In Pursuit of Character: The Proust Questionnaire

Although I’ve spent many years trying to refine and improve my own character, attempting of course, to become more virtuous, this journey is more about the pursuit of character development. How to develop complex and meaningful characters in our writing.

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
Helen Keller

Or, in the case of the Book Project, creating myself as a character which is authentic and yet will inevitably end up being some kind of fiction.

I'm a veteran journal writer.

I’m a veteran journal writer.

I dipped my toe into these incredibly deep waters as I wrote about myself on my train trip to Sydney, trying to view myself through the eyes of the other passengers, who are of course, complete strangers:

Me, Myself & I: Writing A Complex Character Profile https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/me-myself-i-writing-a-complex-character-profile/

This proved quite useful but was obviously very superficial and based on how I looked, my actions.

I mean, perhaps this said a lot more about me than I’d like to believe. After all, as we’re observing others, we feel quite invisible and yet we could equally be the subjects of their study. They could indeed be writing about us. Did you ever think of that?

Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.
Henry Ford

The train trip home proved more insightful, confirming indeed that I was protagonist and antagonist rolled into one, as my creative diversions made me late for my medical appointment: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/surry-hills-to-gore-hill-sydney-a-hill-climbing-odyssey/

To find a man’s true character, play golf with him.
P. G. Wodehouse

Anyway, some time ago, I heard about the Proust Questionnaire and decided to work my way through this in the same way I worked the Blogging from A-Z April Challenge…one set topic per day and by the end of the month, I had knocked over quite a lot of writing. I was rather surprised…and impressed. If you had asked me to write that many words in a month, I would’ve balked. Of course, all those words came at a price and I was viewed as something of a ghost on the home front that month but I was thrilled to pull it off. After all, it showed me that I was truly capable of writing longer works (and indeed completing the book project if only I could get started!).

Writing to a set topic everyday was quite a change for me. After all, I have unwittingly always been a “panster”, not a planner when I write. I’d never heard much about terms like “protagonist”, “antagonist”. I just had my thesaurus. Besides, if you are a good story teller, these things are what makes a good story, whether you give them formal titles or not.

BUT…

While all this creative spontaneity might work for a shorter work, I am thinking that more planning and structure is required to pull of the Book Project. Much of the book concerns what happened but I am wanting to fully develop the text by having fully developed characters and a strong sense of place as well. These have turned out to be much more complex than I thought because how I see myself is no doubt quite different to how others see me. Moreover, each different observer, has their own viewpoint and perspective. While it is very tempting at this point to say it’s all just too hard and to just create a fiction, I am going to persevere.

writer at work...Perisher 2012.

writer at work…Perisher 2012.

Indeed, it has become something of a challenge.

After all, anybody can make up a character. It’s quite another thing to capture what is in a way that strangers can fully understand. Strangers who, by the way, live all around the world and might not quite appreciate some Australianisms.

“Dreams are the touchstones of our characters.”
― Henry David Thoreau

In order to pursue character development further, I have decided to turn to the Proust Questionnaire like so many other writers have done before me. Author Marcel Proust didn’t actually invent this questionnaire. Rather, such questionnaires were popular in the day and his friend Antoinette asked him this list of questions. It was a way of getting to know your friends and your self better, which translates well into developing the back story for your characters across a range of creative pursuits such as writing, painting acting.

Here’s the list as it appeared at The Writing Practice: http://thewritepractice.com/proust-questionnaire/:

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?

There are 35 questions, which makes it roughly one question every day for just over a month. It might take me a few days to tackle the more challenging questions, while on other days, I might make it through a few. While I do want to get through this in a disciplined and focused manner, I don’t want to rush it and gloss over the weightier issues just to adhere to a schedule. I am doing this to learn, create, extend and understand myself better, which could well benefit from a better focus on the clock but won’t be governed by it…if that makes sense.

My shadow in Surry Hills

My shadow in Surry Hills

I now invite you to join me on this journey either writing about yourself as a character or to answer the questions through the eyes of a character you are working on. Feel free to respond in the comments section or to write your own posts, which can be linked through in the comments as well.

So, Who are you? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WseRJMQf1U

This is going to be a very intriguing and challenging journey.

xx Rowena

PS I recommend you read this post by Ula at Broccoli Addict: 5 Questions Before You Write Your First Draft https://broccoliaddict.wordpress.com/2015/10/14/5-questions-before-you-write-the-first-draft/

15 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Character: The Proust Questionnaire

  1. therabbitholez

    I’ve done NaNoWriMo acouple of times, ardous work, the key to that is planning, however I remember writing about my main character, now remember you only have one month to write 50.000 words minimum.

    Anyway imagine to my dismay I started to dislike the character about 15.000 wordsin, and I conjured up out of my imagination, I ended changing the entire thing and the book morphed into something else.

    On my second attempt a year later, i prepared I did a full background on all my characters, where were born, school, family, friends, and stayed within those boundaries for the character, and found it much easier, and got a more balanced story.

    It’s been an age since I’ve even written a short story and like your idea about writing about ourselves, I’m so focused on my topics for my blog I need to branch out to do other stuff.

  2. gaiainaction

    Real interesting, I have often kept a journal, especially when going through difficult periods in my life, it always helped me see things more clearly. Reading through your blog post shows yet another way to use journaling.
    Very inspiring.

  3. roweeee Post author

    Thank you very much. I have just started journaling off-line again, after realizing there was a lot of private stuff going on which was choking up inside. Journalling is so therapeutic!

  4. roweeee Post author

    Thanks, Merril. I am going to need a bit of luck both with answering the questions and staying focused. My cough has now developed into bronchitis and I’m on antibiotics. My GP was shocked listening to my chest crackle and so I’m going back Friday. This seems to happen every year and I am the perpetual phoenix but I do get worried. Also, the coughing feels dreadful. Have been resting as much as I can but the kids have been home too. Torrow my daughter goes away on an overnight school camp so hopefully that will give me a breather, though I’ll miss her xx Ro

  5. TanGental

    You come up with come corkers, Rowena, don’t you. I enjoy th is list. Not sure if I can do it justice but will wish you well (in every sense).

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