Creating Compelling Characters

by Jennifer Bryce

One of the workshops I attended (by Zoom) in 2021 was run by historical fiction author Kelly Gardiner: Creating Compelling Characters. I have learned that it is nearly always the case that characters drive the narrative of a novel, novella or short story. Characters develop from people we know, people we see in a shop or on a tram. Kelly says, ‘throw them into the deep end, then make it even deeper’!

Kelly introduced us to a questionnaire known as Proust’s parlour game. The game was popularised (though not devised) by Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that, in answering these questions, an individual reveals his or her true nature. Kelly suggested that we pose these questions to our characters. You have to really know your characters — including aspects of them that may not seem relevant to the story you are writing.

Marcel Proust

There are thirty-five questions in the questionnaire. I selected eighteen of them to pose to the characters in the story I am writing.

  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. Which living person do you most admire?
  5. What is your greatest extravagance?
  6. What is your current state of mind?
  7. On what occasion do you lie?
  8. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
  9. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  10. What or who is the greatest love or your life?
  11. Which talent would you most like to have?
  12. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  13. What is your most treasured possession?
  14. What do you most value in your friends?
  15. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  16. What is your greatest regret?
  17. How would you like to die?
  18. What is your motto?