Friday, August 15, 2014

My Protagonists Meet Proust, Part One

Marcel Proust was a French novelist and essayist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most famous work is a seven part novel called, À la recherche du temps perdu, which is a massive 2,300 page story with over 2,000 characters.

Thanks for the pic, Wikipedia!

Proust is also famous for a questionnaire that he filled out in one of his journals, which was later used by a French interviewer named Bernard Pivot, who then inspired James Lipton, who adapted some of the questions for guests on Inside the Actors' Studio.

I've seen a number of writers use Proust's questionnaire as a way of figuring out who their characters are. In other words, you ask the questions and let the character answer. It's a great way to flesh out their personalities and motivations.

I thought it might be an interesting exercise to ask some of my protagonists these questions and see if I know my own characters well enough to answer right away. So let's try it. Now, there are a ton of questions, so I've cut them down considerably for the sake of time. Let's start with my first published protagonist.

Mary Lanham - Mary of the Aether (interviewed as she was at the beginning of the first novel)

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I guess I get pretty good grades. Mostly all A's. That's my only real achievement. I can draw a little bit, or at least Papa thinks so. Kristen doesn't think so, but my art teacher liked this one drawing I did of a horse. Papa made me frame it and hang it on the wall, but he's biased. That's pretty much all I've ever done.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Well, it's sort of embarrassing to talk about, but I guess if the right boy recognized you and realized who you are and really liked you, and if you had friends that appreciated you and didn't think there was anything wrong with you, and if you were a little more confident in life generally, I guess that's about as close to perfect happiness as you could get.

What is your current state of mind?

Sometimes kind of sad. Not for any particular reason. Maybe sad isn't the right word. More like gloomy or maybe just bored. I guess I feel like I'm not really where I'm supposed to be in life, like I don't have the right friends, and I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing, and sometimes I feel like I don't even know who I am or where I come from. Maybe it's too much to say I feel like I don't fit in the world, but that's kind of how I feel.

What is your favorite occupation?

It would be kind of cool to be an artist, any kind of artist, or just someone who is creative and skilled enough to make things, real and tangible and beautiful things like painting or sculptures or gardens. Anything where you could imagine something clearly and create and then stand back and see what you created would be great.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Well, I know what Kristen would say. She would say my most marked characteristic is that I'm out-of-touch. I'm out-of-touch on technology and fads and stupid stuff like that. But I think really my most marked characteristic is that I do good in school. It's not that hard for me. I only study a little bit. But I don't talk about it much because people think I'm bragging.

When and where were you the happiest?

I don't know if I can remember being really happy, but maybe it was a little bit better in Estes Park. Maybe.

What is it that you most dislike?

Being publicly embarrassed!

What is your greatest fear?

Not accomplishing anything in life.

What is your greatest regret?

I don't really want to talk about it, but not knowing more, or anything, about my mom kind of sucks. But I don't ask questions about it. It just makes people upset. I try not to think about her at all, which is awful because I don't know anything about her. It shouldn't be a big mystery, should it? But it is.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I wish I was a really skilled artist. I don't care if it's painting or drawing or sculpting or what. I just wish I could make beautiful things.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Being embarrassed and having everyone look at you and feeling completely alone, all at the same time. It couldn't get worse than that.

What is the quality you most like in a man?

I guess someone who is confident about himself but also kind, someone who is creative but humble, someone who can believe in others and believe in himself at the same time. 

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I am not confident at all, if that isn't already clear.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

People who are mean or rude, who find other people's weaknesses and use it against them.

What do you most value in your friends?

I don't know. I guess that they put up with me, even when I'm boring to be with.

Which living person do you most admire?

I guess my Papa, just because he's really old and weak but he still provides for me and he's kind to me and he tries to make time for me, even when he's not feeling good.

And there you go. The answers came to me immediately. I guess writing four books about one character really clarifies who they are for you. I'll try it again with another character some other time.

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