Every summer, my kids spend a month at sleep away camp. They spend the entire year counting down until that first day when they can leave home and go to their “home away from home.” And while I resisted at first, I’m glad they get the opportunity to spend time away, make new friends and create memories. Getting them to tell me about it, however, is another story.
They’re perfectly happy to tell me every little detail when they’re home. They’re also fairly good about sending letters home—it’s amazing what incentive a meal for a letter home will do—but those letters don’t actually give a lot of information and they definitely don’t answer any of my questions. They’re still not quite sure about letters, anyway. With email and texting, the idea of a letter taking almost a week to get to me, a day to respond and a week to get back to them, their desire for immediate gratification is completely shot.
But, never one to give up, especially when I have the chance to be nosy about my kids and their activities, I asked my friends, whose kids also go to camp, for help. As the parents of boys, they are champions at extracting information from unwilling subjects (not to be stereotypical or anything, but boys grunt, girls chatter). And they provided me with a handy, dandy questionnaire (see, I am getting around to the topic, it’s just taking me a while). The questionnaire is a fill in the blank form, worded in such a way as to prevent “yes” and “no” answers. “My favorite camp activity so far is…” “The names of some of my friends are…” “My favorite food so far is…” It doesn’t require them to write a book, but they do have to provide information (providing they remember to put it in the envelope).
This questionnaire got me thinking about the characters in my books and how I figure out who they are. I think it was last week on this blog that we debated how we come up with our characters—images in our heads, from TV, a voice, etc. Creating the character is just the first step. Until you flesh them out, they’re just an image, an empty form around which you have to create a story. That story is more difficult if you don’t know your characters. And so, the idea of the questionnaire. Hopefully, your characters aren’t as recalcitrant as my children—I don’t know about you, but I write to ESCAPE reality. But even the most loquacious sometimes need a little prompting.
So, here’s my question to you. If you were to create a questionnaire for your characters, what would you ask?