In a previous post, I talked about discovering a character’s goal, motivation, and conflict as part of the work I do to write. In addition to motivation, I spend some time on their personality more generally: goals are something like “the perfect gift for Mother” and personality is whether this would be adventure or stress for the character, whether they’d be willing to shoplift or learn a craft.
Some writers (and I am one) read real psychology to assist in this endeavor of constructing a “person” who doesn’t read like a jerry-rigged collection of traits that will come in handy given the plot. What I need in my tool box is a system so that I can think of a fictional character in a cohesive, consistent way. Not just whether she’s a cat person but why. Psychology, of course, is an entire field of study, not a handmaiden to novelists, and perhaps doubly annoying to an expert will be this next statement: for a novelist, it doesn’t matter if any of these theories hold true.
One method of applying psychology many writers use (and I am not one of these) is to take a personality test from the viewpoint of the character. These range from checking horoscopes or tarot cards to the jokey ones found on Facebook to research-backed instruments like the Myers-Briggs personality profile. First off, I can hardly finish one of these things as if I’m a character—I have trouble finishing some of them as myself. I find the Myers-Briggs test irritating because it seems so binary and lacking in situational nuance. When I score my answers for each category, I’m 12 of one and 14 of the other rather than strongly one thing (and I know aficianados are saying “that is so TQMJ!”). I should perhaps concentrate on one of the 16 possible combinations and read about the composite type.
The personality typing system that does help me is called enneagrams. There are nine combinations, plus “wings” and subtypes, and the identifying test doesn’t taunt you (okay, me) with binaries. There’s a good quickie chart on the Web and a super in-depth description. I like the way (1) it connects traits together or motivates single traits in a rational way and (2) it talks about the shadow side of a personality type. Some authors are really rigorous about using the system (be it enneagrams, Myers-Briggs, astrology, etc.) and having the characters be fully one type or another. I think of it as (wait for it!) a brainstorming tool.
Perhaps what strikes you about our heroine, let’s call her Zoe Granger, is how well she gets along with people of all types. There are a variety of ways to go, but let’s call her an enneagram Type 9. That suggests she is also accepting, trusting, optimistic—and perhaps overwilling to capitulate in order to keep the peace. A 9’s basic desire is to have peace of mind, and their basic fear is of loss or separation.
Having this in mind starts suggesting situations: what environment would Zoe like to be in? What would make her uncomfortable? How would she do in a research lab, a bank, a telemarketer’s office, as a parent? How would she get along with bossy people, confident people, quiet people? Some of these situations will be things I want to portray in the novel; others are things I won’t even bother to verbalize but may inform Zoe’s reaction to other people and situations that do make it to print.
Personal aside: I usually test a 5 with enneagrams. Myer-Briggs, I’m a situational I, consistent T. I like the description of Architect, which I think is ISTJ.
NaNo aside: current word count 3147. Reggie, our heroine, is a 5 with a counterphobic 6 wing (same type as Spock) and Daniel, our hero, is either a 6 or a 1. I think.