Made in America

Getting to Know Your Character’s Voice

Hearing voices in your head? Diagnosis: you’re either crazy or you’re a writer (though sometimes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive). The best use of dialogue and narrative voice is accomplished when a writer takes time to differentiate between their characters. For that to happen, you need to spend a significant amount of time getting to know your characters until–you guessed it–you’re hearing their voices inside your head.

One way to accomplish this is to ask your character(s) a series of questions and learn about them through their responses. The French Novelist, Marcel Proust, is credited with a questionnaire that is still an excellent tool in this regard. Proust believed that, by answering the list of questions below, an individual reveals their true nature. Using this questionnaire is a great way to start to hear your character’s voice.

Marcel Proust Questionnaire

  1. What is your idea of happiness?
  2. What is your greatest fear?
  3. What is the trait you most deplore about yourself?
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  5. Which living person do you most admire?
  6. What is your greatest extravagance?
  7. What is your current state of mind?
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  9. On what occasion do you lie?
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
  11. Which living person do you most despise?
  12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  16. When and where were you happiest?
  17. Which talent would you most like to have?
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
  21. Where would you most like to live?
  22. What is your most treasured possession?
  23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  24. What is your favorite occupation?
  25. What is your most marked characteristic?
  26. What do you most value in your friends?
  27. Who are your favorite writers?
  28. Who is your hero in fiction?
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  30. Who are your heroes in real life?
  31. What are your favorite names?
  32. What is it that you most dislike?
  33. What is your greatest regret?
  34. How would you like to die?
  35. What is your motto?

Though this questionnaire is a good jumping off point, there’s a layer to characters that Proust didn’t account for. The truth is: characters may not always be honest enough or self-aware enough to answer these questions truthfully. Proust’s questionnaire doesn’t take this inconsistency and level of awareness into account, it assumes that the character it’s speaking to will have complete self-awareness. It ignores the differentiation between the characters awareness of themselves, the awareness that others have of them and the author’s awareness (or the truth).

Unless you address this disconnect, you may run the risk of completing the above questionnaire without really getting to know your character’s voice at all. For example, your character may believe their greatest fear is snakes, when really it’s the disapproval of his father and he has yet to come to terms with how much he needs this approval. But, if you ask him the question and he answers with the latter, he’s exhibiting a level of self-awareness that he won’t have in your story. This may allow you to get to know him a little better, but not his voice.

To help you begin to navigate this great divide, we’ve compiled a list of questions to ask yourself about your characters:

  1. What does your character consciously want? Subconsciously? Do these wants align, differentiate or conflict with one another? Explain.
  2. Why do they want it (consciously and subconsciously)?
  3. How does your character perceive the world and what do they believe? How are they right? How are they wrong?
  4. In the above questionnaire it asks what the character’s greatest fear is. Was your character (or would your character be) honest about their fear? Is there something they’re afraid of they don’t know about or don’t want to admit?
  5. How would your character describe himself or herself (personality, appearance, mannerisms)? How would one of their friends describe them? How would someone they hate describe them? How would a stranger describe them? Finally, how would you, the author, describe them?
  6. What do the differences between the above descriptions say about your character’s level of self-awareness? Compare the descriptions above to your description of the character. Does everyone perceive your character correctly or incorrectly? Does your character perceive himself or herself correctly or incorrectly?
  7. How does your character show love or affection to friends or partners? What are they doing right in their relationships? What are they doing wrong in their relationships? What do they think they’re doing right and wrong in their relationships?

These are just a few questions to get you started. After you’ve answered these, go back over Proust’s questions and ask yourself: Would my character be honest about his or her answer to this question? Does my character have enough self-awareness to know the real answer here? If not, add in that other layer or rewrite that section based on how your character would actually answer that question, if asked. Eventually, with enough thought and practice, you’ll hear your character’s voice. Or you’ll go insane… or maybe both. 

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