An exercise I often use for creating a character is based on a questionnaire. It begins by asking for the mundane details of human life: name, age and address, then moves into the personal areas of like, dislike, favourite things, hopes and fears.
I’ve no idea who first realized that forms could have a creative use besides being a boring necessity. Not me, my tutors all used versions of this when teaching me.
In my turn, I’ve adapted my own variations on theirs, that I set according to which aspect of character formation I’m working on. For instance, do I want to create a character from scratch, or develop an existing one?
Here, in best Blue Peter style, is an example of a general purpose one:
© Cath Humphris
Twenty Questions on your protagonist.
Character Profile for _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (full name)
2. Date of Birth?
3. Place of Birth?
4. How does this character occupy most of their time?
5. Who, if anyone, do they live with?
6. How long have they lived like this?
7. What object does your character always carry?
8. What do they most like about their appearance?
9. What do they least like?
10. What does your character do on Thursday nights?
11. What is character’s most valued talent?
12. What is their favourite way to spend holiday time?
13. List three things that make them angry:
14. Describe their favourite clothes?
15. What is their favourite pass-time/hobby?
16. Who are they closest to?
17. What is their favourite extravagance?
18. What is their favoured economy?
19. Describe their most embarrassing memory:
20. What is their secret ambition?
No, don’t groan, trust me. It can work, even if you start rather flippantly, because clearly the name, and the answers to the first three questions can be plucked from the air. The trick is to write your answers down, and complete all the questions, even if you have to complete them out of order.
Commit to completing the list and I defy you to not find yourself linking the pieces together. As the questions become more personal the whys and wherefores build up and a backstory emerges. This is research. It’s the bottom of that Hemmingway iceberg theory that is your story.
There are two things that I like to see happen when I do this with a group. The first is that some of their answers extend beyond the page, either into the margins, onto the back of the handout, or into a notebook. The second, is when someone has to go back to an earlier answer and rewrite it to make it fit with the answers they’ve made further down.
That’s when I know they’ve hooked into the individuality of their character, and a flat stereotype is becoming individual, and therefore, rounded.