I’m fascinated by personality tests, you know, the kind you run across all the time online or in magazines. I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs test twice (I’m an INFJ), the Keirsey Temperament Test (also an INFJ) and studied the Enneagram (I’m a 2). And while all of this is fodder for good cocktail party conversation and self-analysis, one of the biggest benefits of thinking about personality types is the way it’s helped me create characters in fiction.
My fiction is character driven. If I can get a handle on my characters and truly understand who they are—what they like and dislike, what loves and terrors drive them, what strengths and weaknesses define them—then the plot often flows naturally from the choices these characters make. But one of the biggest challenges in creating believable characters is making sure they are themselves, not me. And this is where personality typing can be very useful.
There’s plenty of science to back up the idea that we are born with certain temperaments. For example, the New York Longitudinal Study (Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess) followed infants from age six months into their early forties, identifying 9 temperament characteristics that remained constant throughout the decades. Our characters, too, are born with certain temperaments. The story lies in how those inborn personality traits lead characters to make choices that shape the events of their lives and, in turn, how events work with temperament to shape character. It’s an intricate dance, and when executed well in fiction it creates characters that linger in our minds (and readers’ minds) long after a book ends.
A few tips on creating characters:
- Make them true to themselves. I’m a nurturer, someone who loves connection and care-taking, likes to open doors, adopt lost kittens, and cook for whoever needs comfort. But if all my characters were like me it would make for some pretty dull fiction. In my second novel I created a character named Barefoot Jacobsen, a man in his late 70s who was adventurous, powerful, decisive, rebellious, and often insensitive—someone as unlike me as could be. The challenge came in making sure that Barefoot’s choices, actions, and reactions were true to his personality, not mine. He said things that were harsh and unsympathetic. He was brusque. He took crazy risks in his own life. But he was very much his own person, and one of the most memorable characters I’ve written.
- Let their voice speak. Dialogue can often be one of the trickiest parts of writing. I do talk out loud as I’m writing so I can hear how my characters’ voices sound. But the way people talk is often a natural extension of personality. An introvert is unlikely to wax on and on in a lengthy speech, or to jump into the middle of a conversation. An industrious perfectionist will speak in sentences that don’t waste words, while a more dramatic, romantic type will state things in extremes, using lots of adjectives and always upping the intensity (“I had a horrific day”). The way your characters speak should be so true to their temperament that your reader will know who is talking without repeated attribution (“Mimi said”) and without adverbs (“Mimi said angrily”).
- Allow flaws to flow from their temperament. Most positive traits have a corresponding negative. Loving, sensitive givers can be too subservient, or avoid taking care of their own needs. Easy-going, patient, go-with-the-flow types can be lazy or neglectful. Your characters’ weaknesses should be natural extensions of their personalities. If you want your character to have a fatal flaw—say, being a perfectionist—make sure that that character’s choices, actions, reactions, and words are consistent with that kind of temperament.
A few months after my third novel came out, I ran across a couple of scathing reviews online, which then referenced an entire forum devoted to discussing how much these readers disliked one of the characters in my book. The character in question had made some truly bad decisions and choices that hurt a lot of people. But the vitriol directed at her surprised me. I talked to my writers’ group about it. “There’s an entire forum devoted to how much people hate Alice?” one friend said. I nodded. “That’s amazing!” Someone else said. “I wish people cared about my characters that much.”
I ache for my characters’ bad decisions, disapprove of their poor choices, and sometimes wish things turned out differently for them. I think about them long after I’m done writing them. And my hope is that by making sure my characters are always true to their unique, special selves, my readers will always remember them, too.