Character Questionnaires: Yes Or No?

Howdy, howdy!  While I was searching for something writerly to blog about, I kept coming across ideas for character questionnaires (getting to know your characters, things to know about your character before you start writing, etc.).  The questions varied from basic stuff about looks and personality to weird things like “what’s in their fridge right now?” (the main character of my novel-in-progress currently has pizza, coffee creamer, and pouches of blood in her mini fridge, in case you were wondering).  And, at first, this seemed like a really neat idea, until I came across a list of 1,000 questions I was supposed to know answers to for my characters.  Yes, three zeroes.  It seemed pretty excessive to me.  I started to wonder when something like that went from a useful tool to being something to procrastinate with.

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Pretty sure this would be the reaction from my novel-in-progress’ main character and her bestie.

I just feel like there are things you should naturally know about your characters before you start writing, even without a questionnaire.  Name/nickname, the basics of how they look, main personality type, any distinguishing features.  For me, these are all things that come naturally with the voices in my head.  I don’t need to write them down, because I know them.  Occasionally, I’ll make a conscious decision to change an eye color or hair color if I have too many blue eyed blondes or whatever, in which case writing it down somewhere is helpful.  But all the questionnaires that start off with these things feel more like a way to procrastinate than anything useful.  On the other hand, if you’re the type of writer who works on multiple projects at once, I can see how you might mix up characters without having some kind of reference sheet.

Then, there’s the group of questions about character motivations which seems a lot more helpful to me.  Knowing why your characters do things helps when you’re writing and trying to decide how they’ll react to different scenarios.  It makes writing believable scenes easier.  Say your main character freaks out when their roommate pulls out a sword in a non-threatening manner.  Why?  Well, if you know they witnessed their sibling getting stabbed, you can hint at that or build around it even if the reader doesn’t know it yet.  Something less severe: why does your main character throw a tantrum every time her boyfriend steals her Oreos even though she’s a grown woman?  Maybe her siblings always ate all the cookies when she was a kid.  If you know their motivation, you can figure out how they’ll handle things realistically.

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A completely acceptable reaction.

Last, they have the really out there questions.  The “what’s in the fridge” and “favorite sex positions” types of things.  These are the ones that I’m almost positive people answer to feel productive, but they’re really just procrastinating.  I don’t think my character’s preference for red Gatorade over blue has any impact on my story, unless there are monsters in the Gatorade, then maybe.  These are the questions that are fun if you’re having trouble writing one day and are hoping answering them will spark something.  Otherwise, you’re just goofing off.  And that’s okay!  I understand the desire to put things off, but don’t lie to yourself about it.

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It’s totally procrastination.  Own it.

Overall, I don’t find character questionnaires that helpful.  They’re fun and something to do if I’m stuck or really don’t feel like writing, but, honestly, I’d rather just write most of the time.  What about you?  Do you fill out character questionnaires wen you create your characters?  What are some questions you find the most useful?  Which ones do you ignore or consider unhelpful?  Feel free to comment here or on my social media pages!

Chase Them Up A Tree…

Howdy, howdy!  I was recently talking to a friend about putting our characters through hell (whether literally or figuratively).  He was a little worried that people would be upset and accuse him of torturing his young female characters simply as a catalyst to turn them into “strong, empowered women,” as if that’s a bad thing (the torture as a catalyst thing, not the strong women thing).  We talked about the story and that certainly doesn’t sound like the case, but so what if it is?  What’s wrong with strong female characters having a tragic background?  A lot of male characters have it pretty rough before becoming heroes, so why should female characters be any different?  It got me thinking about some of the most common writing advice I’ve heard: chase your characters up a tree, then throw rocks at them/make them walk through the fire/etc.

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What does that even mean, chasing them up a tree?  Well, it means that you should put your character in a bad situation, then pile on some more trouble.  Nobody wants to read about a person who goes to the beach, where it starts raining, and they immediately find shelter in a dingy little restaurant where they have a nice meal, then they go home.  For genre readers, make the restaurant haunted or infested with pixies or run by some super attractive person who seduces the protagonist.  If you’re more into literary fiction, throw in some existential angst or a discovery of some lost love or an awkward conversation with a guy who knows the protagonist but the protagonist can’t remember him or whatever.  In other words, it means you need to keep things interesting.

Another piece of advice to new writers, usually used as an explanation for running characters up a tree, is to make them walk through the fire.  This kind of thing is especially easy to understand if you’re into genre fiction, because the Hero’s Journey often requires entering an unknown world (sometimes actually made of fire) and having the hero traverse the treacherous land.  Whether they come out unscathed or not is really up to you.  Either way, they’re forced to face numerous obstacles or trials along their journey and it transforms them into the people they become.

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In my humble opinion, I don’t think we should really worry about whether or not people will approve of our stories.  If your character needs to be tortured physically or mentally to move the plot along and help them develop into who they need to become, whether male or female, go for it.  That’s not to say that something so drastic is always needed.  Maybe your character grows up in a loving home and stumbles upon an adventure randomly.  After all, one of my own characters is surrounded by supportive and caring family throughout her adventures.  That’s great too.  Trust your story to tell you what it needs, not judgmental people who think violence has no place in literature.

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Disclaimer: I am by no means endorsing gratuitous violence or anything that’s done “just because.”  It has to move things forward and serve some sort of purpose.  That being said, don’t worry so much about what people might think and just write your stories.  If things feel a little excessive, that’s what revision is for!  You can always change things up later on.

What about you?  Do you find yourself worrying about things like this or are you all about running characters up trees and pelting them with rocks?  Share your thoughts here or on my social media pages!