Character Development Questionnaire
A mistake I've often made is under developing characters before I leap into a first draft. You do learn a lot about a character through writing them and their actions, but I can't put enough importance on the development of character before you write a word. The script I won the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards with was the first where I did a character questionnaire, and I will always do them now.
Character questionnaires can be tedious, difficult, and you may feel at times, pointless, but they're so important because they challenge you. The better you know your character, the more three dimensional they will come across as. Also, if you can't fill out the sheet, then you know you're not that well connected to your character yet and should do more work. It also gets you writing anecdotes about your character which can be very useful for boosting your dialogue and helping you to learn more about the character dynamics within your story.
Most of what you write in a character questionnaire won't see the light of day, but subconsciously, you have so much more information to call upon should you need it. It's really useful in getting into key questions of motivation as you'll learn WHY your characters do the things they do and that gives them so many layers that make them interesting. For example, a brutish, dominating character is great, but why are they like that? What is it about their past or their desires that makes them behave that way?
Below is my character questionnaire that I fill in for every story. Obviously some questions aren't relevant if you're writing a particular genre like fantasy. For that I have something different, and if you want to see that just get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your character is the heart of your story, and the biggest questions you'll need to know before you write, are What do they want? And What do they need?
What they want is the tangible thing they set out to get. For example, it could be a date, a trophy, or in the case of Heroes of Hastovia, a portal home. This tangible goal needs to be something that fulfils the character, and is some kind of missing piece. They have to believe that by throwing everything at achieving this goal and overcoming the obstacles, that they will be fulfilled.
What they need is the emotional journey. The lesson they take with them once they succeed or fail. If they succeed, they often realise it is not what they wanted, and what they wanted was realised along the journey. So for example, a rom com. Sandy wants to date Jack because he's cool and looks like a pin-up. They are nothing alike, so with the help of her geeky best friend Wilson she takes part in sports, doesn't go to certain classes, and appears cool and aloof at nightclubs to get his attention, even getting into a fight with her love rival. She succeeds and he asks her to go to a party with him. When there, she realises they have nothing in common and he's actually an ass who treats people badly. She sees Wilson on his own, and in that moment, having been on the journey of faking it to get with the wrong guy, she realises the one she wanted was the one helping her the whole time, the one she could be herself around.
In the other example where a character fails to get what they want, often they'll learn something from their failure to then succeed. For example, a knight wants a magical sword that he believes will make him strong enough to kill a dragon. He searches the land, making friends, overcoming obstacles, and growing as a person. He finds the sword but it is taken from him by a traitor. However, with his new found bravery, friends, and inner strength gained from the journey, he and his allies risk their lives, working as a team to defeat the dragon, learning there is greater power in love and friendship.
So focus on character, develop character, know your character, love your character, then enjoy the journey you go on with them. Here is my questionnaire. Adapt it to be your own, add and remove questions, and develop your own system of working to do what works for you.
Character name and age
Three word description
Role in the story
What do they want more than anything?
What do they need more than anthing?
What makes them special?
What is their flaw? It normally relates to something she hasn't gotten over. An emotional wound.
What is her coping mechanism? It could be an addiction or some form of distraction or displacement.
Why do we like them?
What makes us want them to succeed/ fail if evil?
What will happen if they fail?
What are the major decisions they have to make?
What are the irreversible choices they make?
Does the character have any disabilities or allergies?
Do they have an enemy?
What are they most scared of?
Do they have any phobias?
What were they like at school?
What do they do for a living?
Are they religious?
What is their family life like? Do they have siblings?
Where did they grow up?
Where do they live now?
Why do they do the job they do?
What are they like to live with?
Do they have any addictions/ habits?
If you met them for the first time, what would you think?
Do they have many friends?
Do they have a major flaw?
How do they feel about authority?
How do they feel about conflict?
What are their hopes/ dreams?
Do they like routine or spontaneity?
Do they seek the validation of others?
What is their biggest secret?
How many relationships have they been in?
What is their biggest regret?
What makes them happy?
What do they do to relax?
Do they have a particular style?
Do they like sport?
Who do they hate?
Who are their idols?
Do they smoke/ do drugs?
Do they like animals?
If they could be anyone, who would they choose to be?
What was their favourite TV show/ magazine when growing up?
Do they engage in debates on social media?
What’s the biggest argument they’ve ever gotten in to?
List twenty things that stop them getting what they want.