Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Character Questionnaire

I spent the last two days at the New Jersey SCBWI conference in Princeton -- a very enjoyable conference, with lots of good discussions and nice people. My talk was a shorter, tighter version of the speech on character I gave in Missouri last November. I do not plan to post the full text on my website -- sorry -- because wow, being able to reuse a speech makes life a lot easier in the days leading up to a conference! But I did promise I would post the outline of the create-a-character exercise, which was originated by Joan Bauer at the Los Angeles SCBWI conference in April 2007 and amended by moi:

1. Facts
-- Gender
-- Age
-- Ethnicity
+ Here I must point out, as I did in my sessions, that of the three times I've run this exercise with a group of people, I've gotten "Hispanic," "Indian" (meaning South Asian, not Native American), and "Hispanic" as answers to this question; and I always find it interesting that many of us white people (as the vast majority of attendees at SCBWI conferences are) don't automatically think of "White/Caucasian" as an ethnicity.
-- Sexuality
-- Basic family situation
+ Who's in the immediate family
+ Their socioeconomic status?
-- Where they live
+ Rural, suburban, urban?
+ Region and country

2. Internal Qualities
-- Personality traits
-- Ethics/morals/values
-- Degree of self-awareness

3. External Qualities
-- Appearance
-- Manners of speaking/patterns of behavior

4. History (aka Backstory)
-- that is relevant to the plot or relevant to how your characters will act in that plot

1. Desire: What the character wants

2. Attitude/Energy: The attitude the character brings to the situation in which s/he finds him- or herself

3. Action: What they will do within the novel; the result of Desire plus Attitude

And three more questions:
1. What is the character's joy? What keeps him or her alive?
2. What is the character's pain?
3. Where did the character get his or her name?

The basic idea is that you fill in an answer to each bullet point or question, and by the end of the chart, you have a character who's ready to be the protagonist of a book, where the plot is how the character gets the Desire and overcomes the Pain by the means of their Action and the Joy. It's a tremendously powerful exercise to do in a group because you can just feel this person come to life in the ether, shimmering there in our group imagination, waiting to have his or her story told; and I hope the chart proves useful to you in the telling.

Happy writing to all!


  1. it was fun to see you there and i really enjoyed your presentation!

  2. What a wonderful tool... thank you so much for sharing it!

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  5. I enjoyed seeing you there altho I'm not much of a schmoozer so missed an opportunity to chat in person with you.
    I did contribute the "She killed a dog" to your presentation. Don't know where that came from--I love dogs!!
    I did well, tho, in the 1-minute speed pitch session: 3 editors asked to read my mss.

  6. Wow, this seems like a great exercise. I can't wait to try it out myself, or with some students, or let my writer friends know about it. Thanks for sharing! :o)

  7. Thanks for posting this! I've been wondering about the whole physical description of characters in novels thing. I see good reasons for *not* specifically describing hair color, etc., b/c this allows the reader to imagine things how they wish. But doesn't this just permit the cover artist to depict such physical characteristics how *they* see them, and defeat the author's whole purpose for leaving them out?

  8. For me, it was one of the highlights of the conference. I've been thinking about your talk for the past few days and am now incorporating what I learned into my WIP, with great results. Thank you!

  9. Just following your link back here from your most recent post. What I like about this is that it is action-oriented; what they DO, and not just what they look like or what music or food they like (which has always seemed silly and inconsequential to me). I particularly like the joy-pain-desire-action rubric--it is the want, the lack, and the action all bound up together.

  10. I recently graduated from a MA program in Psychotherapy and you're questionnaire is incredibly similar to case study guidelines we do for actual clients. :)