Characterization and the 36 questions

Perhaps I should start an “Exercises” category for posts? I’ll think about it. While this post is much closer to an exercise than the sort of thing usually found in “Reading Like a Writer,” I hope it is useful in the same way.

The questions below are a revision of Arthur Aron’s research into creating emotional intimacy between individuals. His work suggests 36 questions. They are best asked and answered in the order below. After you have answered them, consider which answers might be expanded into engaging scenes for readers.

Answer these questions to help create a character or characters.


  1. Given the choice of anyone in any world, whom would this character want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would this character like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a telephone call (or communicating in general), would this character ever rehearse what they are going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for this character?
  5. When did this character last sing to themself? To someone else?
  6. If this character were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of their life, which would they want?
  7. Does this character have a secret hunch about how they will die?
  8. Name three things this character and you or another character appear to have in common.
  9. For what in this character’s life do they feel most grateful?
  10. If this character could change anything about the way they were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take four minutes and free write this character’s life story in as much detail as possible.
  12. If this character could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?


  1. If a crystal ball could tell this character the truth about themself, their life, the future or anything else, what would they want to know?
  2. Is there something that this character has dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t they done it?
  3. What is the greatest accomplishment of this character’s life so far?
  4. What does this character value most in a friendship?
  5. What is this character’s most treasured memory?
  6. What is this character’s most terrible memory?
  7. If this character knew that in one year they would die suddenly, would they change anything about the way they are now living? Why?
  8. What does friendship mean to this character?
  9. What roles do love and affection play in this character’s life?
  10. Draft a brief exchange in which this character describes a positive characteristic of another character while listening to themselves described positively. Share a total of five items.
  11. How close and warm is this character’s family? Does this character feel their childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  12. How does this character feel about their relationship with their mother? Their father?


  1. Make three true “we” statements for your character and one other character. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
  2. Complete this sentence for your character: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
  3. If this character were going to become a close friend with another character, what would be important for the second character to know.
  4. What might this character like about another character? What might this character like about another character they have been friends with for decades?
  5. What has been the most embarrassing moment in this character’s life.
  6. When did this character last cry in front of another person? By themself?
  7. If this character were to die with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would they most regret not having told another character? Why haven’t they told them yet?
  8. This character’s house, containing everything they own, catches fire. After saving loved ones, they have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  9. Of all the people in this character’s family, whose death would they find most disturbing? Why?

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