Last weekend seventeen writers met at my home to discuss and workshop ways to develop authentic characters and to ensure those character’s responses in dialogue, decision making and action remained consistent throughout a novel.
I’ve worked in learning and development for a lot of years and during this time I’ve run courses on and taken most kinds of personality tests. These are great tools which I use a lot when creating and developing characters for my books.
During the afternoon we looked at a couple of these personality tests and how to use them while writing, and I also worked through some other tools I use in character development.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is, but as a reader I’ll soon put down a book if the characters all sound and act the same or their actions aren’t consistent with their character. However, I don’t use these tools for every character in a novel. I tend to think of characters on three levels:
For our main characters (Level 1) I use tools such as Myers-Briggs or Natal Charts to help give various characteristics, both positive and negative, to form a well-rounded character.
For characters that I consider in the next level I use something simpler like the Four Personalities. This gives both positive and negative traits but not in as much depth. Generally I don’t do anything like this for the ‘walk-on’ characters.
These tools, and others, are described below and at the end of the post I’ve described how and when to use them.
Myers-Briggs looks at different eight different paired styles:
Extraversion and Introversion
Sensing and Intuition
Thinking and Feeling
Judgement and Perception
There are lots of websites with Myers-Briggs information. It is helpful to read up on these styles as the labels don’t necessarily mean what we take from the actual word. For example, judgement is not about judging people or things.
Generally we are a mix of both of each pair but with a tendency to one of them more than the other.
Answering the questions in the test will give you (or your character) a four-letter personality type code, which means there are sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types.
There is a lot of information on websites as to the characteristics of each of these types, and this will give any writer a multitude of traits and relevant likely actions. Using something like this when developing characters means that we can look at different traits and how even a positive trait, when taken to extreme, can become a character flaw. This is especially relevant as these traits tend to be more pronounced when we are in a stressful situation, and as writers we put our characters into lots of stressful situations.
Most people know what sun sign they are e.g. Aries, Scorpio, Gemini. However, this is just a small part of a character, there is also your moon sign and rising sign among others. The sun sign covers your basic character traits. Your rising sign is more how you appear to others, especially when you first meet them. You could call it the mask you wear. The moon sign is your inner self, the part of us we keep hidden from others.
A natal chart requires the date and time of birth and then gives a much deeper look into their character. For a writer this is a true gift to finding out more about our character’s positive points and also their flaws.
There is a lot of information and free tests and links for both of these tools on the internet. For more information on how to use them when developing characters see the section below: How to use these tools.
The four temperaments personality tests are not as in-depth as Myers-Briggs, but they can be very useful when developing supporting characters in your novel.
Temperament in this instance refers to our natural preferences and tendencies, and most importantly those that we revert to when we are in stressful situations.
Below are descriptions of what are considered the four main temperament types. All of us have a degree of each of these types, but generally we will have one as a primary with another being a close second. There are many different types of tests with all sorts of names but here I have simply given them a descriptor together with a brief outline of characteristics.
These characters are independent, decisive, goal-oriented, ambitious, and tend to be task-oriented and focus on getting a job done. They are bold and like to take risks. They can be ambitious and like to be in charge. However, these tendencies can lead them to being impulsive, restless, and aggressive.
They are brief, direct, to the point, and firm when communicating with others. They like pressure and are easily bored when things are not happening fast enough. They do not easily empathize with the feelings of others
This personality type is extroverted, optimistic, enthusiastic, entertaining, and persuasive. They are expressive and tend to be very affectionate. They are personable, open to others, and build relationships quickly. They will smile and talk easily.
Individuals with this personality have a hard time doing nothing, get bored easily, and dislike being on their own. They get so involved with conversations they easily forget about time and so are often late. Their attention span is based on whether or not they are interested in the person or events. They often struggle with following tasks all the way through. They tend to be disorganized and forgetful.
These individuals tend to be thoughtful, calm, patient, and caring. They have a rich inner life, seek a quiet, peaceful atmosphere and are content with their own company. They make good team players and communicate a warm, sincere interest in others, preferring to have a few close friends. They are consistent at tasks they undertake.
People of this temperament can appear lacking emotion as their emotions happen mainly internally rather than outwardly. They dislike change and need time to adjust when it occurs.
These individuals tend to be analytical and detail-oriented. They are introverted and factual in communication. They need information, time alone to think and a detailed plan. This personality leads to self-reliant individuals who are thoughtful, reserved, but often anxious. They hold themselves to a very high standard — one that can rarely be achieved.
They are conscientious, picky, and can be sensitive to what others think of their work. They are determined to make the right and best decision so they will collect lots of information.
The tools mentioned above are those I tend to use most to develop consistent characters, however, there are a few other things that I also consider.
There is a lot of information about generational characteristics. By this I mean the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and what is being labelled Generation Z at the moment. The characteristics for these are very generalised but can give you an idea of how one of your characters might think. I often find this useful when considering how my character was raised — what generation are their parents? This can have quite an important impact on how a character was reared.
Is your character the oldest child in the family, a middle child, or the youngest? Were they an only child, a twin? There is quite a lot of research that supports the idea that a person’s birth position has an effect on their character and how they’re raised.
If you want interesting and well-rounded characters, yes, a lot goes into creating them, but readers want (and deserve) believable characters to worry over as they follow them through the challenges they face.
On the positive side not all your characters require the same amount of development. I put in a lot of effort for the main characters, some but less into the supporting characters, and very little into the walk-on characters.
I tend to the planning side of the writing continuum so once I have a plot thread and have a reasonable idea of my main characters I look at deepening that. If I’m going to use Myers-Briggs I will know their main characteristics and then look at working through those similar types to narrow it down more, or even take a free test on behalf of my character. I tend to use Natal Charts more and will choose a Sun Sign that represents their general characteristics. I check out the sun signs either side and from there will choose a birth date for them. This is generally in the middle if I think they’re mostly like their sun sign, or towards one of the others if they have some of those traits. With a birth date I can check out their natal chart.
If you tend more towards the pantsing side then write your first draft as usual. When you come to your first read through and edit then do what I’ve described above to ensure you have well-rounded, consistent characters.
I also check back to the charts or personality tests when I’m editing to ensure that my character’s actions and communication style fit in with their personality type, so they’re not veering madly out of character part way through the manuscript and then going back to their extremely shy and quiet self in the next chapter.
What personality type are they? (Myers-Briggs) Do they display the attitudes and behaviours of their personality type?
When is your character’s birthday? Do they exhibit the same behaviours as their zodiac sign?
What is your character’s primary personality type (four temperaments)? Their secondary?
How might their secondary type alter the characteristics of their primary one?
What generation are they? Do they display the attitudes and behaviours of their generation?
Also consider their parents’ generation, how might this have impacted on their childhood upbringing?
I heard a writer say one time that if you read a book or see a film that turns you off at some point, it’s often because the main character has done something purely to advance the plot that isn’t in keeping with their character traits or known-belief system. I think there is a lot of truth in this. How often have we rolled our eyes in a thriller or horror film when the hero or heroine does something wildly out of character that we know is going to get them in trouble and is purely for plot purposes?
We can do better than that.