First published 3/14/2001; last edited 12/15/2004
In issue #65 of the Roleplaying Tips newsletter, Johnn Four asked people to send him examples and urls of character questionnaires. This got me thinking. I'd worked on NPC (non-player character) questionnaires before, but what about PC (player character) questionnaires?
Character questions come in two categories: practical questions (PQs), and inspirational questions (IQs). PQs are the ones that you should answer in advance to keep things going at a decent pace. PQs don't change (much!) from campaign to campaign (or story to story, if you're a writer). Some basic PQs are:
- What is your character's name?
- What does he do for a living?
- What does he do in his free time?
- How does he support himself?
- How wealthy is he?
- Who does he know and how well?
- Where does he live?
- What does he own?
- Does he have family?
- Does he have friends or enemies?
IQs make you think about unexpected areas of your character's life, and give you ideas or insight into your character. They're often related to the character's history and can be pretty random. IQs vary from person to person: what inspires one person bores another. My best suggestion would be to answer at least two IQs that inspire you (ones that make you go "hey! That gives me an idea..."), and two that don't. The reason for the latter is that sometimes it's the questions that seem totally uninteresting that lead to the most unexpected revelations.
If you're having trouble getting into your character or getting inspired at all, then start with the questions that seem uninteresting first. Answer several until something yields an answer that strikes a chord with you.
Note that while I originally created this for use in designing characters for roleplaying games, it also works equally well for fiction writers.
Since PQs can also function as IQs, I'm going to put both together. I'll try to break it up by subject area, however. I'm putting a whole lot of random cruft in here, for exactly the reasons listed above: You don't want to actually answer a gazillion questions, but it's good to have a variety from which to choose. If you have to answer the exact same questions for every character you make, it gets a little boring. So pick one to five that sound interesting, and see what they do for you. Happy character creation!
P.S.: Most of these questions assume a game or story in a modern setting, but with a little thought many of them can be adapted. Also, those of you who've looked through my article on NPC questions will see a few repeat questions.
Ways to Answer These Questions
You can write a single sentence or you can fill a notebook. You can answer one question a day until you're done with all of them (not something I recommend unless you're going to be working with this character for a long time...) or just pick three out of a hat. You can write your answers in a straightforward fashion, or you can answer in verse or fiction. Anything you can think of you can do!
Questions about people definitely fall under both the PQ and IQ headings. People are resources for your character (PQ). They're sources of plots and plot hooks (PQ/IQ). They're also where lots of your neat inspirational material could well come from (IQ). At the heart of every story there is a character--and usually a whole bunch of supporting characters, too. These are the supporting characters in your character's story.
- Who is your character's confidante? Who does she talk to when she's scared? Who does she tell when she's in trouble?
- Who would bail her out if she were arrested?
- Is she married? Does your character have a husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancee, "significant other," lover, or several of the above?
- Is she protecting someone? A child, relative, friend? Why does she see herself as their protector?
- Who does she live with? Does she still live with her family? What about housemates or roommates? Are these people her friends? Do they hate each other? Do they avoid each other?
- Who was her first love? Did it work out? Why or why not? Do they still know each other?
- If you were to use the speed dial function on her phone, who would answer?
- Who does she work with? Is she friends with her co-workers? Bitter rivals? Does she hate her lazy boss or have a crush on her handsome secretary?
- Who is her worst enemy? Why?
- Who did she give birthday presents to last year? What did she give them?
- Is she a disappointment to anyone, or is someone proud of her for her accomplishments? Why?
Who are your character's friends? Most people have someone they enjoy spending time with. The world would be a very lonely place without friends; of course, maybe your character is a lonely person.
- What sort of people does your character tend to make friends with? Other people her own age? Co-workers? Neighbors? People she went to college with?
- Where does your character go/what does she do with her friends? Does she go out drinking with them? Who does she have coffee with? Does she go hiking or biking with a club? Do the neighbors invite her over for dinner?
- How deep are the friendships she tends to form? Does she prefer to have a lot of surface-level friendships or a few deep ones?
- How close is she to her friends? How well do they know her? Do they know her hopes and fears? Will they notice if she disappears or comes home with bruises?
- Who is her best friend? Why? What secrets have they shared? What have they gone through together?
Everyone, like it or not, has family. Some people have huge, sprawling families while others have one or two people. Some people love their families and others hate them. Some people don't even know who their families are--only that they must have one out there somewhere, or had one at some time in the past.
- Does she get along with her family? Why or why not?
- What does her family know about her? What secrets does she keep?
- What does she know about her family? What secrets have they kept?
- How big is her family?
- Is it a close family, or spread out and distant?
- Who are her favorite and least favorite relatives? Why?
- Does she have any siblings? What is her relationship with them like? How similar are they?
- Does she have any children? How has having children impacted her life?
Most people have a set of places they tend to frequent--certain restaurants, stores, parks, beaches, cities, and so on. What places does your character like to visit?
- Where does your character hang out? Does she go club-hopping? Does she pick up people at singles' bars? Does she see movies, or go dancing? Does she play pool or go bowling? Does she read at the library, go ice-skating, or go to meetings of the gardening club? What about the video arcade, the mall, a local college campus, or the park?
- Where does she feel safe? Why?
- What sort of place spooks her? Why?
- Is there any place that she refuses to go? Why? What happened there?
- What is her workplace like? Does she like it? Does her office reflect her personality?
- What is her favorite restaurant? Does she go often enough for them to recognize her?
- When your character travels, what sorts of cities and places does she like to go to? Why?
- When your character goes shopping, which stores does she frequent and why?
Hobbies and Habits
Almost everyone has some interesting hobbies and habits to occupy their time. In particular, a fictional character needs a few good interests and quirks to round her out in order to be compelling. Whether or not these are things you need or wish to put "skill points" or similar things into (in the case of roleplaying game characters) is up to you and your game master (GM); in some cases they may just be colorful background, while other GMs will work interesting abilities into their plots for fun and variety.
- What are your character's hobbies? Candle-making? Gardening? Herbalism? Wood-carving? Floral arrangements? Cooking? Interior decorating?
- Where did she pick up her hobbies? Who taught them to her? Why are they important to her?
- Which ones does she rely on to relax her when she's stressed? Which ones fall by the wayside when she's short on time?
- Does she read for fun? What books does she read? What magazines and newspapers? Does she prefer science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical, mystery, romance, or current events?
- How does she read? Does she take books out of the library or buy whole cases of them? How does she pick which book to read next? Does she have a favorite reviewer? Does she re-read books, and if so, which ones does she read over and over? Where does she read?
- Does she do the crossword puzzle? In pencil or pen?
- Does she read the paper every morning? Which section does she read first? Which doesn't she read at all? What does she do with the paper when she's done with it (compost, trash, recycle, give to a neighbor, line the bird cage)?
- What movies does she watch? Does she go to the theater or watch movies at home? Who's her favorite movie star and why?
- Does she watch television? What's her favorite show? What shows does she hate? What's her favorite channel and why? Who's her favorite TV star?
- What's her taste in music? Does she have a large music library? A small one? Does she listen to the same album over and over or does she hate it when people do that?
- What does she do for exercise? Does she work out at a gym? Does she take long walks or run marathons? Does she have a job that involves physical labor? Is she a couch potato? What does she do when the weather's bad?
Fears and Dreams
These are definite IQ material. Questions about your character's fears and dreams can often be the source of a lot of understanding about what, how and why your character thinks and feels.
- What did your character want to be when she grew up? Did she realize that dream? If not, why not? Does she regret that she never made it, or regret that she did? Does she still have a chance to get there if she didn't?
- What nightmares does she have? When she wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, what does she see?
- What makes her cry? Is it a perfect flower? A song that reminds her of something? The memory of her dead grandmother? Is it a happy, nostalgic thing or a deep, abiding grief? Does she cry a lot, or almost never?
- What makes her laugh? How often does she laugh? Does she have laugh lines? Does she have a good sense of humor? Does she hide it or let it shine?
- What does she wish she could do that she can't? Is there a talent she wishes she had? Is it something she doesn't have the money for? Is it something her species isn't capable of? How badly does she want it and what would she do to get it?
- What is her secret dream? What one goal, ambition, or desire does she keep hidden from everyone? Is it small or large? Personal or global? Realistic or unrealistic? Is she actually trying to accomplish it (and how?), or does she consider it untenable?
- What is her worst fear? What terrifies her? What does she dread? Is it something terribly personal, or a generic phobia? How did she acquire this fear? Is she ashamed of it?
- If she could be any famous person, who would it be and why?
- If she could live in any historical period, which would it be and why?
- If she could change the world in only one way, what would it be?
- If she knew she would die tomorrow, what would she do today?
A character's present is rooted in her history. Her past has shaped and molded her. Look to the past, and you can find many clues about the future.
- Where did your character go to school? This can be grade school, high school, college, home schooling, or whatever.
- What did she study in school? Is it what she wanted to study, or what her parents wanted her to study? Is she glad she studied it, or would she go back and change it if she could, and why?
- Did she particularly love or hate any of her teachers? Which ones and why?
- Was she picked on or bullied? Was she a part of the "in" crowd? Why? How has this affected her?
- What jobs has she had? What does she do for a living now? What part-time or summer jobs did she have while at school? Does she have a "career" or does she have a "job?" How many hours does she work? How much money does she make? Has she particularly loved or hated any of her old jobs? Why?
- What foolish things did she do when she was younger? Did she go through a rebellious phase? Did she keep secrets from her peers or parents? Did she steal things? Did she hurt someone?
- What hurt will she never forgive? What awful thing did someone do to her, and why can't she forgive them? Is it something comparatively small, such as an off-handed hurtful comment her father made? Is it large, like physical abuse?
- What was her favorite childhood toy? Why? Who gave it to her? Does she still have it? If not, what happened to it? What else did she play with?
This is another category that heavily rides the line between PQ and IQ. Knowing details about how your character lives lends a strong feeling of reality to a game or story. It also gives you the practical details you need to make plots work out.
- What kind of neighborhood does your character live in? Inner city? Suburbs? Rural farmland? Gated community? Does she like it there? Why or why not? Does she feel safe there at night?
- Does she live in an apartment or house? Rent or own? How close are the neighbors? What color is the house? What sort of repair (or disrepair) is it in? Does she have a lawn? A flower garden? An attic or basement? How many stories is the house, and what style? (Ranch? Split-foyer?) Does she have a guest room? Are there lots of windows in her house?
- How has she decorated her home? Used furniture from relatives? Random stuff from an office supply store or mismatched items from your average corner furniture store? Designer items or antiques? Could her place be described as elegant? Ratty? Jumbled? Spartan? Does it have a noticeably ethnic look? What colors prevail?
- What are the walls like? Painted or wallpapered? Color? Postered over? Artsy photos? Nails everywhere? Holes? Frilly curtains on the windows, Venetian blinds or pull-shades?
- Is the house clean? Does it sparkle? Does it smell like cleansers? How big are the dust-bunnies? Is the bathtub rusty? Are the walls mildewed? Does she clean it herself? If not, who does? Are there piles of books and papers everywhere? Is everything neat and organized? Are there spiders in every corner?
- What does her bedroom look like? Is it crowded with boxes? Is it sparkling clean? Is it frilly or spartan, somber or light?
It's true--you can tell a lot about a person by what they own. What is important enough to her to spend money on?
- Does your character use a computer? Does she have a fast internet connection? Does she understand encryption and firewalls? What information does she keep on her computer? Is it the latest model with all the frills, or an old piece of junk that takes ten minutes to boot up?
- Does she keep a journal? What sorts of things does she write in it? How often? Where does she keep it? What would she do if someone read it?
- Does she have a calendar or address book? What's in it? How much does it reveal about her life?
- Photo albums? Who does she keep pictures of, and does she show them to anyone? Are these pictures taken by someone else, or did she take them?
- Jewelry? Inherited, received as a gift or bought? Worn or kept in a drawer?
- What one item would she risk her life to protect and keep safe, if any?
- What one item does she wish she didn't have, but feels she must keep anyway? Why?
- How well-furnished is her kitchen? A few rusted old pots and pans, or all the latest expensive kitchenware? Does she actually use it?
- What does she have in her pockets right now?
The Physical Details
- Does your character have birthmarks or scars? How did she get them? What about disfigurements or handicaps?
- Does she have any tattoos? Why? When did she get them? Do they mean anything special to her?
- Does she get sick? How often? What does she tend to come down with, and how well does she handle it?
- Does she have any long-term, chronic, or recurring ailments? Tendonitis? Migraines? Severe allergies? Chronic fatigue syndrome? In what ways do they limit her activities?
- What sort of build does she have? Is she overweight? Underweight? Muscled? Wiry? Dumpy? Pudgy? Angular? Why? Does she resemble her parents or grandparents? If so, which one(s)? What about her siblings?
- Does she take any drugs or medications? If so, which ones and why? Do they work? What effects and side effects do they have?
- Has she ever been admitted to a hospital? Why? What happened?
- What's your character's sexuality? How certain is she of it?
- Does she have a pet or companion animal? A fierce guard dog? A tiny kitten? Goldfish? Rabbits or birds? A boa constrictor? Mice? A large spider? A monster? A horse?
- What does she like to eat? Gourmet or takeout? Home-cooked food or instant microwaveable dinners? Does she eat more when she's upset? Is she vegetarian or vegan? Does she have odd dietary restrictions? What foods does she hate?
- Where does she vacation, and how often? Does she go skiing every winter in Vermont? Does she go to quiet yoga retreats twice a year in Massachusetts? What about beaches?
- What does she wear? What styles and colors is she partial to? What's her favorite piece of clothing, and why?
- What is her favorite color and why?
- What does she do for Christmas or other relevant holiday? What presents did she get or give last year? How does she feel about the holiday season?
- Is she religious or spiritual? Why or why not? What religion?
- What does she like to do for her birthday? Does she usually get to do it or not?
- Does she save money up or spend it like water? What is she saving toward and why? Is she anywhere close to being able to buy it?
- What's her favorite weather? Hot sunny days? Blizzards? A warm rain? What's her favorite climate, or time of day?
Moods and Reactions
- What does she do to relax? Does she watch a movie, read a book, go jogging, surf the web, juggle?
- What is your character like when she's drunk? Mellow? Melancholy? Friendly and fun? Laughs too much? Hits on everyone?
- What is she like when she's grieving or mourning? Is she private with her grief? Quiet and stony? Crying loudly? In need of friends?
- What is she like when she's moody or despondent? Is she self-pitying, irritable, sad?
- What is she like when she's celebrating? Does she have a quiet celebration at home, or does she gather her friends together for a big bash?
- Does she have a mental illness or mood disorder? Is she prone to depression, bouts of mania, anxiety, or other such problems?
Hopefully somewhere in here you've found enough interesting questions to help you define and find your character. Enjoy!