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 you should do extensive character work before writing a word. The script I won the silver at 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 at times they feel pointless, but they're so important because they challenge you. The better you know your character, the more three dimensional they will come across. 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? You’ll also start to see the dynamic between characters more clearly.
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 my fantasy, Heroes of Hastovia, a portal home. This tangible goal needs to be something that the character believes will fulfil them, 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 her dream man. 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 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. Also a good way to sum a character up is to think, ‘How would I describe them when I meet them for the first time?’
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, but put the work in.
Character name and age
Appearance - Build, height, weight, hair colour/ style, dress sense
How do they walk?
How do they sound?
Do they have any disabilities or allergies?
What do they do for a living?
Do they have siblings?
Where did they grow up?
Where do they live now?
If you met them for the first time, what would you think?
Role in the story
What do they want more than anything?
What do they need more than anything?
What makes them special?
What is their flaw? It normally relates to something they haven't gotten over. An emotional wound.
What is their coping mechanism?
Why do we like them?
What makes us want them to succeed/ fail if evil?
What will happen if they fail? For example, will someone die? Or will the world end?
What are the major decisions they have to make?
What are the irreversible choices they make?
Who is their worst enemy?
What are they most scared of?
Do they have any phobias and are they linked to any trauma?
What were they like at school?
Are they religious?
What is their family life like?
Why do they do the job they do?
What are they like to live with?
Do they have any addictions/ habits?
Do they have many friends?
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, and why?
What is their biggest regret, and why?
What makes them happy?
What do they do to relax?
Do they like sport?
Who do they hate?
Who are their idols?
Do they like animals?
What was the happiest day of their life?
What was the saddest day of their life?
If they could be anyone, who would they choose to be?
What was their favourite TV show/ magazine/ form of entertainment when growing up?
Do they engage in debates on social media?
What’s the biggest argument they’ve ever gotten in to?
AND WHEN YOU KNOW ALL OF THAT:
List twenty things that stop them getting what they want. It'll help you to figure out what obstacles they will face, both internal and external