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Q & A – Do You Use a Profile/Questionnaire When Drawing Your Characters?

By C.V. Lee
August 19, 2022

I confess I have tried on multiple occasions to complete a character profile or questionnaire and I felt stuck after I fill in a few answers. Maybe it’s because my writing is set in the medieval/renaissance era, and the questions often feel too modern.

The majority of my characters were real people. Given the time period, very little is actually recorded about them, making it difficult to get a good description of their personalities or any of their physical features. I have to speculate about a lot of things, but, for me, understanding their motivations is key. From that aspect of their being, I start fleshing them out. I know that I am not the only one that has had a protagonist, antagonist or secondary character accompany them on a walk. And they all have a lot to say. I love when they reveal tidbits of their backstory or how they are feeling. In this way, I believe I get to know them intimately.

Many authors and experts highly recommend character profile and questionnaires. So I asked some of my fellow Lanterns to give me some insights on the matter.

Mari Christie, author of BLIND TRIBUTE, loves character questionnaires!

So much so that I wrote one: Brainstorm Your Book. One of my perennial favorites, though, is The Proust Questionnaire, which is said to get to the true nature of a person… (Maybe something that should be done before marriage, to say nothing of writing a novel…) There are a LOT of great questions to be answered on this one, but I think my favorite question from that instrument is “What is your greatest regret?” It is such an important piece of backstory, a huge part of what makes your character who they are.

 

Linda Ulleseit, author of UNDER THE ALMOND TREES and THE ALOHA SPIRIT, writes books based on real people. Some are well known historical figures, and some are little-known ancestors of mine. Either way, when it comes to creating a character I’m somewhat limited. I can’t arbitrarily assign a character a trait that some historian can prove is false. Instead, I glean a character’s motivations from their actions. Having said that, I have copious character interview documents to use in discovering character emotions.

One site of questions I use is Dabble. I like this article because it’s titled “Character Development Questions That Aren’t About Eye Color.” I’m always describing eye color, so this title made me laugh. On their list, I particularly like the question “Who loves you with all their heart and soul, and how does their love make you feel?”

Another one I like is “Tell me about an enraging experience you had that everyone else thought was no big deal.” These questions help develop a real person out of the dates and data I research about my real people. Another good source are the Wednesday WIP posts in our Facebook group, SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers. Lantern Mari Christie always comes up with question prompts that I’ve never thought of asking before.

Anne Beggs, author of ARCHER’S GRACE, tells me her characters come to her. They all have stories to tell. They are mostly fictional. Thus, her stories are very character driven.

We explore their world together. Then I must go back, as the writer, and try to make cohesive books from all these scenes and dialogues (plotting). I am inexplicably drawn to the Middle Ages, and I was born with the horse gene, so these characters all have to be involved with horses and in AD 1224, Connacht, Ireland horses are vital.

As I am writing a series, a family saga, I discovered I needed more than a cast of characters, they needed a bit of a pedigree, names, ages, and the important dates I needed to refer to.

Initially it never occurred to me to do a character profile. I didn’t consider a questionnaire or conducting an interview with a character (but how fun that sounds now!). I was enchanted with what my characters were doing and who they thought they were. I still LOVE the magic when a total stranger walks into a scene and takes over. Someone I don’t know, didn’t plot in, and they steal it. I have learned to go with it, write it. It may take days, weeks, months, but these characters have always turned out to be pivotal. I think if I tried to interrogate them on the spot, I would lose them. First drafts, free writing, I still go with it; I am merely taking dictation.

I do spend a lot of time with my characters. We go over scenes and dialogues, practicing and dress rehearsing. I learn a lot about them, and what the story needs from them. But later, in the rewrites, there is more to consider. My writers’ groups, workshops and conferences made it clear that I needed to be more specific and more consistent with my characters. Not just eye color or age.

Last year I purchased Brainstorm Your Book, by Mari Anne Christie, a Paper Lantern Writer. I highly recommend it and am applying many of the questions to my characters.

So, do I use a character profile/questionnaire? In the beginning, NO, I run with my characters and intuition. But in later drafts and rewrites, yes, I am going to try using this book more.

Michal Strutin, author of JUDGING NOA, thinks writing historical mysteries is like doing a jigsaw puzzle.

 

Good thing I like jigsaw puzzles. First, I find the straight-edge pieces that form the frame: the good guys and the bad guys.

I use Scrivener to write and pull up a Scrivener Character template or two when I’m developing a character. Scrivener has a good list of categories to consider: Name, Age, Location, Role in Story, Goal, Physical Description, Personality, Occupation, Habits/Mannerisms, Background, Internal Conflicts, External Conflicts, Notes.

I start with Goal because if I don’t know what’s driving characters, I can’t imagine them. The next obvious items are Internal and External Conflicts. But I don’t fill in each category and check it off as if it were a grocery list. When ideas pour out, I fill up the Notes category.

Two items not found in the Scrivener list are good and bad character traits. They could be part of Personality, but I like to keep these two sharply defined. My bad guys have to have some good traits to make them human. Same with my good guys: a touch of sharpness, emotional obtuseness, or other minor failing rounds them out. It’s hard to feel empathy for a two-dimensional character. Think Sherlock Holmes. He’d be hard to buddy up with, but I’m always rooting for him to right the wrongs.

Whether you use Scrivener or make up your own template, you can save yourself time by filling in some of the more straightforward categories. In Book 1 of my Late Renaissance mystery trilogy, I couldn’t remember whether a female character had brown or black hair. I had to do a search of the scenes she appeared in.

Sometimes a character will do something unexpected all on their own. In Book 2 of my trilogy, I learned that my Arab shepherd, who’s just a shepherd in Book 1, also composes lyrical poetry that he “sings” to his sheep. I was so surprised and delighted that I wove it into my plot. Does Bashir’s poetry-composing go under Occupation in the template or….

I guess we have to wait until her book is published to find out!

C.V. Lee
Written by C.V. Lee

C.V. Lee writes historical biographical fiction featuring forgotten heroes and heroines of the past. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, Alli, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can find her on Facebook @cvlee.histficwriter and on Instagram @cvleewriter.

View CV’s PLW Profile

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