The Character Questionnaire
Often if you read interviews with famous actors, you will hear them talk about the extensive character biographies that they write in order to get inside of the head of the people they portray. In order to get an idea of exactly how unique your characters are, and in which ways they will react differently from another person in their situation, there are few techniques as effective as to write a biography.
If you fuse your biography with a good idea for a plot, the bio will give you excellent ideas on where to take the story, how to escalate events, and how your story will need to end in order to maximize the exploration of your main character’s arc.
What many writers forget is that every moment in the present is infused with the residue of the past. Without a solid understanding of where your character has come from and who they were before the story began, how can you expect to fully explore where they are going and who they are becoming?
In As Good As It Gets, the three main characters are all clearly defined by their pasts:
- Melvin Udall is a famous author who also happens to be obsessive-compulsive. His outlook on humanity is fairly sour, as the unusual requirements that his mental illness places on his interactions with others has taught him to expect the worst from people. He needs others to do certain things in a specific way for him to feel comfortable, and when they can’t or won’t, he feels frustrated.
- Carol Connelly is fairly patient and very loving, as she has dealt for years with her son’s debilitating illness. She has put her life, career plans, and romantic relationships on hold because of her son, and is feeling life pass her by.
- Simon Bishop is a moderately successful painter. His parents (specifically his father) are cold and distant, because they cannot accept his homosexuality. His shallow, partying lifestyle has allowed him to avoid any serious self-examination for years.
Here you have a solid cast of characters with built-in problems that have dogged them for years. The film thus involves many of these problems coming to a head because of the special circumstances of the story, so that the characters are finally forced to deal with old issues. Screenwriter James L. Brooks also had a very thorough knowledge of these character’s psychologies, so that as the story developed, they would react in unexpected but logical ways. Indeed, “unexpected logic” is a phrase that neatly sums up what all good storytelling is about.
The Character Questionnaire & How to Use It
I have compiled a list of traits that you need to consider when creating any important character in your story; The Character Questionnaire. Don’t make things easy for your characters; uncover patterns of past problems that give clues to future behavior and story conflict. As Good As It Gets is a great example of how to look at your story; a story is often really about problems that the main characters have carried around with them their whole lives, and that they are finally dealing with them because of larger events.
The trick to effectively creating character information is to be as specific as possible. Don’t just say their favorite food is pizza, say it’s the garlic and clam sauce pizza made at a tiny joint on 52nd St. in New York by this ancient Italian guy named Frank, who never takes a cigar out of his mouth. Your character isn’t simply scared of cats, but is specifically terrified of orange striped tabbies, but doesn’t know why (although you should know the real reason). Specific information will create specific, unique characters.
Here are some examples of how to approach filling out the Questionnaire:
Name: Very important! Think of how Charles Dickens used names as clues to people’s behavior or situation. A good name can often suggest entire personalities for your characters. If you have a problem developing a particular character, try changing their name; it may open up whole new possibilities. Does their name sound hard or soft? Does it suggest their ethnicity? Is their name incredibly incongruous for comic or ironic effect? How does the character feel about their own name? Do they have a nickname? Did the character change their name for personal or criminal reasons, perhaps to hide a dark past or escape relatives, debtors, or the law?
Appearance: It is essential that you are able to visualize your character. Also, often their looks are often keys to their behavior, and are definitely clues to how they will be treated and reacted to by others.
Background: These are just the basic logistics of their early life. Where did they come from? Are they proud of their roots or ashamed? Does their cultural heritage suggest behavior or beliefs?
Psychology: Here is where we begin to delve into specific aspects of their personality. Remember, everybody has problems — nobody is perfect. These details will suggest many of your story elements, and essential dramatic elements such as goals.
Philosophy: It has been oft said that character is point-of-view. A well-developed, unique philosophy will flesh your character out in the best, most dimensional ways possible. Philosophy relates to everything a character is or does, from goals, to actions, to habits, to arguments they have with the mailman. Arguments are an inevitability of drama, and they are caused by both differing goals and differing points of view. Throw two people in a room with deeply opposing philosophies and give them confrontational goals, and the two of them will soon verbally battle it out.
Your degree of thoroughness in this exercise will show on the screen. This is because when your character has a chance to speak or react, their behavior will be dictated by a psychology and history you have created — and they will practically write themselves! This is the magic moment that every writer works for; when the characters begin to come alive on the page. This does not mean that they should wrest control of the story from you and take it in a new direction. It simply means that your story will become in a sense a collaboration between you and your creations. But don’t forget who’s boss — you are still god of your tiny universe. But be open to what your characters tell you. They are, after all, a part of your own experience and personality, and can reveal things about yourself you never knew. This process fulfills the other goal of art beyond transmission of thought and emotion; that of personal insight and growth.
My sources and inspiration for much of the information on this form are three excellent books you should have in your writer’s reference library: Art Of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay by Andrew Horton, and The Book of Questions by Gregory Stock, Ph.D.
|hair color/style||eye color|
|clothing style (fashionable/unfashionable)||makeup (gaudy/tasteful)|
|Physical abilities:||Physical limitations:|
|Place of birth:||Place and time of story:|
|habits:||quality of relationship with child(ren):|
|Brothers/sisters/significant other relatives (profile each)|
|habits:||quality of relationship:|
|Brief Life Story|
|Write a biography for your character. The background you explore here will affect their behavior and goals just in the way that you are defined by these things. Thus the more detail you create, the deeper you can make your character, and this rich history will be such a rich source of information that it will change and evolve your story accordingly. In addition to how everything else on this questionnaire relates to their life, other things to consider are:|
|Outer Goal (physical):|
|Inner Goal (psychological/emotional):|
|Life, career, or personal goals outside of the realm of the story:|
|Introvert or extrovert:|
|More thinking / more feeling:|
|What do you see is the biggest contradiction(s) your character lives out?:|
|Tends to be self-centered? Selfish? Selfless?:|
|Education or important learning experiences:|
|Most hated activities:|
|Most enjoyed activities:|
|Deepest secret or wildest fantasy:|
|Sense (or lack!) of humor: what makes your character laugh?|
|Who is your character’s hero, or who do they admire or emulate?|
|Catchphrase that defines their worldview? (Examples: “What goes around comes around.” “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” etc.):|
|Philosophy & Morality|
|public causes supported/protested||politically active/apathetic|
|Life & Lifestyle|
|Noted accomplishments:||Attitude towards job:|
|Famous/infamous?||Clubs/organizations belonged to:|
|Favorite music or group:||Hobbies:|
|Favorite TV shows or films:||Favorite and hated foods/drinks:|
|Food for Thought|
|How would your character react to:|
|Inheriting $1 million:|
|The death of a loved one:|
|A natural disaster: hurricane/earthquake, etc.:|
|Meeting an old friend (or enemy) not seen for years:|
|Having or raising children:|
|Being raped/mugged/violated in some way:|
|An unexpected kindness or compliment:|
|A serious illness such as AIDS or cancer:|
|A flat tire on the expressway:|
|An interracial relationship:|
|Five minutes on local or national TV:|
|From The Book of Questions|
|A further source of great questions to ask your characters can be found in the excellent resource The Book of Questions by Gregory Stock, Ph.D. This is filled with juicy and thought -provoking questions that explore personal philosophy, morality, politics, knee-jerk reactions, secret fantasies, wishes, and much more. It’s also a great party activity to sit around with your friends and pass the book around as you each take turns selecting questions for all to answer.|
|A. If your character were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would they most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t they told them yet?|
|B. Would your character accept $1,000,000 to leave the county and never set foot in it again?|
|C. Your character is given the power to kill people simply by thinking of their deaths and twice repeating the word “goodbye.” People would die a natural death and no body would suspect them. Are there any situations in which they would use this power? [If they can imagine themselves killing someone indirectly, could they still see doing it if they had to look into the person’s eyes and stab the person to death? Have they ever genuinely wanted to kill someone or wished them dead?]|
|D. What would constitute a “perfect” evening for your character?|
|E. Would your character rather be extremely successful professionally and have a tolerable yet unexciting private life, or have an extremely happy private life and only a tolerable and uninspiring professional life? [Since so many people place great emphasis on a happy private life, why do people often wind up putting more energy into their professional lives? If you feel that a private life is more important to your character, do their priorities support this? Are they simply unwilling to admit that work is more important? Do they use work as a substitute? Do they hope professional success will somehow magically lead to personal happiness?]|
|F. If your character could wake up tomorrow having gained any one ability or quality, what would it be?|
|G. Your character has the chance to meet someone with whom they can have the most satisfying love imaginable — the stuff of dreams. Sadly, they know that in six months the person will die. Knowing that pain that would follow, would they still want to meet that person and fall in love? What if they knew their lover would not die, but instead would betray them? [In love, is intensity or permanence more important to them? How much do they expect from someone who loves them? What would make them feel more betrayed: Their mate’s indifference? Dishonesty? Infidelity?]|
|H. Does your character prefer being around men or women? Do their closest friends tend to be men or women?|
|I. Would your character be willing to murder an innocent person if it would end hunger in the world? [Would it torment them more to have the blood of an innocent person on their hands or to know they let millions of people die? What do they think of people who achieve great things by compromising their principles? Many are willing to give their own lives but not to take the life of another; is anything so important they would sacrifice their very soul for it?]|
|J. What is their most treasured memory?|
|K. If your character knew there would be a nuclear war in one week, what would they do?|
|L. What is the greatest accomplishment of your character’s life? Is there anything they hope to do that is even better?|
|M. What would be the one material item your character would save during a fire?|
|N. Your character is offered $1,000,000 for the following act: before them are ten pistols only one of which is loaded. They must pick up one of the pistols, point it at their forehead, and pull the trigger. If they can walk away they do so a millionaire. Would they accept the risk?|
|O. If your character could choose the manner of their death, what would it be? [Would they die a hero’s death, die a martyr to some great cause, die in a natural catastrophe, or die peacefully? Why is it so tempting to have death catch us in our sleep?]|
|P. For what in your character’s life do they feel most grateful?|
|Q. How forgiving is your character?|
|R. When your character tells a story, do they often exaggerate or embellish it? If so, why?|
|S. How much does your character feel in control of the course of their life?|
|T. Is it easy for your character to ask for help when they need it? Will they ask for help?|
|U. Would your character like to be famous? In what way?|
|V. What are your character’s most compulsive habits? Do they regularly struggle to break those habits?|
|W. What does your character strive for most in their life: accomplishment, security, love, power, excitement, knowledge, or something else?|
|X. How easily embarrassed is your character?|
|Y. Does the fact that your character has never done something before increase or decrease its appeal to them?|
|Z. How many different sexual partners has your character had in their life? Would they prefer to have had more or fewer?|
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