Getting to know your characters

Revision update: Nada! I’m away on vacation, but I’m going to get back to it soon.

Anita Nolan posted a link to character questionnaires from the Gotham Writers Workshop. They’re very useful, and I plan to bookmark the page, but it made me think of how we get to know our characters.

I read about using character questionnaires a few years ago. Basically, the questionnaires pose a bunch of questions and you fill in the answers as they pertain to your character(s).

The problem for me, however, is that I learn about my characters as I write the story, often having to go back to earlier chapters and make adjustments because of things I’ve learned in later ones. So, filling out a questionnaire before I’ve started to write is difficult. I don’t know those answers yet, and just making something up seems forced; the character tells me the answers as the story develops through the choices he or she makes.

However, I do think questionnaires can be useful at all parts of your progress:

  • Before you start writing: Running through a questionnaire can help you decide what you know about a character so far and help you figure out what you’d like to find out as you write the story. But, don’t be discouraged if you don’t know all the answers yet, and don’t try to force them. This is a time for awareness.
  • As you write: Everytime you learn something about your character, write it down somewhere to save and see if it answers any of the questionnaire questions. Remind yourself of the questions you still don’t have answers to, so you can look for the answers as you continue to write.
  • When you’re stuck: If you’ve lost track of your character and/or story, you can revisit the questionnaire and the answers you have so far, fill in any new answers you have, and see if any of these point you in the right direction for the next part of the story.
  • When you’re finished the first draft: Once the whole story is done, finish the questionnaire as much as you can. If there are still questions you can’t answer, maybe they’re a part of your character’s life that you don’t need for the story, but try to imagine what they would be anyway based on what you know of the character. Write down everything you can, a bible about your character’s needs, wants, feelings, decisions, choices, beliefs, likes, dislikes, etc.
  • Before you revise: After you’ve given yourself a break from your manuscript for a while, use the answers for your questionnaire to familiarize yourself with your characters again. Then, as you revise, make sure every action, decision, etc., all match who the character is at that part of the story.

How do you use questionnaires? How do you get to know your characters?

Write On!


2 Responses

  1. anitanolan says:

    Great suggestions on using the character questionnaires! I particularly like the idea of revisiting the questionnaire after completing the first draft. I’m pretty much like you, fill in the basics before starting, and then come up with the details as I go.

    Thanks for the link!


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