The other day I woke up with a plot idea. I jotted down the gist and then took the dogs for a walk. Sometimes when I come back to such notes, I find they’ve lost their shine. This time they hadn’t. All they needed was the right character and something was sure to evolve. It would be a woman, I knew that much, but who was she?
I could almost see her, just beyond my page, as a shadowy presence. I had an idea about her size and colouring, but that’s not enough to shape a story. I needed to know what she was really like.
But where to start? One way is to follow a questionnaire. There are hundreds of variations to chose from, and they’re easy to get hold of – you can find one of mine here, or check out a search engine. There are all sorts of formats: all kinds of lengths.
But, how do you know which one is best for you?
Well, I’d say that depends on how you use them. Generally the format will be a numbered list of questions. The tone often gets deeper as you move down the page.
I suppose the most important thing to remind you is that these are triggers, and while it’s a good idea to go with your first answer, you should also be prepared to revise details as you develop the profile.
So answering number 1, I gave her a name…Pippa. But apart from a few celebrities, who goes through life with only one name? We usually need at least a surname to balance that, so hello Pippa Phillips.
But then, instead of moving on to consider her age, I found myself wondering, Pippa Phillips, Pippa Phillips…who gets a name like that? How do they get a name like that?
Who better to ask than Pippa Phillips? This is how my side of the conversation went:
Are you married?
What was your maiden name?
Ahh, so have you married a relation? Interesting.
Have you children?
Who’s surname do they take?
How did you decide that?
You have a good relationship with your husband then? Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t make assumptions.
How did your families take that?
So, how long have you been together?
Cleary I’d moved off the questionnaire, but that shadowy presence I’d perceived was talking to me, and I like the idea that the story leads the writer. I knew that soon, Pippa would step out into the light and become a describable physical being, and not at all the person I’d first thought of.
Does it matter that I went off on a lateral line? Just in case you think it does, let me ask how often you’ve been sent a survey that restricted you to an inapplicable set of assumptions?
Questionnaires are a general tool. They make a great foundation for all sorts of exercises and stories. But sometimes we need reminding that they’re not a formula, they’re a kick-off for creativity.