Unlocking the Mysteries of Your Characters


Ever struggled with writer’s block (or creative block, as I like to call it)? If you’re a writer, you’ve probably been there at least once in your life. That daunting monster can pummel you, crushing ideas at the source (or so you may think) with any number of its nasty techniques. The last time I experienced that frightening beast was in the middle of National Novel Writing Month. Not really a good time to run out of words, right? The worst. But there was no way I was letting that sucker get me. I HAD to win NaNoWriMo. So I steamrolled ahead, using a technique I like to call: avoidance. I skipped over the parts that troubled me and dove in to the parts that flowed.

That was good at the time – it granted me my 50K – but now, four months later, I’m staring that monster smack-dab in the face again. So it’s time to find a new technique. And it just so happens I stumbled upon a great trick to overcoming writer’s block.

Fear of the Unknown

The first step to crushing that behemoth is finding the source. I can’t identify your blockage, but mine is always the same (and yours might be, too): a lack of knowledge. Maybe I don’t know what’s coming next in the story because I don’t have my plot entirely mapped out or maybe I haven’t fully discovered a character’s motivation. In this instance it is the latter.

My protagonist I get. I am completely jiving with his thinking. But my antagonist is giving me fits. His persona is hazy and undefined. I know what he does but don’t entirely understand why…yet. The good news is, I cracked the code to understanding my characters fully. And I’m doing it by indulging in one of my favorite things.

Testng. Testing. (Is This Thing On?)

Confession: I’m a total geek for personality tests. I don’t know why, but I love them. I always have. When the employees at the architecture firm where I worked were required to attend a seminar on personalities in the workplace, most of my co-workers were groaning in agony. But I was flying high on the cloud of Myers Briggs geekdom somewhere in the land of Personality Types. I devoured it.

When I realized I could harness my enthusiasm and get an explosion of creative energy, I dove back into my character descriptions and did a few online searches to get the info I needed. Instead of taking the personality test myself, like I had in the past, now my characters were going to take it. What a lovely idea!

Introverts and Extraverts

Before when writing, I’d always considered surface things like what character was an introvert and who was an extravert – but that can only go so deep. Other traits remained in my head, often in a random, jumbled mess. I needed a better way to organize those thoughts, thereby allowing myself to further explore them.

I found a site that very concisely defines the four aspects of personality based on the Myers Briggs 16 part personality standard (the most prominent and widely used evaluation method): http://www.personalitypathways.com/. Then I began to analyze my characters one at a time. I recorded the characteristics of each and their results. Lastly, I found another site (http://www.personalitypage.com/high-level.html) that gave a very thorough description of each of the sixteen types and I compared those results against the characters in my head. What I found was both exciting and worrisome.

Illusions on the Character of Illusive Characters

When I read the description of my protagonist, it was astounding! Whoever had written the description of INFPs (Introverted Intuitive Feeling Perceptives) must surely have snuck into my house and read my unfinished manuscript on Josh Schuyler. It was spot on. I went through the description, bolding and highlighting to my little heart’s content every phrase that applied to Josh, adding notes as I saw fit. He blossomed in front of my eyes.

But then I read the description of what I had thought was the personality type of my antagonist. Some of the traits were close, but a lot of it felt off. And there is a reason for that. I have yet to fully discover this character. My plan is to first study some of the other possible personality types to see if they are a better match. Once I’ve found the closest, I will hone my character based on that template. I can find out everything about his motivation once I know all aspects of his personality.

So voila! A new way to analyze your characters. For those of you who like quizzes and personality tests as much as me: you’re welcome. Check out those sites. Have at it. And for the rest of you…well, maybe you should consider biting the bullet and giving Mr. Main Character the exam. He might just pass with flying colors. If not, at least you will have learned something new.

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  1. #1 by Joshua Unruh on April 1, 2011 - 12:05 pm

    Personality tests as character short hand or as inspiration is very interesting. When I was in sales, I really liked personality tests because they were broad ways of meshing different personality types. Sadly my managers decided they were the most awesome things ever and they became hard rules rather than rules of thumb and that’s when they break down for me. I left them behind never to return.

    Or so I thought. This is a very interesting idea that I’m going to try SOON.

    • #2 by Becca Campbell on April 1, 2011 - 3:01 pm

      Josh,
      Yeah, can see how that could go wrong. Most of the people I know are the opposite: they don’t put much stock in personality tests. I think they’re a very helpful tool.

      Awesome that you’re going to try it. If nothing else, it’s a lot of fun. Let me know how it works for your writing!

  2. #3 by Courtney Cantrell on April 4, 2011 - 1:45 pm

    Bex, I’ve always wanted to try out personality tests on characters. (We should discuss this, too!) I, too, am a sucker for a good personality test. Totally fascinating stuff, that.

    Funny story: After my husband took his first ever personality test, he sat down with the guy who scored it. The guy looked at my husband and said, “You hated taking this test, didn’t you.”

    Spot on. ; ) I love those tests; Ed hates them.

    • #4 by Becca Campbell on April 4, 2011 - 4:20 pm

      That is funny. I think it’s in certain personalities to hate tests and hate being put into a box. I, on the other hand, don’t see it as being put into a box. I’m always trying to analyze myself and others and the personality test is the ultimate way to do it.

      Sounds like we need to hang out soon! :)

  3. #5 by Angela Ackerman on April 26, 2011 - 9:02 am

    Great post–thanks!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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