The Only Character Quiz You Need
Have you ever pictured a character in a book with blonde hair, even though the author keeps reminding you they’re a brunette on every other page? Or thought they were tall only to be told a few chapters in that they’re short? Conjured up an image of them wearing glasses, then ignored every time the author described them putting their contacts in?
I do it all time. I’ll get a mental image the second a character is introduced to the story, and even if the author goes on to describe them as the exact opposite of what I pictured, I’ll stick to that first impression. What I won’t ignore is who that character is, and how they interact with the world around them. If a character is strong and well developed, their personality is what makes an impression on me and keeps me turning the pages, not what they’re supposed to look like.
I never really considered the impact of that fact on my own writing until I hit a bit of a slump. I was trying to start a new novel and I just COULDN’T get the main characters down. Every word felt like it was forced. I didn’t have a handle on who these people were. I’m a plotter as far as plot itself goes, but when it comes to characterization, I tend to let the people in my stories whisper their secrets in my ear as I go along.
Only this time, they weren’t whispering anything.
So I sought out some character building exercises online and stumbled upon the freakin’ TREASURE CHEST of writerly resources that is Rachel Giesel’s website. I signed up for her mailing list right away (an action I highly recommend anyone who writes anything to undertake as well) and got started on her Real + Good Character Questionnaire.
At the moment, you can find it on her site here.
What really struck me was her explanation of the fact that what a character looks like DOES NOT MATTER. A lot of other character questionnaires include dozens of questions about the character’s physical features, but what Rachel urges is that when it comes to the people we read about:
“We fall in love NOT with what makes them physically realistic, but with what's at the core of them internally, what makes them real overall. We fall in love with NOT what makes them realistic, but what makes them real.”
Accepting that fact really forced me to go deeper than the physical and mundane when getting to know my characters. I didn’t stop at just a few brief notes on their backgrounds. I went beyond that and tried to figure out the WHY behind all the WHAT. The questionnaire is the perfect guide for getting down to the core of what makes your character tick, and I found that once I had reached that core, the surface details of their personalities came so much more naturally and were so much more believable than they had been before.
I’d highly encourage anyone who writes fiction to give this questionnaire a shot. It’s challenging and it requires you to invest some time, but it’s been an incredibly useful tool to add to my writer’s arsenal and I’ve seen so much improvement in my craft because of it.