35 Questions To Ask Your Characters From Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

We’re on a characterization kick this week on The Write Practice. Today, we’re going to continue to delve into the lives of our characters by going through a list of thirty-five questions to ask your characters made famous by the canonical French author, Marcel Proust.

On Monday, Sophie post about how to inhabit your character deeply enough you can feel yourself, at least briefly, become them. Yesterday, Liz talked about how to manage a large cast of characters without overwhelming your reader.

Personally, these posts have come at the perfect time. This week, I’ve been working on a new story with new characters. To aid me in my quest to know my characters better, I began searching for a set of questions to ask my characters, questions that could help me get to the bottom of their identity faster. That’s when I came upon a list of questions known as Proust’s Questionnaire.

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Proust’s Questionnaire

In the late nineteenth century, lists of questions were a popular diversion designed to discover new things about old friends. In that way, they’re similar to the blogging “awards” that continuously circle the blogosphere. Apparently, when Marcel Proust was 14 years old, his friend Antoinette asked him this list of questions.

In 2003, the album upon which Proust wrote his answers to the questionnaire auctioned for €102,000.

While these questions were originally intended for personal use, I found them to be helpful questions to ask my characters as a way to understand them more deeply.

Here is Proust’s Questionnaire:

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  2. What is your greatest fear?
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in 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 of 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?

Which questions do you ask your characters to get to know them better?

PRACTICE

Ask one of your characters the thirty-five questions from Proust’s Questionnaire. Then, post his or her responses in the comments section.

Enjoy your chat!

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About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • lynxcaracal

    Either The Guardian Newspaper had seen these questions a long time ago or they are universal: they are almost word for word the questions the paper asks celebrities in its weekly weekend supplement.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Right! They got so popular, especially after Proust’s answers, that people started using them to interview celebrities.

  • debra elramey

    A few random questions she answered:

    Which historical figure do you most identify with?

    EmilyDickinson, the recluse of Amherst.

    What is it that you most dislike?

    Large gatherings

    How would you like to die?

    In my sleep

    What do you consider your greatest achievement?

    Thousands of pages of words

    What is your most treasured possession?

    My mother’s journal

    Who is your hero of fiction?

    Anne Shirley

    Gilbert Blythe: Anne Shirley. What in heck are you doing here?

    Anne Shirley: [with great dignity] Fishing. For lake trout.

    Gilbert Blythe: [skeptically] For lake trout?

    Anne Shirley: Mm-hmm.

    ~Anne of Green
    Gables (1985)

    On what occasion do you lie?

    When someone asks me out

  • Katie Hamer

    This is a great starting point for characterisation. I’m also in the process of developing characters. So far I’ve developed a basic outline for each. From reading this list, I’ve thought of other questions I could pose, so now I’m feeling much more motivated!

  • Katie Cross

    These were awesome. I started answering these for a story I just started but am frustrated with because I’m still figuring it out, so this helped. Thanks for the great post!

  • http://www.janmorrill.com/ Jan Morrill

    Excellent list! I often interview my characters and I’m amazed at what I learn about the characters or the story. Here are a few questions I’ve used that are not on Proust’s list:

    If you could be a fly on the wall, what wall would that be?
    What haunts you?
    What’s your favorite smell? What does it remind you of?
    Tell me about a time in your life when you were teased about something.

  • Thou San

    I got a visit from thewritepractice, like it so joined up! I’m one of the recipient of a blogging “award” and since it has one of the question asked by Proust, I would like to share it if you don’t mind –

    1. Your life motto?
    I like what Mr. Spock does, lifts up one hand, divide his fingers and said “Live long and prosper” so I have a somewhat similar motto – “Live an interesting life”. If you can’t, then try to make it as interesting as you can wherever you are.

    Why “The Beauty of Imperfection”?
    Because it encompassed my principle of living an interesting life in an imperfect world. To take beauty where I find it, to look for it when it when it is not apparent to the casual eyes, and to know I will find it if I just look hard enough. To live instead of waiting only to find –

    Alas, I realized too late –
    I was only meant to live

  • Jewels

    I love those questions! I like to use that psych degree I paid a LOT for and ask my character a lot of “how would you feel if” questions. I like to ask a lot of questions about whom they model themselves after, whom they admire, and what their short and long term goals are. For my YA characters I head to teen magazines and take quizzes as them. For my adult characters I take a lot of leadership, career, and applicable surveys.

    I’m definitely going to bookmark this for use with my characters.

  • nikki

    What is your idea of perfect happiness?
    (A) To spend time with friends and family.

    What is your greatest fear?
    (A) Being left alone.

    What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
    (A) Recklessness

    What is the trait you most deplore in others?
    (A) Cowardice

    Which living person do you most admire?
    (A) My Brother.

    What is your current state of mind?
    (A) In love.

    What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
    (A) Compassionate

    On what occasion do you lie?
    (A) To save my loved ones.

    What do you most dislike about your appearance?
    (A) Everything. Too beautiful so people think that I am weak.

    Which living person do you most despise?
    (A) Too many to name.
    What is the quality you most like in a man?
    (A) Bravery

    What is the quality you most like in a woman?
    (A) Independent

    Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
    (A) Wimp!

    What or who is the greatest love of your life?
    (A) My Fiancee

    When and where were you happiest?
    (A) When I spend time with my daughter and fiancee.

    Which talent would you most like to have?
    (A) Painting

    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
    (A) Hot Temper

    Where would you most like to live?
    (A) Anywhere in thew world with the people I love.

    What is your most treasured possession?
    (A) My sword.

    What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
    (A) Loving a person who doesn’t love you back.

    What is your most marked characteristic?
    (A) Passionate

    What do you most value in your friends?
    (A) kind Hearted, Brave, Stubborn, Independent

    How would you like to die?
    (A) Peacefully

    What is your motto?
    (A) It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt- then its hilarious!

  • http://milano.bbakeca.com/ BBakeca

    Beautiful list….l

  • James
  • Heather Kallinger

    As the main character in my book series, Zack Henderson.

    What is your idea of perfect happiness?
    Lying in bed with a full stomach with the ones I love, knowing we’re all safe and happy.

    What is your greatest fear?
    Death of a loved one.

    What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
    My emotions kick my ass too much. They blind me. I screw up, and then it all cycles.

    What is the trait you most deplore in others?
    Either judgement or bigotry. I’d say the second is a part of the first. Just let people be who they are and stop worrying about if they’re like you. Who wants to live in that boring, screwed up world where everyone’s the same?

    Which living person do you most admire?
    Depends on what we’re talking about. I admire my significant other’s ability to know what he wants and go after it. I admire my girlfriend’s ability to love unconditionally. I admire my mom’s sense of humor. I admire Alton Brown’s ability to cook. I don’t know that I admire any one person more than anyone else in the world.

    What is your greatest extravagance?
    Books. I buy books like I could live on them alone. I guess video games cost more, though.

    What is your current state of mind?
    Stressed. You have no idea how much shit is going down around you all the time. I do.

    What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
    Purity.

    On what occasion do you lie?
    Usually when the cops are around. Or my mom—who I hate lying to.

    What do you most dislike about your appearance?
    I look effeminate, and I’ve taken a lot of shit for it. On the other hand, it got me my girl, so…

    Which living person do you most despise?
    Whoever is threatening my family.

    What is the quality you most like in a man?
    A sense of humor. I was going to divide it into romantic and not, and then I realized it doesn’t really change. I like someone I can laugh with, have fun with.

    What is the quality you most like in a woman?
    Why would that be different from what I like in a man?

    Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
    I swear too much. “Realize” is a word I think too much.

    What or who is the greatest love of your life?
    Being there for people. I can’t say a who because I’ve discovered that I’m not monogamous, so–it’s not like I love one more or less than the other. It would tear me apart to lose either of them.

    When and where were you happiest?
    Read my first answer.

    Which talent would you most like to have?
    The talent to never piss people off, no matter what I say.

    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
    I wouldn’t be so weak.

    What do you consider your greatest achievement?
    Still working on that.

    If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
    Leaning toward vampire. I mean, that’s kinda the plan right now…

    Where would you most like to live?
    The Wizarding World—and NOT as a muggle! Or on a starship in the Star Trek universe—back when it was a utopia, before things got dark in DS9.

    What is your most treasured possession?
    My custom blue and black Fender Stratocaster.

    What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
    Being tied naked to a chair in a dark room knowing that the people who have me plan to torture me to death.

    What is your favorite occupation?
    Well, honestly… Sex?

    What is your most marked characteristic?
    Probably my knee from all the times I’ve tripped and fallen on it.

    What do you most value in your friends?
    Loyalty.

    Who are your favorite writers?
    Come visit my bookstore. I have a special shelf for those.

    Who is your hero of fiction?
    Spiderman

    Which historical figure do you most identify with?
    I don’t.

    Who are your heroes in real life?
    First responders.

    What are your favorite names?
    For a son, Alexander. For a daughter, Amelia.

    What is it that you most dislike?
    Hateful people.

    What is your greatest regret?
    Not calling my mom to let her know I was alive before she found out from the police.

    How would you like to die?
    Holding onto my significant other and wife as we watch the universe take its last breath.

    What is your motto?
    “Nothing’s the motto with me, what’s the motto with you?” Okay, okay. Probably… “Gray is a good color.”