Note: If you are unfamiliar with MBTI – the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – or missed Part 1 of this series, click here. Once you’ve read that, this post will make much more sense!
Once upon a time, there was a young author named Hannah who never had any struggles with characterization. She had in her head a wide array of staggeringly diverse characters, each with their own imagination, goals, and personal history, and even a few annoying habits to make them stand out. You see, she was one of those obsessive plotters who writes a biography for every one of them.
Yet when Hannah sat down at her desk, armed with a laptop and her favorite peppermint coffee, and wrote the story for real, all the characters’ individuality was gone! They fell flat. She couldn’t put her finger on the reason, but her characters lacked that all-important sense of realness. No matter how much she rewrote and edited, they all just felt the same. So Hannah finished her peppermint coffee and buried her head in her hands, thinking, “I am a horrible writer.”
Now if this has never happened to you, mazel tov. You no longer need to read this post. If, however, you are the kind of writer who struggles with characterization, I’d like to encourage you that it’s a normal problem. The problem isn’t a lack of imagination. The problem is the writer’s own personality filter. Every time you sign up to write a character with a different personality from your own, you are agreeing to take on a whole new set of traits, values, and thought processes. And most writers don’t even realize it.
Here’s an example for all of you Sensing types. I plotted one of my protagonists, Elkay, as an ESTJ: a tough, steely leader with a sense of duty. However, by the time I finished the story, Elkay had morphed into an INTP: an objective puzzle-solver with big dreams. What facilitated such a change? It was myself; the ESTJ in my imagination had to go through me before he reached the paper, and I rubbed off many of my own traits to make him an INTP. Slightly different…
How on earth do we avoid this? I have a few suggestions:
Get familiar with various kinds of personalities. The truth is that you can’t write a different kind of person accurately until you get to know that kind of person. So spy on people. Talk to people. Analyze people. Be it an official temperament test like Myers-Briggs or simply an informal people-watching experiment, you must find some way of understanding how other people work. Read 16personalities.com and learn how people think, and then get to work applying this new knowledge.
Decide on an inspiration for your character. It’s permissible to have some sort of real-life basis to which you can refer as you write. Is your protagonist like Abe Lincoln? Read a book about him and get that character into your head. Find out his personality type. Is a villain like your sister? Take your sister’s personality and just transfer it to the villain (but be tactful about that one, my friend).
Write one scene over and over until you know what your character is really like. Try writing one scene multiple times, giving a different voice, worldview, goal, etc. to your character each time. It need not even be a scene that you will use in the final draft. Just play with the character, tweaking, rearranging, flipping him on his head until you find the essence of the character.
Rethink and rewrite. Sometimes a certain personality just doesn’t work for a character. Looking back, I realize that making Elkay an ESTJ would not work well at all with my plot, and it was for the best that he changed. Be flexible. You have to write more than one draft anyway; you might as well experiment with different personalities while you’re editing.
Has MBTI helped you write “real” characters? Let me know in the comments.