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?

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