How do you get to know someone? But really get to know them, beyond the surface level things like where they grew up, what they do for work, and what hobbies they enjoy?
Finding ways to get to know someone is especially important for writers. Whether you're interviewing someone for an article or book or interrogating your fictional characters as a characterization exercise, knowing people will inevitably make you a better writer.
One well-tested method to get to know someone is the Proust Questionnaire. Notably taken by French novelist Marcel Proust twice, it provides the perfect framework to better understand the deep motivation of a person.
In this article, we'll look at the origins of the Proust Questionnaire, look at notable examples of its use among celebrities, and then we'll look at how to use it to better understand your characters.
Finally, we'll use a creative writing exercise to put these thirty-five questions to use in our writing.
The Origin of Proust's Questionnaire
In the late nineteenth century, lists of questions were a popular diversion designed to discover new things about old friends. They were similar to the lists of questions that get passed around social media.
Marcel Proust, the soon-to-be novelist and essayist, was just fourteen years old when he first filled out the questions in a confession album (a kind of bound journal with prompts) titled “An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, etc.” He must have enjoyed it, because he filled it out again six years later at the age of twenty.
Proust, who grew up among the French elite, had his answers discovered after his death in the belongings of his friend Antoinette Faure, the daughter of French President Félix Faure. That wasn't the end, though, because, in 2003 the album with Proust's answers were auctioned for €102,000.
Not bad for a parlor game!
Example: Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire
The Proust Questionnaire has frequently been used as an interview tool, most notably by the magazine Vanity Fair magazine, who interviewed over a hundred celebrities using the questions including authors Joan Didion and Norman Mailer, singers David Bowie and Ray Charles, actors Sidney Poitier and Carrie Fischer, and many more.
These interviews were even turned into a book published in 2009, Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, complete with illustrations by Robert Risko.
How Creative Writers Can Use Proust's Questionnaire
If you distill a great story down to its most essential, you need two things at the very beginning: a great character and a difficult situation (also known as an inciting incident).
But how do you come up with interesting characters?
Even more, how do you get to know those characters well enough to write a great story about them?
That's where the Proust Questionnaire can help. More than just a parlor game, it will help you turn your characters from strangers into friends, from nobodies into heroes and heroines.
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.
To use it, instead of answering the questions for yourself, answer them for your characters. In other words, use the Proust Questionnaire to interview your characters!
The Proust Questionnaire
Here are the thirty-five questions Proust originally answered in 1890:
- What is your idea of perfect happiness?
- What is your greatest fear?
- What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
- What is the trait you most deplore in others?
- Which living person do you most admire?
- What is your greatest extravagance?
- What is your current state of mind?
- What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
- On what occasion do you lie?
- What do you most dislike about your appearance?
- Which living person do you most despise?
- What is the quality you most like in a man?
- What is the quality you most like in a woman?
- Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
- What or who is the greatest love of your life?
- When and where were you happiest?
- Which talent would you most like to have?
- If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
- What do you consider your greatest achievement?
- If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
- Where would you most like to live?
- What is your most treasured possession?
- What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
- What is your favorite occupation?
- What is your most marked characteristic?
- What do you most value in your friends?
- Who are your favorite writers?
- Who is your hero of fiction?
- Which historical figure do you most identify with?
- Who are your heroes in real life?
- What are your favorite names?
- What is it that you most dislike?
- What is your greatest regret?
- How would you like to die?
- What is your motto?
Other Characterization Questionnaires
Proust's Questionnaire is by no means the only set of questions you can use. Here are other popular sources of characterization questionnaires:
- James Lipton's Questionnaire
- Bernard Pivot Questionnaire
If you love some of Proust's questions but also want to find some fresh questions to add to your list, try mixing and matching with these other two options.
Knowing Characters (Well) Will Make Your Story Better
Getting to know lots of different people on a personal level will inevitably make you a better writer. Much of the time, our best creative ideas are inspired by what experiences we've had, and the people we've met along the way.
However, in order to really get to know someone—and avoid awkward small talk along the way—it helps to have a handy set of questions already stacked in your “what to ask” list.
The same goes for developing characters before writing them.
Proust made thirty-five questions that work as fantastic conversation starters. Different people will answer his questions in unique ways, and so should whatever characters you create for your books.
Use a handful or all of his questions to interview the character for your stories (or people in your life) before you write them Doing this will ensure that you're crafting a diverse, rich cast with a variety of personalities—which makes for a more interesting plot and story, too!
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.
Today, we're going to continue to develop our characters by going through these list of thirty-five questions made famous by the canonical French author, Marcel Proust.
Use this creative writing prompt to start your character development:
Ask one of your characters the thirty-five questions from Proust's Questionnaire. Then, post his or her responses in the practice box below, responding to a few other writers.
Enjoy your chat!
Enter your practice here:
Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).
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