There are a lot of questionnaires out there for you to fill in whilst building up your characters. ‘100 questions to create an amazing character’ is the usual tagline. Typically a quiz will have several sections for you to complete, detailing a character’s appearance, family, skills and material possessions. But are these questionnaires a helpful way to create solid characters – or are they a massive waste of time?
I used to love a character quiz. Little boxes to fill in with your best handwriting, and a pleasing sensation that you were Making Progress with your story. I am still a sucker for anything labelled a Writing Printable. But I’m starting to think that a character quiz is not a good thing.
Let me explain. I like to write. In my ideas-planning stage, I do a lot of ‘freewriting’. that is, generating ideas in prose and dialogue, where other people might choose lists or diagrams or maps. I find more gems and revelations when I write what my characters are saying and doing and what weird things are happening all around them. But it does mean that if I need a quick Innkeeper, say, or a Previous Love Interest, I have to make up the details on the spot. The innkeeper had…large feet and a disgruntled air, I will write quickly. The ex-girlfriend wore …. last century’s clothes as if they were next year’s fashion. If, later, I need more than this, I’ll add it in, but for the moment I have a quick sketch of their appearance and attitude, and on we go.
I think if I’d filled in a character quiz, I’d find sketching of secondary characters far harder. I’d be tempted to include in the narrative, all the things I now know about them – where they went to school, how the girl broke our hero’s heart, et cetera. Then I’d have to make decisions about what to leave out, and when I should mention any of these details … and it all becomes more difficult.
Recently, I read a character bio, shared online by another writer. This female character’s backstory was well-thought-out and intriguing. And it included the ‘vital statistic’ itself – bra size.
I mean, this might be relevant if the story revolves around a lingerie shop, or body image issues. And certainly, by all means, as a writer you might know your character is a 34B or whatever. But is recording it part of useful character development – or is it just form-filling?
(This author said, when I commented on this, that she is a very detailed writer, and that’s fine. I still think that to capture that particular detail is a little odd, but each to their own. We exchanged amiable smileys.)
So, my problem with the character quiz, number one: it makes the writing harder. Too many decisions to make later.
Problem number two, named for an excellent article on TVTropes.com, relating to fantasy/science fiction races, called People of Hair Colour. (Please, please, click the link. TVTropes is shockingly accurate on identifying the conventions of popular culture. Pick a show you love and then discover how derivative it is. That might sound terrible, but for a writer, is amazing fun.)
In short, this problem is about describing characters by their physical appearance. Blue eyes or green eyes, blonde hair or ginger. But does that really tell the reader anything about the person? OK, so the quiz parts about what car they drive or how tidy their room is, might give some clues. But really – knowing about their Volvo S40 is only a tiny hint for the reader. You, the writer, might find it better to record what led to that Volvo S40 – or just to note that the character is obsessed with European safety ratings, and start writing.
There’s another issue with People of Hair Colour: diversity. The hair colour thing makes certain assumptions about ‘default’ physical types, ie Caucasian. What if your characters all have, say, brown eyes? Or if they are all pointy-eared tree-dwellers? Well, I think you’ll find that Elves are each pretty distinctive even if they are all dressed in green and sporting a subtle shimmer. It’s not their colouring that makes them individuals, it’s their choices. The precise shape of an individual’s ears is not the point, the point is, what are they like? And, crucially, why does it matter to the story?
There are undoubtredly times when a typical character quiz sheet might be useful. Actually, I can only think of one:
When your story has too many characters. Sorry, but if you need a gazetteer at the front of your book, you have too many named characters. Even an ensemble piece needs focus, I don’t care who you are. Whose story is it supposed to be? Oh, just these three hundred people. Well, I’m out. BUT if you really want to create a soap opera with a massive and mostly pointless cast, then a quiz sheet to keep track of who has warts, or a secret deathwish, might come in handy.
Here are some traditional character questionnaires if you’re still determined to fill in a lot of boxes.
Character questionnaire. This one made me want to add ‘and so what?’ on the end of each question. It’s a good example of gathering a lot of data about your character, without it necessarily leading anywhere. But you could improve it by asking ‘meaning what for my story exactly’ on the end of each quiz question.
The other type of quiz sheet
I’m not at all big on physical descriptions of characters, and tend not to put them in. In the same way as I don’t look out of my hazel eyes and note how my tiny yet strong hands can work the keyboard, neither do I care too much about describing every nook and cranny of my characters’ appearance. Therefore, for my money, the more interesting character questionnaires deal with the psyche.
Try these out for some questions which help you connect your awesome character to your awesome story – regardless of hair colour:
- Free your mind – not designed for writers, but interesting to ponder if you’re stuck on character psyche.
- Gotham questionnaire
- Proust questionnaire
- Building character and story together. This is a character quiz done right – the character and the story are intimately linked. CS Lakin’s stuff in general is awesome for its refusal to separate character, theme, goal and concept.
- Uncovering the hurt that makes your character. Another good character development exercise, from KM Weiland.
Overall, my main way of developing characters is to throw them together and see what happens. As with story outlining, my favourite approach is not to complete something that’s as finicky as a tax return, but to write.
Do you like a character quiz now and again, or do you loathe them with a passion? Let me know!
I’ll be back tomorrow with D – Description and how I avoid it.