CritiqueMatch is a platform where writers and beta readers connect and exchange work for free! New: You can also buy a critique or beta-reading service from our top-rated users!

Jun 12, 2019

Death by Character Questionnaire?

By Kyrstin Oke.

Quick! Take our character questionnaire to discover everything about your character today! It’s as simple as answering 100 questions that will only take around 20 minutes to 2 hours to complete, (depending upon your decisiveness), and you’ll know everything you’ll ever need to about your character and writing will be so much easier! Remember, if you don’t know a character’s favourite sandwich, favourite colour, their shoe size or social security number, you don’t know the character at all!
Perhaps I’m just a cynic, but I abhor character questionnaires with every fibre of my being.
Always have, probably always will.

Now I know you’re probably bouncing up and down in your chair at this point, ready to stab me with the nearest sharp object at hand to valiantly defend those character questionnaires but kindly remain seated, lower the torches and pitchforks, and hear me out.
Why should you know everything about your characters to begin with anyway? Who told you that you needed to in the first place? (Hell, I do not entirely know all my characters in the beginning, but you can bet your best shirt that I know them well by the end of the book.)
Characters are the focal point of writing – this should be nothing new to you. After all, you’re reading this post so chances are you’re a writer to some extent. This is covered in the first day of initiation into the Cult of Writers. ( I think we reviewed characters right after we signed our names in blood to sell our souls and broke for lunch, but before we got the care package instructing us on how to solely exist on caffeine, alcohol, and the crumbs found in between the keys of our keyboard -  if my memory serves me correctly. I might be wrong though, after all, it’s been nearly a decade since my initiation. But hey, at least I got a free pen! * clicky – clicky*)
Anyway . . .
  I’m sure your fancy prose are nice, and the whole “genetically-modified laser dragon destined to devour everyone in that epic love triangle who all will save the world from time-travelling, IRS-evading, medieval ninjas” plot you’ve got there sounds grand, but those things will not take the reader by the hand and carry them (or drag them forcefully, kicking and screaming) through the book. Character development will. Characters are the driving force that get you through writing and get the reader through the book. 
I understand that character questionnaires are supposed to inspire you to create a character, but I think they go about it the wrong way. Granted, I’ve only ever gotten through 10 questions on any given character questionnaire before giving up with a long, drawn-out exasperated exclamation of “Uuuugghhhhhh”, accompanied with an eye roll. (Believe me, I tried. I really did.)
No. Stop it you. Stop leaping out of your chair, shouting at the top of your lungs that I’m a hypocrite.

“But you’ve never gotten through a character questionnaire, who are you to say that they are useless? It’s not all about the character’s physical description or the sort of sandwiches they like!” 
I told you, sit down. Take a breath and relax. To quote Doc Holiday, “my hypocrisy goes only so far”. One of the fundamental points of writing is to craft a character’s nature and have the reader discover that nature.
It is alright to not know every aspect about your character and the choices they make, but you at least have to know a fundamental part of their identity – whether they are honourable, stubborn, generous, greedy, weak, ambitious, unmotivated. . .
Without knowing at least one core value that your character possesses, you will essentially have a flat character; I don’t give a damn if you know their exact height, whatever gemstone eye-colour you’ve given them, how many childhood friends they had, and what they ate for breakfast– none of this is going to give the character an essence. You might as well be playing with paper dolls at this point. They need depth and dimension!
I still think character questionnaires are frivolous, superficial, and excessive. Creating and developing characters shouldn’t come with boring homework consisting of a billion questions. Writing is much simpler than that. Creating character development does not have to be torture.
In essence, I’ve only ever found that you really need to contemplate 6 questions about a character to really know the essence of their identity.
-      What does the character want at any given time?
-      How far are they willing to go to get what they want or to achieve something?
-      Depending on the situation, how mature are they?
-      Are the majority of their decisions based on rational thought or emotions?
-      What moral lines are they not willing to cross?
-      How does pain change them?
The rest – their past, their hopes and dreams, their favourite sandwich, and their dog’s name are all details – important details they may prove to be, but they’re still second to a character’s essence. They’re the garnish you put on the meal, not the entire meal.
It’s the choices the character makes that defines them. It’s their identity—yes, a part of their identity can be rooted in their physical appearance—but it’s how they treat their superiors and inferiors, it’s what they choose to do in dire situations and in the face of fear or temptation, how they change over time, how they adapt to hardships, what they’re willing to do or not do for others that defines them.
In my opinion, character development is the evolution of identity. This evolution doesn’t have to be a dramatic, life-altering thing—it can be simplistic and still be just as significant.
And so, I still stand by my 6-question approach. Take my advice or leave it.
It’s fine if you still want to take a billion character questionnaires, make a paper cootie catcher foldie-thingy and choose their favourite colour and number, or shake a magic 8 ball and trust in the sacred piece of plastic suspended in blue Windex or whatever that reveals the secrets of the universe to help you decide who a character is. Just make sure it works for you, I suppose.
*shakes magic 8 ball *
Will I meet a tall, dark and handsome strang -  . . . I uh . . . I mean, will my character meet a tall, dark, handsome, stranger soon?
 *peers into magic 8 ball*
“Not a chance.”
. . . Damn it.


Kyrstin Oke, 24 years of age. Very sarcastic, witty, with a hint of devilish charm. What professional experience do I have in writing, you may ask? None what so ever. I never took a class on fiction writing.  I wasn’t instructed in the art by a grand master on a secluded hill top. In all honesty, I was bored. I had an idea for a book in middle school and it stuck, like gum to a shoe…. perhaps that’s an inelegant way to put it, but nevertheless it’s true. It bothered me with every step until I began to write. My skills sucked but that was expected. You’re writing is going to suck in the beginning, but it doesn’t mean it has to suck forever. Nearly twelve years later, both the book idea, and my writing skills have improved greatly. So, keep writing. Or not... I’m not your mum.