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Writing Characters with Personality


Last week, I turned in my new book to my editor, and immediately answered the siren song of the next one—the so-called affair book, unsullied by the drudgery and frustration of actual writing. Sadly, the affair book is now my WIP, so it won’t be long before it sports the same morning breath and protruding nose hairs every manuscript eventually does. At the moment, however, I am smitten.

One of my favorite early tasks is defining major characters. Because this story features a family with nine children, I am in heaven. How do I go about creating this cast? They are a family—they belong to each other, for better or for worse—so they must hang together in some way. As individuals, however, they must be distinctive.

For this job, I turn to the Myers-Briggs personality types. You’re probably at least broadly familiar with the system, which assesses pairs of traits along four dimensions (Extravert/Introvert, ObServing/INtuiting, Thinking/Feeling, and Judging/Prospecting) to create sixteen types. Myers-Briggs is based on solid research, has withstood the test of time, and is used widely for quick behavioral assessment, such as in HR departments. I’m an ESFJ, called the Consul, or the Caregiver. The mother in my WIP is the same. Coincidence? I think not.

Here are some ideas on how to use personality typing in your writing.

Establish character early. Creating true-to-life characters is no mean feat; ask Dr. Frankenstein. But we have to start somewhere, and for me that place is a Myers-Briggs site, 16personalities.com [2]. Reading the descriptions of each type forces me to ask the right questions about my nascent characters. Of course, human behavior is shaped not only by personality, but also by experience, aka backstory. Science tells us, however, that personality is a strong driver of behavior, so deciding which of the sixteen types define each major character will go a long way toward getting your story off to a coherent start.

Balance your cast. The sixteen personality types are grouped into four categories: Analysts, Sentinels, Adventurers, and Diplomats. Each category contains two extravert types and two introvert types. One way to ensure your characters are distinctive is to choose types from different categories. In the US, for example, extraverts outnumber introverts two to one. You don’t need to match the actual population distribution, but do take advantage of the wide variety of behavioral types available to you. It will help make your characters memorable.

Draw relationship vectors. Personality traits describe, in part, how we relate to each other. This site [3] emphasizes the social aspect of Myers-Briggs, and I use it to get an early handle on how my characters view and treat each other. From personality alone, I can predict which of the nine children in my story will be natural allies, or potential enemies, and I can then use the plot to play up or push against these tendencies. For example, the eldest daughter is an INTP, an introverted thinker, not a natural leader, but she is forced into that role by her father, whose own personality makes him somewhat dense about others’ feelings. It comes back to bite him.

Gain deeper insight into characters. Even after my story is fairly well-developed, occasionally I need help figuring out how a character will behave. If I read the detailed descriptions of their personality type, the perfect reaction often jumps out at me. People are complex, and characters should be, too, but if you’re like me, sometimes you overthink a scene or a pivotal moment. When this happens, a reminder of the fundamental nature of a character can point the way out of the woods.

Do you use personality typing to help create characters? If not Myers-Briggs, then perhaps Enneagram, or another rubric? Or do you have another method entirely?

About Sonja Yoerg [4]

Sonja Yoerg [5] grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned a Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and wrote a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001) and four novels: House Broken, Middle of Somewhere, All the Best People, and the upcoming True Places (1/19). Sonja lives with her husband in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.