The Proust Questionnaire

Here’s something I found just yesterday. Apparently in late 19th-century France, there was a survey that was supposed to reveal your true nature. (Hey, people had to do something before Facebook.) Marcel Proust didn’t invent the survey, but he did take it, so it bears his name today.

It seems that several different versions of the survey existed, but roughly speaking, the questions were:

  • What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • What is your current state of mind?
  • What is your favorite occupation?
  • What is your most treasured possession?
  • What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your favorite journey?
  • What is your most marked characteristic?
  • When and where were you the happiest?
  • What is it that you most dislike?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest extravagance?
  • Which living person do you most despise?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • Which talent would you most like to have?
  • Where would you like to live?
  • What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  • What is the quality you most like in a man?
  • What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  • What do you most value in your friends?
  • Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
  • Who are your heroes in real life?
  • Which living person do you most admire?
  • What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  • On what occasions do you lie?
  • Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  • What are your favorite names?
  • How would you like to die?
  • If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
  • What is your motto?

I’m using these questions for character interviews as I’m working on The Crane Girl. I’ve been impressed with how well they work. I’ve tried the questions for two of my main characters so far, and I understood them both far better afterward.

Creating strong, deep characters has always been my biggest weakness as a writer, so this is an especially valuable tool for me. I’m going to use it for my other major characters as I continue.

By the way, I’ve found it useful to “talk” to my character and find out their life stories first, before launching into more personal questions like the ones above. (Where were you born? What were your parents like? Did you go to school? What was your relationship with your teachers? Etc.) That way, I have some context for the questionnaire, rather than inventing answers in a vacuum.

Of course, every writer’s process is completely different. I need tools like character interviews because I struggle with character-writing, but for those who write characters naturally, this would probably be overkill.

For me, it’s plot that seems to come naturally. I don’t use any special tools there (aside from an outline), and I haven’t needed to. No doubt there are tools to help with plot as well, but I haven’t worked with them much yet.

Do you use any special tools in your writing or pre-writing? Or does it all just come out naturally?

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5 responses to “The Proust Questionnaire

  1. I currently use a different character questionnaire; although changing to that one is very tempting because it looks more rigorous.

    I have tried several different models of “ideal” plot arc (three-point conflict, overlapping conflicts, two-act structure, three-act structure, five-part build); with each of them I have ended up with (1) a better understanding of what the plot might be which got me started (2) a story that did not match the outline.

    Now I tend to just use Aristotle’s maxim that there should be a series of minor struggles which resolve the opposite to the final conflict: so a happy ending works best if the protagonist has setbacks first.

  2. Wow, that’s a lot of questions. Even apart from my own attention span, I’m leery of my characters’ reaction to this type of interrogation. There are at least two who might get violent, one who would definitely lie, one who would just fold her arms and glare, and one who might bite (or do something unpleasant on my leg).

    And one who I probably wouldn’t be able to shut up. 🙂

    As you say, everybody has to find their own methods, and any method that produces good writing is a good method (well, there may be a few exceptions to that).

    I don’t think that means anything necessarily comes “naturally,” though. If I write well now (which is, of course, a big “if”), it’s because I wrote, mostly badly, almost every day, for twenty years. I’m sure there are better methods, but that the one I ended up using.

    • You’re absolutely right: no single method can be as effective as the meta-method of keep writing.

      As to the length of the questionnaire, I agree, but I also find that many of the answers are very short. For instance, last night I was working on my villain, who answered “Which living person do you most admire?” with “Nobody.”

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