I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Meg Rosoff (one of our contributors here at Writer Unboxed) in Salem at the un-con. I was intrigued by her discussion about hot and cold spots in the brain, the emotional poignancy that resides in those zones, and how to access them. Throughness, she called it; an opening of pathways between the conscious and subconscious mind. As writers, we need to tap into these centers to channel authentic emotion into our characters on the page. An interesting concept. But while I think tapping into our own emotional wells and developing our emotional IQ is a good start, I’d like to take it a step further.
We must expand our understanding of human behavior to create authentic characters.
It’s what I like to call the “science of character writing.” Writers are scientists of human nature. We observe behavior patterns and body language, and often the nearly undetectable movements that reflect what happens just below the surface or deep within our minds and hearts. Without this understanding of human nature, our characters come off as stereotypical, flat, and unbelievable. Some of us are born with an innate ability to read others, to magically peel back the layers of defenses and quirks to see what is really brewing in someone’s mind. Some of us live more in our own heads and struggle with this ability. But we can all hone this inclination to create authentic characters.
How do we explore the science of character writing in a concrete way that translates to the page?
We use tools at our fingertips—psychology studies, personality inventories, and body typing to help us build upon our natural base of understanding and creative spring. People-typing, CHARACTER-TYPING, is as scientific as it is deeply creative and intuitive, emotional. Take a look at a few tools I’ve used.
- The Male Brain & also The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine: In these books, a neuropsychiatrist examines how gender affects the human brain, and therefore, our behaviors.
- Blink by Malcolm Gladwell: In simplified form, this book discusses the way we make decisions in social and private situations, and how each of us has a different thought pattern associated with them. Anything by Gladwell is worth a read. The Tipping Point was fascinating as well.
- The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson: The enneagram is a personality inventory, which discusses nature and nurture, childhood vs. adulthood patterns, and all ranges of healthy to sociopathic tendencies. It’s literally one of my favorite books on the market. I’ve read it dozens and dozens of times and have it practically memorized. Not only can I assess where people fall on this spectrum within minutes of speaking to and observing them, but I use it to do all of my character mapping before I begin writing. Note: Don’t be fooled by the online quiz. It’s a very shallow interpretation of the enneagram. Check out the book instead. (11th edition, or the one with the blue and gray cover)
- Essentials of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Assessment by Isabel Briggs Myers & Peter B. Myers: This book emphasizes different aspects of personality types than the Enneagram. Though not as thorough as the enneagram, I still highly recommend it.
- The Book of Ayurveda: A Holistic Approach to Health and Longevity by Judith Morrison: Ayuervedic Dosha (ancient Indian body typing and health patterns) highlights our body types and how they reflect our natural rhythms, health patterns, and instincts.
- Astrology—Yes, I said it. The very soft “science” that is often scoffed at. I look at this as just another method to understanding people and their habits, to see how environment in a larger, spatial sense affects us. Can’t hurt and might help?
I’ve noticed many people turn their noses up at personality inventories. They fiercely believe they’re an individual that is beyond classification. After all, how could a book place seven billion people into nine personality types? But I say this. We’re animals and our personality types are another means of classifying our species into subsets. I realize I’m oversimplifying, but if you combine this list of tools—Enneagram, Myers Briggs, Ayurvedic body typing, gender constructs (or the dissolution of them), among others, you get a fairly composite picture of someone—of a character.
Don’t underestimate the power of true study and all of that profiling. It’s the beginning of AWARENESS, SELF-EVOLUTION, and THROUGHNESS.
That being said, we ARE still individuals. Our characters will have their own pains, their own life experiences, ambitions, and neuroses. Nuance will color a character’s lens and, therefore your narrative. Yes, the tools are useful, but natural instinct and the all-mysterious inspiration that bubbles up from years of stewing will lend true authenticity to your characters as well, how you view their arcs, and ultimately how you portray them on the page.
Am I always so scientific in my approach? After years of reading books like these, and studying cultural geography (the way people interact with and shape their environment), much of it has become integrated into the way I view the people around me. Scientific? Maybe. Useful? Certainly. I never write a character without dissecting their psychological profile first; their fears and dreams, motivations and goals, that which haunts them and inspires them. Do my characters still surprise me? Always. The crystalline, magical moments when the muse shares her wisdom are incomparable. But with more understanding, I believe you leave the corridor open far more often for throughness to occur.
So I say this. Step into the shoes of a scientist. Gather information. Build your base of understanding. Map your characters before you begin (for you plotters), and for pantsers, when you hit a speed bump in drafting, step back and assess who you’re really creating as a character. Let all of this information saturate your psyche to mix with your sacred source of creativity, and watch your characters take on a life of their own.
What tools do you use to differentiate your characters? Would you call yourself a scientist of human behavior?