Disclaimer: I’m an amateur at all of this. I have no training whatsoever in psychology generally, let alone personality theory—and I’ve only recently begun to scratch the surface of personality theory. Therefore, you can take nothing that I say with any degree of accuracy, hold me liable for anything you may do or say as a result, and certainly don’t quote me on that.
I love personality tests.
Seriously, throw ‘em at me. Myers-Briggs? (INFJ) Enneagram? (5w4) DISC profile? (S/C) What Disney Princess are you? (Belle)
From Hogwarts House (Hufflepuff) to D&D alignment (Neutral Good), getting sucked into taking a personality inventory and then reading over the results (and probably all the other possible results) to see if I agree or disagree has always been a weakness of mine.
And I confess, I’m a people watcher. I’ve been known on more than one occasion to try to guess what other people’s personalities are, too. If you were to catch me (hopefully) slyly keeping an eye on someone, there’s a 70% chance it’s because I’m filing away bits of information in my mental catalogue to create a growing picture of who that person is and what motivates them, because what else would I be doing in a room full of people?
Well, there’s a 25% chance that I’m filing that person and the aforementioned collected information further in my author catalogue as a potential template for crafting characters.
Finally, there’s a 5% chance that there’s a spider on their head and I’m waiting to see how long it takes them or someone else to notice and what the subsequent reaction(s) will be.
Unless I’m talking to you, in which case I promise to tell you about the spider.
I digress. Personality tests.
I’ve always loved them, but it’s only been recently that I’ve started digging in a little deeper into some of the psychological theory behind personality. Myers-Briggs, for instance, is way more complex (and controversial!) than I’d ever realized—especially if you get into the various personality experts’ interpretations of the Jungian theory behind it all. And it doesn’t correspond directly to something like, for instance, the Enneagram—because the MBTI is more about cognitive functions (how we collect/process information and make decisions) and the Enneagram is more about core motivations.
That being said, me being me, with “me” also being an author of fantasy as well as an INFJ 5w4 S/C Belle, this all feeds directly into a major aspect of story: character.
Something I’ve noticed about the self-published fantasy world, in particular, is a growing trend toward character-centric novels. I don’t just mean novels that have fleshed out, three-dimensional characters but are still primarily about the plot. I mean novels that revolve around deep character arcs rather than a blow-your-mind plot (though some of them have that as well).
That’s fine with me, because it probably doesn’t surprise you by now, given the topic of this post, that one of my favorite parts of writing is crafting characters. It’s certainly the most important part of a novel to me as a reader: I crave books with characters who feel real, act consistently (even if I don’t like their decisions), have emotional depth, and, in the end, books that are more about the characters and their journeys than the plot—though I enjoy a good plot as much as the next person.
As a writer, all of that is what I strive to achieve with my own characters. The jury is out on whether I do, but I can certainly posit, at least, that character is primary in my novels in my head.
So, it’s only natural that I leapt upon my newfound, fledgling knowledge of personality theory like a starry-eyed predator nurturing its prey. (Look, I never said lyrical prose was a strong suit of mine.)
Obviously, I immediately set out to personality typing all my main characters. I learned a few things from this process (which I haven’t finished) which might, maybe, be tips and strategies that other authors could use if they’d like to do the same thing. And even if you’re not an author, you might be the sort of reader who would find it fascinating to consider the personalities of characters in books as you read.
Caveat: I’m not the first person to come up with using personality inventories as a tool for crafting and understanding characters, as a quick Google search for the topic could show you, but it’s something relatively new to me and therefore on my mind.
So, before I run away with myself, the aforementioned tips:
- Typing a character is great fun, because you have to really get inside that character’s head to answer questions as if you were that character. Maybe even pretend to be that character for a little bit. Like, if you’re at the grocery store (for instance), consider: how would this character respond to that situation or person? This might appear to add credence to the totally bizarre idea that authors are slightly crazy, but don’t worry about that.
- Some characters are so screwed up that typing them with a normal personality test is almost impossible. For one of my characters, the Enneagram test was useless. I had to work backward from the unhealthy ways that the various personality types present to find her type. This turned out to be a strategy that works remarkably well on any character, if you’re having trouble figuring out what they are. Actually, it’s possible this might work on real people too…
- Delving deeper into personality growth theory (meaning, not just staying static but growing as a person and using what you know about yourself as a tool to do it), as opposed to just typing your characters, can give you fodder for character arcs. After all, we all want our characters to grow and change. If you get a handle on a basic “type” and then do some research on the growth trajectories of that type, you can also get a handle on how that character might realistically grow as a person…either grow more healthy, or more unhealthy, depending on what you’re going for.
- Different personality typing systems have different goals. As I mentioned above, MBTI is more about cognitive functions and Enneagram about core motivations; some personality theory is more about behavior. To really dig in, use two or three instead of just one. Figure out how they work together, how they disagree.
- Understand that we cannot be boiled down to one of a handful of types—every personality type also brings with it into the mix the individual’s unique combination of upbringing, baggage, present circumstances, and level of emotional health. Two people who “type” the same may seem vastly different depending on that mix.
- I haven’t done this yet, but I think it would be interesting to use these systems to craft characters from scratch. For instance, choose a type at random or one that intrigues you and build from there. Throw some history and baggage in. Make them clash with an opposite personality and see how that shapes them. Give them parents of varying types and see how that shapes them. If you’re not sure how it would shape them, there are plenty of resources out there. In fact, if you’re not sure, that may be even better—it means you’re probably not reaching for a character stereotype. If nothing else, it might be a worthwhile writing exercise.
Why do all this? I mean, not everyone has the personality type that thinks all of this is great fun (a trait typical of an INFJ, by the way). Here are some good reasons to delve a little into personality and personality growth theory:
- If you’re someone who struggles with character, it may help you craft more realistic characters who act in consistent ways.
- If you’re someone who doesn’t necessarily struggle with character but tends to focus on plot and would like to grow your characters a little, I think it could be a valuable resource.
- If you’re someone, like me, who prefers to write stories around characters, it can be validating to type a character and then say, “Wow! So that’s why they did that! That makes perfect sense, given their personality.” (Yes, I know this is a character I made up and they have no self-actualization, but let’s just run with it and not add that to the list of reasons authors are crazy, please?)
- It can also help when you’re stuck—not certain what a character would do given a situation—because the last thing you want to do is shrug your shoulders and shoehorn an action in that is inconsistent for the sake of plot. Doing crazy things is fine—if it makes sense for that character.
- It can help you figure out the right things to have happen to your characters to force them to grow in the ways you want.
- It can teach you what circumstances would make your characters uncomfortable, given their personalities, and force them to have to figure it out (which is one way of creating tension).
- And, for additional tension, you’ll know what circumstances will make your characters not just uncomfortable, but bring out the worst in them—depending on the character, perhaps even goad them to act in seemingly erratic or unhealthy ways—yet still be consistent given their unique combination of history and personality.
If you’re not an author, I can see how, as someone who loves personality theory and as a reader myself, it might be a fun element to consider while reading or after finishing a book. For instance, it could be a tool for figuring out why a character just didn’t work for you or why a character did work for you. Or you might better understand why you empathize with a character but don’t like them—or neither empathize with or a like a character.
Or, I mean, do you really need a reason to pick up a 300-page book on personality theory?
Don’t answer that.
About the Author
Carol A. Park is the author of The Heretic Gods trilogy and the upcoming series The Chronicles of the Lady Sar.She lives in the Lancaster, PA area with her husband and two young and active boys–which is another way of saying, “adorable vampires.” She loves reading (duh), writing fantasy novels (double-duh), music, movies, and other perfectly normal things like parsing Hebrew verbs and teaching herself new dead languages. She has two master’s degrees in the areas of ancient near eastern studies and languages.
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