At the Beginning

Welcome! When one is at a loss for where to begin, the beginning is what makes the most sense. 

After years of writing kept (mostly) to myself, I have set out on a journey to share it with others. If you’ve landed on this page, I invite you to take my hand and join me in this adventure. It is my goal and greatest desire to pull you into stories that touch your life in some way or another – and hopefully we will have some fun along the way.

Grab some chocolate (or popcorn) and some coffee (or wine) and jump in! 

Developing Characters that Readers Care About Part I: Personality

The essence of storytelling is developing strong characters with whom readers identify, empathize, and relate. I dare say that creating characters in a story is more important than the plot itself, for it is from the identity of the character(s) that key choices and interactions are made.

In the process of working on my first manuscript, I have spent a great deal of time researching advice from other authors and puzzling together some fundamental truths about developing unique characters based on basic human psychology. I’m excited to share what I’ve discovered. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting about it in a series on: Developing Character.

Personality is fundamental and essential to humanity, and therefore our characters, so why don’t we start there.

My nerdy heart skipped a beat of delight when I recently chatted with a writer friend who suggested using the Meyers-Briggs personality definitions to help with character building. Many writers utilize this tool, as it turns out, and the concept opened up a whole new world of character development in my writing.

What is the Meyer-Briggs theory?

You may have taken this test in college or during professional development exercises at work. If you’re unfamiliar with this test, it was created by psychologists who have spent years studying personalities and human characteristics.

All people, according to the Meyer-Briggs theory research, can be divided into sixteen categories (personality types) that are based upon a combination of five binary aspects: Introverted or Extroverted, Intuitive or Observant, Thinking or Feeling, Judging or Prospecting, Assertive or Turbulent. In other words, one or the other of each of these is your dominate personality aspect, and the combination of all five aspects is your personality, and it comes with its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies, preferences and aversions. It’s a science which defines the personality of every human being.

Awesome, right?

You can learn more about these at the 16Personalities website, which has in-depth explanations, as well as the research and methodology for determining each of the 16 personality types. It also provides the traits and particulars of each.

What can we learn about our character through knowing his or her personality?

According to the psychologists who developed the Meyers-Briggs personality test, our personalities inform everything – from how we interact with our world and those in it to how we process information and prioritize our time.

When writing, especially during drafting stages, I wonder if certain scenes or sets of dialogue are staying true to my character(s). Would character Jane Doe really say what she just said? Would John Doe react like that? Is that a choice that Jane would really make? Does that feel right with who I want Jane and/or John to be? These questions point us back to knowing the characters’ personalities.

Each personality in the Meyers-Briggs system is very briefly defined here. This list can be used as a general cheat sheet, or, if you want to dive even deeper into character development, go ahead and run a personality test on her/him. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes, and remember to really put yourself into the head of your character – answers should come from the character’s mindset rather than your own. This process will 1) make you think about your character on a realistic and day-to-day level and 2) introduce you to your character in a deeper and more intimate way: strengths, flaws, and everything in between. The results will also give you some insight into which personalities your character meshes well with and those who prove to be more challenging.

Can we say hello to the foundation for conflict? Resolution? Plot? Stupid choices? Great choices? Motivators and roadblocks? Yes…all of the above! It starts, first and foremost, with personality.

How does understanding character personalities inform the process of writing?

My dad always said I lived in a “Pollyanna world,” in that I naturally look on the positive side and tend to focus on the good while minimizing or even ignoring the bad. This carries over to my writing, too, and I tend to put my protagonists up on a pedestal. I forget that they have weaknesses and struggles, too, which tends to limit my creativity in conflict and character change/growth throughout my plot arch. I have found that knowing my characters’ personalities helps me ground them (and myself) to important truths of reality and the human condition – the good and the bad.

Which areas are challenging for you? Can you identify a point in which understanding your character’s personality may provide insight in areas that you tend to gloss over or struggle to find clarity?

Keep in mind the personality diversity of your character cast – whether in one piece of work or throughout several pieces. Do your characters feel similar? Is there enough realistic variety among them? Do you have a tendency to write your protagonists with all the same personality type? Are they all like you? Are they all opposite you?

Understanding the personalities that we’ve built into our characters can help us analyze our choices as writers and open doors to some creative experimentation and new ground in development. In other words, it can push us beyond our comfort zones – not only in characterization, but in plot, perspective, and even genre.

Exercise: Test your character

Companies around the world have their employees take personality tests, because it not only teaches the employee about herself, but it also informs the company on what that employee needs in order to thrive. HR officers understand that knowing an individual’s strengths and weaknesses in and of itself becomes an asset for the company’s mission and goals.

The same is true for your mission and goals for your story.

So, take a minute and use a protagonist from a current work-in-progress – or make a new character, if you’d like. First brainstorm who you want to this person to be – and then take a few minutes and run a personality test on your character. Then, based on the information you obtain, write for 15 minutes from your character’s perspective, letting his or her personality really shine.

Did you give it a try? If so, drop a line in the comments below and let me know how it went! What did you learn about your character that you didn’t know before?

My People

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I attended my very first writing conference this weekend. It happened sort of spontaneously – as spontaneous as a thirty-something mom-of-four can be. I recently contacted my high school English teacher (who is an amazing writer – three-time Wyoming Poet Laureate, ya’ll), and she suggested that, if I could possibly manage it, I should come to the Wyoming Writers Conference. The conference was 10 days away. Holy moly.

I’m a planner, and let me tell you, I had a million reasons (excuses) not to attend: It’s not fair to leave my family for the whole weekend without much notice. I would have to take time off work and ask my boss to manage in my stead. Then there was the pesky little issue of finances – registration is how much?! In addition I would likely have some dietary challenges (plant-based in Wyoming? Have you lost your mind? Beef! It’s what’s for dinner).

Then there were reasons of a more psychological, self-doubting flavor: People wouldn’t like me – or worse – I’d end up being like one of those sad junior high kids pasted against the wall at a school dance, just wishing I could go home and put on my jammies. And, of course, there was that insane introvert in my head who reasoned with me that I just might die if I were around that many people, anyway.

I almost decided not to go. Almost.

There was always next year, after all.

Then there was another voice – quieter but more persistent than the crazy introvert. That voice reminded me of how often I have pushed my writing on the back burner. It reminded me that I would never really reach any of my goals if I didn’t step outside of my comfort zone. That voice represented the yearning for connection with other writers, the desire for growth as an author, a creator – an artist. The need to learn. The quest for more.

The logic of the latter voice won.

So, with a deep breath – I registered online and reserved my room before I could change my mind. My excitement grew as I debated what to share for the critique session. Then, invariably, as the days ticked by my panic grew as I debated what to share for the critique session. Nothing was good enough to share with others. Everyone would see the truth – that I was a wanna-be, a fraud who clearly didn’t belong.

The day arrived, and my anxiety went a little crazy during the hour-and-a-half drive to the little village tucked beneath the mountains. I arrived with shaky legs and a pounding heart, but managed to sign in (without dying) and joined my critique table. Sometimes life is on your side – and I felt the truth of this when I noticed a woman from my town – one I used to go to church with. A familiar face. Hallelujah.

The critique session went fabulously. I was awed by the other pieces at my table, which where beautifully written with the care and attention that only a writer can give his or her work. I shook (and sweat – a lot) as I read my work aloud, yet assured everyone in the group that I welcomed tough criticism (which was true – my nerves are simply traitorous little monsters).

The critique was helpful and challenging – but above all it was kind. We were all on the same page, I realized, regardless of where we were in the writing journey – we were all making a choice to step out in vulnerability in the name of growth and camaraderie.

As the weekend progressed, we formed a posse, my critique group and I. We added another writer who was just as nervous as I had been. Together we made five. Saturday night as we ate dinner together, I realized that these are my people. Definitely my posse, but it goes beyond that.

Writers are a different breed of people. Our keynote speaker, New York Times bestselling mystery writer William Kent Krueger, made a comment, which roughly paraphrased was something along the lines of – “like me, most of you have probably wanted to write since forever.” This resonated, and as I glanced around the room at the heads nodding in agreement, I realized: writers are born, not made. That is not to say everyone chooses to develop that talent or does so at the same rate or with the same results. But when everything else is stripped away: we are writers in the very core of our beings, kindred spirits – and that’s kind of a big deal.

I learned so much in the conference sessions that I attended – tools to add to my toolbox – as Stephen King says. Yet my greatest take-away from this first conference is that I have found a tribe – people that I want to be around, be inspired by and equally strive to inspire in return, people from whom I would like to learn and have walking beside me as we travel this crazy journey of words and craft and plots and make believe.