Who, What, When, Where, Why: WHO, part two

(The second post about characters—the WHO—in a five-week, five-subject series.)

Actors call it being “in character.” As an author, each of your characters must remain true to his or her personality, or psychological profile. To write about them believably, you must dig into their psyches before crafting dialogue, or depicting how they react in scenes. By investing the time to become intimately familiar with their temperaments, you’ll write believable chapters that keep your readers turning pages all the way to the last.

Let’s start with an example. My protagonist is a middle-aged female archaeologist.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Practical and calm, she wears dusty hiking boots and a frayed safari vest instead of stilettos and silks. Regardless of what she faces, she perseveres. She’s competent, without a mean bone in her body, fiercely protective of family and those she loves. So which shoe fits? Right. (And I know her well enough to know the toenails in that boot are neat, but unpainted.)

My mentor developed her own character questionnaire after more than fifty books. I’m developing mine now, using hers as a template. Famous French author Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is said to have used the following questionnaire to get to know his characters.

  • 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?


Develop a questionnaire, or use one from the internet (http://bit.ly/kMpN7 is an example). But don’t try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, to use an old American cliche, and leave the stilettos to characters young enough to walk in them. [subscribe2]

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