35 Questions To Ask Your Characters From 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.

Proust Questionnaire

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 (or the Proust 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 fourteen 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?

How about you? Which question is your favorite? What do you ask your characters to get to know them better? Let us know in the comments section.

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).

  • 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.

    • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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.”

  • Questions asked of Conrad Brown from “The Cough”

    What is your idea of perfect happiness? Money and power

    What is your greatest fear? Losing my money and my job

    What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Oversleeping

    What is the trait you most deplore in others? Lack of discipline

    Which living person do you most admire? Tony Robbins

    What is your greatest extravagance? The $10K wedding ring I bought for my wife

    What is your current state of mind? Anxious and stress

    What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Patience

    On what occasion do you lie? Whenever it will get me ahead at work

    What do you most dislike about your appearance? Wish I were taller

    Which living person do you most despise? Oprah

    What is the quality you most like in a man? Self-confidence

    What is the quality you most like in a woman? I’m a breast man 🙂

    Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “Dude, grow a pair”

    What or who is the greatest love of your life? My English Bull Dog, Dozer

    When and where were you happiest? My years at Stanford

    Which talent would you most like to have? Photographic memory

    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would
    it be? To possess porn star stats

    What do you consider your greatest achievement? Being candidate for VP at Phelps, Inc.

    If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? CEO at Phelps, Inc.

    Where would you most like to live? Manhattan

    What is your most treasured possession? My Lamborghini

    What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Being poor

    What is your favorite occupation? Whatever pays the most

    What is your most marked characteristic? My aggressiveness

    What do you most value in your friends? Networking resources

    Who are your favorite writers? Dave Ramsey

    Who is your hero of fiction? Bruce Wayne/Batman

    Which historical figure do you most identify with? Napoleon

    Who are your heroes in real life? Chris Kyle, the American Sniper

    What are your favorite names? Benjamin (Franklin)

    What is it that you most dislike? People who say “No.”

    What is your greatest regret? Liking sleep too much

    How would you like to die? In bed with a beautiful woman and all my cash

    What is your motto? I believe I can Fly

  • What
    is your idea of perfect happiness?
    Perfect happiness is unattainable here;
    that only comes after death to those who deserve it.

    What
    is your greatest fear?
    I have no deep fear. Fear stems from looking back.

    What
    is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
    Inability to forgive.

    What
    is the trait you most deplore in others?
    Unscrupulousness.

    Which
    living person do you most admire?
    Living? None at the moment.

    What
    is your greatest extravagance?
    Revenge. It’s sweet.

    What
    is your current state of mind?
    I struggle between wanting to do the Lord’s
    work and wondering just what that is.

    What
    do you consider the most overrated virtue?
    Kindness. Few see that in me.

    On
    what occasion do you lie?
    To get information.

    What
    do you most dislike about your appearance?
    My face is misleading.

    Which
    living person do you most despise?
    Any man who comes between my mission
    and me.

    What
    is the quality you most like in a man?
    Strength and loyalty.

    What
    is the quality you most like in a woman?
    Purity and dignity.

    Which
    words or phrases do you most overuse?
    ‘Well’

    What
    or who is the greatest love of your life?
    I never had a great love, it was
    mostly my work.

    When
    and where were you happiest?
    I am happiest working.

    Which
    talent would you most like to have?
    A better ability to debate and argue.

    If you
    could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
    I would be
    younger.

    What
    do you consider your greatest achievement?
    Being forefront of the prohibition
    wave.

    If you
    were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
    That
    seems ungodly.

    Where
    would you most like to live?
    I’ve always liked California.

    What
    is your most treasured possession?
    I’d rather not answer that.

    What
    do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
    Sin.

    What
    is your favorite occupation?
    I was actually happiest as a copper, but I had
    a higher calling.

    What
    is your most marked characteristic?
    I am relentless.

    What
    do you most value in your friends?
    Loyalty.

    Who
    are your favorite writers?
    Dumas.

    Who is
    your hero of fiction?
    Athos.

    Which
    historical figure do you most identify with?
    I’ve never thought about it.

    Who
    are your heroes in real life?
    My father had a friend who was copper, who
    was killed in the riots. He was a true hero, and the reason I went into
    enforcing the law.

    What
    are your favorite names?
    Um…my niece, Julia, I named her. For a man, maybe
    John.

    What
    is it that you most dislike?
    Liars.

    What
    is your greatest regret?
    Underestimating certain people and what they
    would do.

    How
    would you like to die?
    With my boots on.

    What
    is your motto?
    You do the Lord’s work and the Lord will provide.

  • EndlessExposition

    I picked my 10 favorite questions to ask both of my main characters, Alexandra MacBride and Alicia Cameron (I also changed the questions to first person; I find it less disconcerting).

    Alex
    · What is her idea of perfect happiness?
    Passing her classes, writing regularly and well, and having a supportive circle of family and friends

    · What is her greatest fear?
    Never being good enough

    · What is the trait she most deplores in herself?
    Being indecisive or inactive

    · What is the trait she most deplores in others?
    Condescension

    · What or who is the greatest love of her life?
    Alicia Cameron

    · If she could change one thing about herself, what would it be?
    Her freckles

    · Who are her favorite writers?
    Agatha Christie and Elizabeth Peters

    · Who is her hero of fiction?
    Amelia Peabody

    · How would she like to die?
    Preferably when she’s very old, and in her sleep

    · What is her motto?
    “Don’t fuck up”

    Alicia
    · What is her idea of perfect happiness?
    A murder to solve with Alex by her side

    · What is her greatest fear?
    Never accomplishing her goals, and being unloved

    · What is the trait she most deplores in herself?
    Impetuousness

    · What is the trait she most deplores in others?
    Cruelty

    · What or who is the greatest love of her life?
    Alex MacBride

    · If she could change one thing about herself, what would it be?
    She’d be quicker on the draw (idiomatically speaking)

    · Who are her favorite writers?
    Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

    · Who is her hero of fiction?
    Sherlock Holmes

    · How would she like to die?
    Awake and aware of what’s happening; she’d like to be able to take everything in

    · What is her motto?
    “Faint heart ne’er won fair lady”

  • Gary G Little

    What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
    John and Sarah: Having to answer these questions.

    What is your most marked characteristic?
    John and Sarah: Hating surveys.

    What is it that you most dislike?
    John and Sarah: Taking surveys.

    What is your greatest regret?
    John and Sarah: We agreed to answer these questions.

    How would you like to die?
    John and Sarah: Choking the life out of Marcel Prost.

    What is your motto?
    John and Sarah: Tain’t what you want that makes you fat it’s what you get.

  • Luke Geldmacher

    This was exactly what I was looking for when I Googled ‘Character Questions’. Thanks Joe!

  • Beth

    Elizabeth from The Beautiful Wallflower.

    What is your idea of perfect happiness? Not having depression and being able to live life without being dragged down.

    What is your greatest fear? Losing my mind.

    Which living person do you most admire? My Dad.

    What is your current state of mind? I… don’t know.

    On what occasion do you lie? When I have to protect others from the hurtful truth.

    What do you most dislike about your appearance? … Everything?

    Which living person do you most despise? Jared.

    What is the quality you most like in a man? Kindness.

    When and where were you happiest? When my Mum was alive.

    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My stupid mind and how it doesn’t seem to work properly.

    If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? A bird, so I could feel the freedom I’ve always wanted to feel.

    Where would you most like to live? A tropical island somewhere.

    What is your most treasured possession? My heart…

    What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Being stuck in your own terrifying, dark mind.

    What do you most value in your friends? Loyalty.

    Who are your heroes in real life? Dad. Mum (as an angel), and Reagan my best friend.

    What are your favorite names? I’ve always loved the name Imogen.

    What is it that you most dislike? Depression.

    What is your greatest regret? Falling for a guy like Jared.

    How would you like to die? With atleast a shred of dignity.

  • Nancy Lynn Baker

    I actually started this as a character exercise and ended up doing one about myself first and then my character. I found it extremely enlightening. We think we know ourselves so well, but we change a little every day.

    So I have decided to make this a new years day ritual. One for myself and one for a character I am working on or thinking of working on, but not really aware that I am working on, you know how they lurk in the corners and sometimes have to be encouraged to come out and play. LOL!

    All in all loved this exercise. Great post! Will share with all my friends, writers and non.

  • WritingBoy

    Proust’s interrogatives are an excellent starting point for one’s own ‘soul’ work. Doing personal journal work is an excellent place to figure out a lot the difficulties in one’s own life.

  • Dinu Alexandra

    I answered all the questions for one of my characters.
    I imagined the questions were asked by someone who was in love with her.

    1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Lying on a beach, in a hammock, a cold beer in one hand and one of my books finally published in the other.

    2. What is your greatest fear? Fast moving cars

    3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Insecurity or maybe anxiety – although anxiety sometimes works for me and feels good. You know, like when you’re really anxious for something and then it actually happens you’re over the moon with happiness, you almost feel your heart growing inside your ribcage. So… maybe just the first.

    4. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Secretes or actually half-truths. I just hate it when there is so much more to the story than they are telling me. It’s probably my narcissism talking, but if you want to tell me something, just say it. Stop beating around the bush and just say it all at once. I just hate to learn later that there was a reason for whatever that I wasn’t told because fuck you, that’s why. I tend to jump the gun, so I want to know the entire truth not just the part that is convenient.

    5. Which living person do you most admire? Do you have to ask? It’s always and forever … no, not jack. (laugh) It’s Rose of course.

    6. What is your greatest extravagance? Real hair wigs maybe? If you’re not counting the shoes.

    7. What is your current state of mind? Boldness and stupidity sprinkled with a spoon of wiseass.

    8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? No, I don’t know…

    9. On what occasion do you lie? Deadlines? And when I’m annoyed and want to be left alone and sick and cornered. Usually a lot.

    10. What do you most dislike about your appearance? Short, obviously. I look like a perverted child.

    11. Which living person do you most despise? I don’t see the people that way. Who I like or hate, I can’t judge. Why say I hate some terrorist when I know nothing about him. But If I were honest than maybe myself on occasion.

    12. What is the quality you most like in a man? Confidence? To generic? Well how about balls? Does that count?

    13. What is the quality you most like in a woman? I like women with clean sunny faces. Like you look at them and they just beam at you. No dark thoughts hidden underneath.

    14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Fuck? Umm, Let’s see, why don’t we…

    15. What or who is the greatest love of your life? Now, that would be Jack Stoneheart.

    16. When and where were you happiest?

    17. Which talent would you most like to have? More creative.

    18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Just one? Are you sure? How about a physical one and an emotional one? Like my height, no my eyes, no, my… damn it… fuck it. I’d give myself bigger boobs. That always works best.

    19. What do you consider your greatest achievement? Lucy – the new fan book.

    20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? Like a tree? No, I’d be myself, maybe a man, maybe a woman but taller. I’d like to try again could be exiting to compare at the end.

    21. Where would you most like to live? On a sandy beach somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

    22. What is your most treasured possession? My autograph collection. I’m a simple woman.

    23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Depression.

    24. What is your favorite occupation? Not being depressed. I love writing of course and absolutely nothing else.

    25. What is your most marked characteristic? I’m probably an airhead? No, wait. You called me a disaster ready to happen, is that good?

    26. What do you most value in your friends? Oh, I have so few, but I like that they don’t give up on me, especially Rose, Like when I’m moody and snap at her, she forgives me and supports me. I feel so bad all the time for venting my anger on her but she’s always there putting up with whenever mood I’m in. So, that would be patience, maybe.

    27. Who are your favorite writers? I like everyone in almost identical doses. As soon as I start reading something I like, that person becomes my hero. And then when I start another author, the same thing happens again. I’m very fickle.

    28. Who is your hero of fiction? Yeah, these single answer questions don’t work for me. But I’ll try. Let’s see: Dr. Who – the 10th one more than the others.

    29. Which historical figure do you most identify with? You don’t have to ask this one. Never mind. (my character wears a Cleopatra stile wig)

    30. Who are your heroes in real life? That would be Rose again. She really is a true hero.

    31. What are your favorite names? Now, I really don’t want to say Thomas (laughs – Thomas is the same of the interrogator). I like Lucy and Mika and Rose, you know. I like the names of the people around me.

    32. What is it that you most dislike? Sugar in my coffee.

    33. What is your greatest regret? Quitting high school.

    34. How would you like to die? Dramatically! Definitely. Like a superstar. I hear in my heard all the time; It’s better to burn out than to fade away, and that’s what I want. A huge burn out.

    35. What is your motto? I can do it! I can Try!

  • Carol Anne Olsen Malone

    I prefer to interview my characters with just one question provided by NLP training and my book coach, Beth. Upon asking my character what he wants, I then ask “What will having that do for you?” Until I’m pretty sure I’m at the base core of his wants, really basic.