My Favorite Method for Building Characters' Personalities
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I've always loved creating characters.
But despite my love, I used to struggle every day to bring my vision for my characters to life on the page. Instead of the vibrant, interesting people I had milling around in my head, my characters were lackluster and cliché. I needed to make a change.
Characters are the backbone of any good story. Without captivating characters, my stories were bound to fall flat. So I took a long, hard look at my work in an attempt to figure out where I was going wrong. Did I not know my characters well enough? Had I created boring characters in the first place? Did I simply need more experience in writing them? Then, I discovered my characters' saving grace...
Building my characters' personalities...
While scrolling through Pinterest one day, I came across an article on MBTI: the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. I'd taken this personality test before and fallen in love with the insights it gave me on how my brain processes the world. So, why not use that same test to get inside my characters' heads?
That day, I took the test from my main character's perspective, and MBTI worked its magic!
As I sifted through the results of the test, I kept shouting "Yes, that is so Thea!". The insights the test provided were spot on to my original vision for that character. And better still, I understood Thea on a far deeper level than I had before. I no longer wrote from Thea's perspective. When I picked up the pen, I became her.
As I read back through my new work, I realized that I'd managed to bring Thea to life in a way I was never able to accomplish before I'd nailed down her personality type.
So, let me ask you: are you frustrated with your current portrayal of your characters? Know that you don't have to settle for cliché. You have an amazing vision for your characters, and you can bring that to the page. Here's how!
Exploring the Myers Briggs Type Indicator...
The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is a personality assessment compiled by Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers-Briggs (hurray, ladies!) to make the work of psychologist C. G. Jung available and applicable to the average person. This assessment classifies participants into one of sixteen personality types based off of the most relevant indicators of four dichotomies.
Confused? Let's break that down. Essentially, the MBTI assessment defines a participant's personality type by asking them a series of questions surrounding four "this or that" pillars. Check out this direct breakdown from The Myers & Briggs Foundation website:
Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).
Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).
When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).
In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).
You may have noticed the letters in parentheses beside each indicator. These letters are used to make up a personality type.
For example, when I assessed my own personality type using the MBTI, I discovered that I was INFJ. This means that I am generally an introverted, intuitive, feeling, and judging person. Obviously, my personality goes beyond just four words, but those words serve as the basis of the more complex personality description I received in my MBTI results.
I learned so much about the way I think and feel and act from taking the test, and it can do the same for your understanding of your characters!
Nailing Down Character Personalities...
Before we move on to talking about your characters, check out a quick summary of what each of the sixteen personality types entail. Keep in mind that this is just a quick overview. You'll learn a lot more by taking the test!
You might be wondering how this personality test can help you bring your characters to life. After all, boxing your characters into a specific type can seem like the opposite of setting them free. How can a simple assessment help you make your characters shine? Take a look at the four main questions the assessment asks:
How does engaging with other people affect you?
How do you process new information?
How do you make decisions?
How do you prefer your life to be structured?
Each of these questions leads to an answer that directly influences your character's portrayal. Knowing these answers will help you define your character's relationships, the actions they take to achieve their goals, how they handle setbacks, and more.
Not convinced that knowing their personality types will make writing well-developed characters simpler? Take a look:
Unsure of how your character will handle being put in the spotlight?
Discover if they are introverted (I) or extroverted (E).
Unsure of how your character will react to a shocking revelation?
Discover if they are sensing (S) or intuitive (N).
Unsure of how your character will make a tough decision?
Discover if they are thinking (T) or feeling (F).
Unsure of what steps your character will take to achieve their goal?
Discover if they are judging (J) or perceiving (P).
See what I mean? There is hardly any character-related problem you might face during the writing process that can't be solved by knowing your character's personality type. Simply take a look at your character's MBTI results, and you'll know what decision to make.
Utilizing the MBTI Assessment...
So, how can you get to know your characters' personality types? First, you'll need to take the MBTI assessment. The official test from The Myers & Briggs Foundation will set you back $50, but there are several free, unofficial tests that are just as professional and insightful. My personal favorite is the one offered at 16Personalities.com.
In addition to the identification of a personality type, 16 Personalities offers an extremely insightful overview of what it means to be a certain type. You can learn about each types' strengths and weaknesses, what careers best suit them, how they act and what they need from certain relationships, and more.
I recommend taking this test from the perspective of any character who serves as the POV characters or whose actions directly affect the plot. In order to achieve the best results, focus on what you already know about each character. When the questions appear, your gut instinct will be to answer them according to your own preferences. Try your best to push this instinct aside and think of your character instead.
Once you've completed the assessment, make sure to mark down your character's type and key insights in an easy-to-access place, such as the reference guide section of your Novel Planner, so you can easily refer to it as you write. Repeat this process as many times as necessary to get to know all of your major characters.
Applying the MBTI Assessment
Finally, consider how you can implement your characters' personality types throughout your story. Here are few of my favorite ways:
When presented with the same predicament, not everyone will make the same decision. Knowing your characters' personality types — and specifically whether or not they are thinking (T) or feeling (F) — will make their decisions clear.
Some people like to live on the wild side while others prefer the security of a traditional lifestyle. Knowing whether your characters are judging (J) or perceiving (P) will help you define their story goals.
Interacting with others.
Some people are free with their emotions and opinions, while others are more guarded and prefer to converse emotional and mental energy until opportune moments. Knowing whether your characters are introverted or extraverted will help you decide how they will interact with others.
Not everyone says what they're thinking. Getting to know how all of the elements of your characters' personality types work together will help you identify the difference between their thoughts and words, as well as what makes up each.
Ever wonder what's going on in someone else's head? Your readers want to know the same about your characters. Understanding their personality types in full will help you identify their worries, how they process tough situations, and the steps they plan to take in order to move forward.
Everyone has their oddities. By giving your characters quirks, you're setting your readers up for an interesting and relatable read.