Making Characters Real

Like many people, my favorite books have traditionally been those centered around memorable characters. As a child, I read Sherlock Holmes not due to a love of mystery, but because I cared about the brilliant, flawed detective. Stephen King’s Firestarter was brilliant not because of a telekinetic child, but because she was  a child I liked.

So, when I set out upon the business of being a writer, and having no training in character development, I turned to what I did know: psychology. I wanted my lead characters to be multi-dimensional. I was certain that readers would have difficulty caring about a character whom they believed to be little more than a literary cardboard cutout. Moreover, I needed a basis for determining how each character would react to situations — consistently.

I also needed a way to do this quickly. (I have a day job, you see.)

myers_1

Then I remembered Myers-Briggs Type Indicators. (You can take a test here: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp ) Simply put, Myers-Briggs is a quick way to identify human behavior as one sixteen different personalities. I, for example, am an ENTJ. What the heck is that? Well, PersonalityPage.com (http://www.personalitypage.com/ENTJ.html, ) describes it this way:

“ENTJs are natural born leaders. They live in a world of possibilities where they see all sorts challenges to be surmounted, and they want to be the ones responsible for surmounting them. They have a drive for leadership, which is well-served by their quickness to grasp complexities, their ability to absorb a large amount of impersonal information, and their quick and decisive judgments. They are ‘take charge’ people.”

A quick internet search will provide key traits of the personality type, including likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, how they react to stress, even communication and affection styles. So, for each major character (minor characters are fine as two-dimensional props), I created a personality profile, including a bulleted list of key traits. When the characters were in a scene, it was easy to refer to my profile to see how they would react, and communicate. Within no time at all, they were as real to me as people I knew. This allowed for consistent behavior, as well as easy dialog. (If I know how a character is likely to react to stress, it’s easier to figure out what they would say.

Quite often, in fact, the scene would change from my original intentions, because the characters’ reactions were dictated by their personality behavioral profiles. Annoying that, but great fun too.

I was also able to create new characters the same way. For instance, one lead character needed a female friend she would love, but who would also conflict with her. She, I decided, was an ENFP, an outgoing, forward-thinking, feeling-centered person. One quick trip to her personality page, and I found, “The ENFP also tends to value the company of intuitive Thinkers (NTs).” The ENFP makes decisions based on values but is very different from the logical NT. For a clash of personalities, while I kept the new character an intuitive, who could relate to my ENFP, I decided she’d be introverted, very different from my outgoing lead.

Viola! My new character is an INTP — and introverted conceptualizer: logical, but still forward thinking. They will clash on how they deal with the world, but both will be fascinated by thinking and discussing its possibilities.  Exactly the energy and conflict I needed. In fact, their dynamic became a major subplot.

MBTI-Chart

I’ve used similar methods using Brainstyles (a different theory based on how people think), and even zodiac signs. Remember, the point isn’t to develop a true personality profile, but a set of structures that you can refer to ensure you’re consistent, and to stimulate thought.

Try a couple, and let me know what you think.

6 Comments

  1. Going over to my blog to feature this post 🙂

    Let ya know on G+ when I finish it…

  2. Bill Jones says:

    Alexander, thank you for the comment and the mention on your blog. It is truly appreciated.

  3. Wow, this is a great concept.

Comments are closed.