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by Author Susan Golden
Characterization is a pillar of good writing. Some writers intuitively craft complex, consistent characters; others may face an occasional or frequent challenge in this regard. Some might stumble over what a character could be expected to do in a particular situation. But other than getting a psychology degree, what’s out there to help you create believable and consistent characters that fit with the needs of your story?
Understanding Personality Types
Many of you will be familiar with the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. Some of you might have taken it for “fun” or for personal insight. It’s that questionnaire that summarizes your personality “type” with a four-letter combination. The four scales that form the “code” identify major aspects of personality that influence an individual’s thoughts and actions. That’s great because it addresses traits that show themselves in real life.
The Introversion-Extraversion (I-E) scale identifies whether someone is outward-turning or inward-turning. The Sensing-Intuition (S-N) scale relates to how a person takes in information. The Thinking-Feeling (T-F) scale assesses whether a person generally trusts their senses or their perceptions (gut). The Judging-Perception (J-P) scale deals with the level of structure an individual prefers. The four scales thus yield 16 different trait combinations.
The Myers-Briggs has been widely studied and there are loads of resources providing free and valuable information on various aspects of how the different personality types think, behave, and interact. Conveniently, it’s an instrument meant to be used by the general population with interpretations that are written in plain English and relate to real life. It is practical, not theoretical. No psychobabble.
How the Myers-Briggs Benefits Writers
So how can this resource help a writer? Well, there are only 16 broad personality types. No matter what resource you use or what parts of real life a resource focuses on (decision-making or interpersonal interactions, for example), those 16 personality designators do not change. There will always be an ESTJ or an INFP. Those “codes” are a quick and easy reference point, especially when you want to check out more than one source.
A number of sources also have clever titles that sum up the personality type. For instance, the ENTJ type has been labeled by some “The Commander”, the ESFJ is called “The Consul” or “The Director.” Looking for a champion? That’s the label for an ENFP.
Delving into specifics, most sources provide a thumbnail description, usually just a couple of sentences or some phrases, for each type. These snapshots allow you to see quickly what those types are generally like. For instance, suppose your plot calls for a fairly introverted character who will be thrust into a leadership role. What personality type(s) would fit best? To start with, you’ve just eliminated half of the options – all the extroverts. A quick scan of the thumbnails for a general impression narrows down what you have in mind to just four options. For the sake of this example, they are The Inspector (ISTJ) (practical), The Protector (ISFJ) (protective instincts), The Mediator (INFP) (idealistic), The Architect (INTJ) (logical, creative, analytical).
So now what?
What you do next depends on how much you already have in mind for the plot and the particular character. Reading a more expanded explanation of the four options might allow you to settle on one or two as being what you are looking for. If you’re a pantser and have only a vague idea of the plot line, you might choose to wait to even seek some guidance until a question arises. But knowing the letter code isn’t the objective. The four-letter code is just a reference point that allows you focus on only a couple profiles for more detail.
Remember I mentioned lots of resources? There are resources that discuss a multitude of associated characteristics for the 16 personality types: compatible professions; how they generally think and make decisions; how they interact with others in romantic situations, friendships, work environments, or as parents. And especially important for authors – there are sites that discuss the weaknesses inherent in every personality type. Characters without flaws are not truly believable.
As an example, that ISFJ “Protector” is generally compassionate, practical, a good listener, but dislikes change and often neglects their own needs. They prefer concrete information and often let the past influence their decision making. They are frequently in “helping” professions and generally have a small circle of close friends. In relationships, they can have difficulty expressing emotions. That’s a pretty good start for a whole charcter. Those couple of sentences cover a lot of ground, including aspects that are weaknesses.
But you don’t have to start with one of those 16 types to effectively mine Myers-Briggs information. Thinking of a lawyer as a main character? policeman? librarian? You can start there and find those types that would likely work in that capacity. What if all you know is that you need someone shy who likes a girl but can’t tell her? Not a problem. You can find the type most likely to display that personality (ISFJ is an option – see above). When you need to flesh out that character’s personality or aren’t sure of a reaction, check the ISFJ profile to fill in the gaps or answer those “how would they act?” questions. Start with what you know. You can work inward from a specified type (the 4-letter code) for more details or outward to a broader personality profile from a single characteristic.
Exploring Uncharacteristic Actions in Your Story
But what if your plot calls for a character to do something “not like them?” For instance, you need a leader who has always made rational decisions based on demonstrable facts to suddenly “trust his gut.” Knowing that what needs to happen is outside what a character should be expected to do is important. It’s not a problem, it just means you have to provide a reasonable explanation and/or motivation for that to occur. Knowing that introvert isn’t simply going to accept a leadership role or that shy boy wouldn’t normally ask a girl out signals the need for offering up a compelling reason for that to happen. All things are possible with the right motivation.
If you struggle with envisioning believable characters, you can create a personal reference for character building by compiling information from various sources. The consistent 16-cell format makes that quick and easy. Others may find the occasional pop to a website answers their question or confirms their intentions. Some may find character inspiration by reading through the various profiles. The obvious diversity in the profiles is a ready source for creating believable ensembles whether you want to promote harmony or conflict.
Some Tools to Get You Started
I’ve done some research for you and found these sites to have a user-friendly structure and good information for character building. There are more, of course. I encourage you to explore.
- Verywellmind.com – very comprehensive with loads of information on weaknesses
- 16personalities.com – fun approach, also discusses weaknesses and has a further breakdown of each type into “aggressive or turbulent”
- Simplypsychology.org/the-myers-briggs-type-indicator – provides a quick visual chart with labels and includes a segment on each type’s personal expectations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Golden holds a Master’s degree in Psychology and is the author of four-self-published romance novels. Although writing was a substantial component of her federal government career, she came to fiction only after retirement. Using her psychology background, she strives to tell stories with believable and well-rounded characters you can fall in love with for their good qualities, their determination and their desire to overcome obstacles, both personal and external.
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