According to Proust
By Dave Butler
Early in my fiction writing career, I was asked by a fellow novelist if I used the Proust Questionnaire to develop characters in my stories. I didn’t at the time, but immediately ran a Google search to find out what I was missing.
As some of you know (I admit that I didn’t; my university days were spent studying ecosystems, silviculture, wildlife management, and public engagement processes), Marcel Proust was a French novelist, critic, and essayist who wrote the seven-volume novel “À La Recherche du Temps Perdu.” It was published from 1913 – 1927 and was translated into English in “Remembrance of Things Past.” Proust is considered by many critics and writers to be one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.
Apparently, when Proust was 13-years-old, he answered a questionnaire in a confession album belonging to a friend. In those days, answering lists of questions like that was a popular parlour game -- answers revealed the person’s preferences and ambitions. A copy of his original answers (very precocious and illuminating for a child of that age) is still in existence and has been auctioned for a significant sum.
A French literary critic, Charles Augustin Saine-Beuve, described the phenomenon of the questionnaire in the context of writing:
“So long as one has not asked an author a certain number of questions and received answers to them, one cannot be certain of having a complete grasp of him, even though these questions might seem at the furthest remove from the nature of his writings. What were his religious views? How did he react to the sight of nature? How did he conduct himself in regard to women, in regard to money? Was he rich, was he poor? What governed his actions, what was his daily way of life? What was his vice, or his weakness? No answer to these questions is irrelevant in judging the author of a book, nor the book itself.”
Since then, what is known as the “Proust Questionnaire” has grown from social ice-breaker to cultural phenomenon. For example, it’s the structure of personality quizzes asked of public figures; the answers appear on the back pages of Vanity Fair magazine. For those of you north of the border who listen to “The Next Chapter” with Shelagh Rogers (on CBC), you’ll know that they use a variation of the questionnaire in author interviews.
However, it’s in the creation of fictional characters where the questionnaire has taken on a new literary life.
While we all know that we must write strong physical descriptions of our characters and their surroundings, the Proust Questionnaire helps us build the characters themselves – the way they speak, their emotions, their motivations. If you interview your characters – at least your primary protagonists and antagonists – using the 35 questions below, you’ll find yourself uncovering their true nature, and discovering how they perceive and react to the settings in which you place them and to the challenges with which you confront them.
I use the questionnaire when I first create a new character, and I both refer to the answers and add to them as the novel develops. It’s an iterative process that builds depth and definition, and the answers are a handy reference / memory guide if your characters appear in more than one book. In my stories, I don’t use the answer to every question, but I do pick the ones most relevant in a range of situations as each story unfolds.
35 Questions in the Proust Questionnaire
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. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
5. Which living person do you most admire?
6. What is your greatest extravagance?
7. What is your current state of mind?
8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
9. On what occasion do you lie?
10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
11. Which living person do you most despise?
12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
16. When and where were you happiest?
17. Which talent would you most like to have?
18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
21. Where would you most like to live?
22. What is your most treasured possession?
23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
24. What is your favourite occupation?
25. What is your most marked characteristic?
26. What do you most value in your friends?
27. Who are your favourite writers?
28. Who is your favourite hero of fiction?
29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
30. Who are your heroes in real life?
31. What are your favourite names?
32. What is it that you most dislike?
33. What is your greatest regret?
34. How would you like to die?
35. What is your motto?
Proust wrote that:
“It is the secretion of one’s innermost life, written in solitude and for oneself alone, that one gives to the public.”
“What one bestows on private life . . . is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.”
This is as true about authors as it is about the characters we create.
The Proust Questionnaire has stood the test of time and remains as relevant now as it was in 1884 when Marcel Proust was a clever child answering questions posed by a friend.
Try it; you may find that it helps you dig deeper into the true nature of your characters.