By Keegan Waller
Building believable and compelling characters is often the hardest, and the most important, part of crafting a story. Even if a writer has an amazing idea for the beginning, middle, and end of a story, without solid character development there is little motivation for a character to continue reading, much less enjoying what they are reading.
I often find that if I do not feel like I know my own characters, my reader won’t either. As writers, we need to have intimate knowledge of a character’s inner thoughts, feelings, motivations, and backstories, even if they aren’t explicitly typed out on the page. So how does a writer get to know their characters as well as, if not better than, they know their friends and family? A tool that should be at every writer’s disposal who is struggling to flesh out a character should be the Proust Questionnaire. Created by French novelist Marcel Proust, it was originally a Victorian era parlor game and is now used by interviewers and fiction writers alike in order to get to know their subjects, and Vanity Fair in particular often dedicates the back page of their magazine to different celebrity answers to the questionnaire. These questions go far beyond the usual get-to-know-you questions, such as “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living,” instead asking, for example, “What is your favorite occupation,” “On what occasion do you lie,” and “When and where were you the happiest?” Answering these questions might help give you an insight into your own characters, for example, answering questions three and four (what trait do you most deplore in yourself/others?) might not be something you ever write out on the page, but it could give your character a believable reaction to someone else, or might help you find a motivation for the character’s own actions. With 35 questions total on the basic list, it may seem tedious, but it is not a bad idea to write out answers to all of them for any character you’re having trouble with. It might bring that story or novel you’re working on over the hump!