Personality questionnaires and character development

There is a perennial attraction in personality tests. And you can use them to learn more than just what sandwich or which colour a famous person likes. You can use them to help you write and to develop fictional characters.


The personality questionnaire is a mainstay of newspaper lifestyle sections and media magazines: People in the news, or with established reputations in various fields, answer a series of pre-established questions. In other interviews, the interviewees are often asked questions that relate to their work, their fame or their interests. What makes the personality questionnaire different is that the questions are the same regardless of interviewee. The audience can (if they choose) compare the responses one person makes with those made by another to the same questions. Or compare them with how they believe they would answer themselves.

In the USA, Vanity Fair publishes a version, in Britain it’s The Guardian’s “Q+A”. In Canada, Wikipedia tells me, a “version of the questionnaire, as answered by various Canadian authors, is a regular feature on the radio program The Next Chapter.” Versions of the questionnaire have featured in James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio TV series, but he was supposedly turned on to it by Bernard Pivot’s popular 1970s and 80s French TV panel show Apostrophes.

The questions (in The Guardian and Vanity Fair) run the gamut from What is your idea of perfect happiness? and What is your greatest fear? by way of What or who is the greatest love of your life? and Who is your celebrity crush? all the way to Tell us a secret? and How would you like to die?

Personality Pencils and the cover of Vanity Fair from August 1920
Personality Pencils and Vanity Fair


The format is so well established that it’s wide open to parody. For example, the comedian and political commentator Steven Colbert runs an occasional Colbert Questionert [sic]. In this, he asks his interviewees “15 questions to cover the full spectrum of human experience”, from (Q1) Best sandwich? to (Q15) Describe the rest of your life in 5 words. At the end of the Colbert Questionert, the interviewee is told that now “you are Known.”

Of course, nobody is Known from their answers to any of these questions. But the answers they give, and the way in which they answer them, does give the audience a glimpse of the interviewee’s personality. And it may be different from the one they otherwise project.


The origin of these questionnaires is often given as French author Marcel Proust. (Vanity Fair’s questionnaire is called The Proust Questionnaire.) But this is only because Proust’s written answers to similar questions survived to be published after he became famous. In fact “confession albums” were sufficiently commonplace in the homes of the literate middle class in the mid 1800s for a number of well-known autograph responses to questions to have survived. In 1866, the 14-year-old Proust wrote that his favourite occupation was Reading, daydreaming, writing verse, history, theater. A year earlier, in 1865, Karl Marx, then 45, replied to the same question: bookworming.

You can read more about the history of the Proust Questionnaire in this article published in 2016 in The New Yorker magazine.

Personality Pencils and Marcel Proust
Personality Pencils and Proust


A couple of weeks ago, Kimberly used her Bi-Weekly Wisdom post to recommend “quickly throwing some utter trash on the page” as a way of turning over the creative engine at the start of the writing day. I do this, though maybe not as often as I need to. But I do find it difficult to just write anything. I like to have some sort of a framework, and I find personality questions can be very useful.

A couple of years ago I set out to collect as many different questions as I could from the different questionnaires (including the Colbert Questionert). I printed them out and cut the pages into strips, folded them up and put them into a large jar. Whenever I feel in need of stimulus, I shake up the jar and pull out a question.

After doing this for a while, I started wondering how one or other of my characters might answer the same questions. So I tried asking them. It was fascinating to imagine their answers, and I realised this was another way into character development.


A quick Internet search reveals I am not by any means the first to discover this. But that doesn’t invalidate it as a technique. I continue to ask my characters personality questions. I’ve even got them to complete on-line psychological assessments. It’s marvelous what they reveal to me about themselves as I channel them responding against the clock to the questions of the Big Five Personality Test (for example).

If you’ve not tried this technique, I warmly recommend it. And if you have, what’s your experience? Do share!

Personality Pencils and Big Five Personality Types (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism)
Personality Pencils and the Big Five Personality Types


I originally published the above, in a slightly different form, on my own website at in 2021.

The original images I used in the composite illustrations for this post all come from Wikimedia Commons. The cover of Vanity Fair (August, 1920) Wikimedia says is Public domain. Likewise the sketch portrait of Marcel Proust by André Szekely de Doba. The graphic showing the Big Five personality types was made by Anna Tunikova for and wikipedia and is CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. The background image of Pencils with Personality is by damianosullivan and is CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Boy, this takes me back!

    I spent most of my career heavily involved in HR, so personality tests were a fact of life. They seemed to start life in the US, then gradually migrated to UK. A company called Saville and Holdsworth in London had a successful business based solely on their tests.

    I took many of this type of test over the years. Some worked, some didn’t. While I used one particular test in recruitment, I used the results as part of the overall process, not a deal-breaker.

    One interesting thing. The test involved your immediate response to a range of words. One candidate was French, had lived in UK for years and spoke fluent English. I gave her the test in English and part-way through, she came to me and said she couldn’t cope. So I obtained a French version and she was fine. I simply hadn’t realised that we have conditioned reflexes to words in our native language; foreigners, whatever their level of English, don’t.

    And as an aside, I also learned some years later that we can only do maths calculations in our native language. During WWII, interrogators used this to find out if a person (spy!) was truly British or not.

  2. Fascinating Nigel! I never knew mathematics could be a shibboleth, although I feel it makes sense. I was never great with figures and, under pressure, I can no longer do anything but the simplest of calculations. To try to do them in a foreign language – even in Swedish which I know well by now. No, I’d reveal my true affiliations for sure!

  3. Oh yeah! Same here on the math give-away. Here in Germany, if you go to a Greek or Italian or whatever kind of foreign food restaurant, the waiters always do their sums in their native language. I can’t retain numbers anyway, but in German I’m even worse. 🙁

    And I just did the Big 5 personality test. Oi-weh!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *