Characters are a part of us. Some I have carried around in my head for years. Some have popped up while writing and helped me understand something about myself or the world on a whole new level. Always, in some way, we are like, have felt, have hated something about ourselves that we communicate in a character.
At least in the beginning.
While anything but prolific, I have developed enough characters through completed works of fiction to understand the way my mind processes them. When I first sit down and write their first scene, I often see it through their eyes. Male or female, young or old, I see the story through them first. As the first draft goes on I begin to see their faces instead, see them interact as I would a friend. Like my friends, and enemies, I no longer control them by my second draft. They have minds and wills of their own.
One of the frustrating things about writing in a free-flowing, “see what happens”, sort of style is that I don’t know why they do what they do sometimes.
Um… okay, Susan… let’s talk about whatever you want… as always…
(This is also frustrating to my first reader and co-developer of many a plot, my husband).
“Why wouldn’t she just –”
“He couldn’t do that unless –”
And the arguments go on.
I’m sure I’m not the only writer to be unable to communicate to someone who doesn’t write that you really don’t have control of the characters much of the time. Forcing them is like forcing a smile — disingenuine, and everyone can spot it from a mile away.
This is why I have protagonists who smoke even though I never have and never will. Why I have brutal antagonists who look like my friendly neighbor. They just become.
Anyway, I have looked for ways to understand free-thinking characters beyond lying awake until 2 a.m. I’ve written out backstories that will never make it near the story, had conversations with them, tried to step back into their headspace and usually failed.
On my latest short story, I didn’t get why this nice guy at first was becoming ever-more a wise-cracking but lovable douche (apologies in advance to anyone his type, he just is a wise-cracking, lovable douche). Enter the Myers-Briggs Personality Test.
The Myers-Briggs Personality Test is often used in workplaces to evaluate potential hires or to understand conflicts between employees. It helps for a boss to understand that her own personality type is this, while that obnoxious employee is that, so to get the employee to do this, I need to motivate them by doing that.
See any application to being a writer? It’s a little easier to be the boss when you understand that you can’t make your character do anything they just wouldn’t do, and to understand it on a deep level by learning about who they are.
So, I highly recommend you take the test yourself to understand the procedure before you take it as a character. (If you’re an INFP put your hand up!… alone, in your room, and be embarrassed about it, then be my friend… virtually, of course… don’t come visit).
**Note: This probably won’t work until the characters have become something else, i.e., are no longer a reflection of yourself or based off your college roommate.**
The Myers-Briggs Personality Test
Myers-Briggs classifies 16 personality types grouped into four groups:
INTJ: “Architect” — Imaginative and strategic thinkers, with a plan for everything.
INTP: “Logician” — Innovative inventors with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
ENTJ: “Commander” — Bold, imaginative and strong-willed leaders, always finding a way — or making one.
ENTP: “Debater” — Smart and curious thinkers who cannot resist an intellectual challenge.
Each of the 16 personalities is assigned a four-letter combination. First is the Mind Aspect: I for Introverted and E for Extraverted. These essentially come down to whether social interaction energizes or exhausts them and how they interact with the world.
Next is the Energy Aspect: S for Observant or N for Intuitive. This comes down to their view of the future and whether they’re imaginative or practical.
Next is the Nature Aspect: T for Thinking and F for Feeling. This deals with sensitivity, emotions, and logic.
Finally, the Tactics Aspect: J for Judging and P for Prospecting. These deal with how we work, whether we’re decisive and organized or flexible and relaxed.
There is also the Identity Trait, assigned with either an -A, Assertive, or -T, Turbulent. This helps us to understand motivation and reactions to stress.
My complex character is an ESFP, an “Entertainer”. I don’t know if you could find a more opposite personality. Reading about his type, realizing why he keeps cracking jokes, was immensely helpful. The conflict in conversation he had with the other main character makes more sense. I don’t know her Myers-Briggs type because, although not an INFP like myself, I understand her much better. The 12- minute test made a world of difference in understanding her partner.
If you are struggling with a character, take the Myers-Briggs test. It’s free, takes 12 minutes, and improves your ability to develop plot, dialogue, emotions, everything.