where would you like to live?
  • What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  • What is the quality you most like in a man?
  • What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  • What do you most value in your friends?
  • Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
  • Whose are your heroes in real life?
  • Which living person do you most admire?
  • What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  • On what occasions do you lie?
  • Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  • What are your favorite names?
  • How would you like to die?
  • If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
  • What is your motto?

Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction.

  • What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname?
  • What is your character’s hair color? Eye color?
  • What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?
  • Does your character have a birthmark? Where is it? What about scars? How did he get them?
  • Who are your character’s friends and family? Who does she surround herself with? Who are the people your character is closest to? Who does he wish he were closest to?
  • Where was your character born? Where has she lived since then? Where does she call home?
  • Where does your character go when he’s angry?
  • What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?
  • Does she have a secret?
  • What makes your character laugh out loud?
  • When has your character been in love? Who was her first crush? Has she ever had a broken heart?
  • What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?
  • 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?
  • Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?
  • It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. If he’s eating breakfast, what exactly does he eat? If she’s stretching out in her backyard to sun, what kind of blanket or towel does she lie on?
  • What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
  • Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where is she going? What does she wear? Who will she be with?
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