Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Character Building Using Personality Profiles

I’m a structured person. Very structured. I've got more structure than the Coliseum. In the definition of structured, there should be...

OK, you got the picture.

Anyway, the point being that there’s a myriad of details that go into a book. If the writer wants to ensure consistency - which I do; see above about being structured - then those details need to be tracked. Once I’m immersed in a story, I don’t like to have to stop to invent things, like clothes or currency, and I especially don’t want to stop to make a note of it in case I need it again. I resent such intrusions, and consequently I tend to do a slapdash job. It's probably a left-brain/right-brain conflict. The right brain has the reins, and doesn't want to give them up!

I’ve gotten around this with world-building by having a comprehensive set of notes in advance. There’s a map, and a file for each country detailing those things I’m most likely to need, like physical appearance, clothes, currency, trade and so on and so forth. It’s great; if I need a detail while I’m writing I just look it up, slot it in, and away I go. Kind of like plug and play!

Despite that, I still tend to have a slapdash approach to characters. I mean, I have some idea of who they are when I start, but really I’m not much of a people-watcher.

What, a writer who doesn’t like to people-watch?

There's a goddess of death in the WIP for
which I'm currently character building, but I'm
pretty sure she has on more clothes than this!
I know, I know, I feel abnormal too, but I can’t help it. People watching exposes me to far too many things I don’t want to see. Like stupidity. And then my eyes need to be sanitised. And then I get depressed about the state of humanity. Possibly I feel homicidal. Yeah, it's all kinds of bad.

Consequently, I struggle to articulate characters sometimes, leaving them occasionally two dimensional. I try to flesh them out during revisions, of course, but still… It would be easier if I was a people-watcher.

Then it occurred to me that what I needed was a quick reference card for each of my characters like I have for different countries. A solution to every instance in which I ask ‘how would this character respond to that?’ Plug and play characters!

Enter the personality test.

There’s a free resource online at www.16personalities.com which has pretty comprehensive profiles. The test and a summary is free, and you can buy the full profile for $16.99, which is pretty cheap in my opinion, and a business expense anyway – and one I can’t possibly incur more than 16 times.

So I’ve started doing personality tests for my characters.

I know, hard-core right? I know what you’re thinking, and I’ve heard it before. Anal. Perfectionist. Pedantic. I consider them compliments. Writers tap their right brain for their creativity, but I use my left brain equally, so I’m also extremely rational and logical. I am not a seat of the pants type person. I'm a planner. A strategist. In fact, I used the website to personality profile myself, and it pretty much said that. INTJ personalities have a plan for everything, including a plan for if the plan fails.

So shoot me.  Maybe I’m uptight. I can’t help that. I can’t change me but I can change my writing process to suit me.

I like this goddess of death.
What I know of the character in the initial stages of starting a new story is enough to enable me to answer the personality test questions, and then, hey presto I have a personality profile. I’ve been building character profiles off the back of the personality profile, making up historical details to fit the story and the personality as I go. And now, when I’m writing, and I'm not sure how my character would react in a given situation, I can look at the profile. Instant consistency. Just add personality profile!

It has also spawned some interesting ideas. The profile for my latest protagonist said he can fall back on vices like drugs and alcohol under pressure. Well, the guy is grieving for his murdered wife, and he's been sent by his king to some backwater to get over it basically, but if we add in some heavy drinking, and some unreliability, and now we've got a convincing reason why an otherwise stellar commander has been shipped out to command an outpost no one wants.

It’s early days, and I wouldn’t recommend this technique for all writers, especially those who are extremely right-brained or definite pantsers, but so far it seems to be working really well for me. Already I can feel the characters are more fully-fleshed people, which makes it much easier for me to write them instead of me.

Suddenly I have that feeling I’m sure is familiar and natural to nearly all writers – of having another person riding around in my head.

Current WIP: In the Company of the Dead – a full-length adult high fantasy novel. Lyram thought life couldn’t get any worse than a prince wanting him dead, until he fell in love with a woman dedicated to the goddess of death.  

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banistersmind said...

This is a great idea Ciara and something that I have wanted to do myself for a while. As it atands presently, I use the character sheets within Scrivener and build personality profiles into those sheets but it's often messy and I get myself into strife with too many personality traits. Being able to structurally assess their personality by the method you've presented - it's like cerebral crack!!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Cerebral crack! YES!! That's totally what it was. Intellectual bliss. Happy pills for the organised mind :-)

Daniel Ionson said...

Heard of the Enneagram? I've played with personality structures for years. The Myers-Briggs was at the top of my list until I discovered the Enneagram: http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/intro.asp#.UnBVORBGZ7s which I find to be the most exacting. EG: Most writers are 4s or 5s, like yours truly.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Argh, I had to force myself to finish the test. I don't like the forced choices. Sometimes the answer was both, equally, and I had to flip a coin to choose, and sometimes I felt the answer was neither, and the sense of giving imperfect and inaccurate answers made me uncomfortable and disinclined to persist. I'm most likely a type 1 personality though.

Daniel Ionson said...

Ah, I should have warned you... Strangely, there is no good test for the Enneagram. You are best served by reading the 9 types, then deciding which one is you (it's usually obvious).

Ciara Ballintyne said...

How bizarre!

Daniel Ionson said...

Yes- it is counter-intuitive. In any case, I always chart out characters and use one of the 18 Ennea types as a skeleton of my characters.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Rini. Giving each character a personality test before writing seems like a good idea as part of the character sketch many writers advise. I haven't been disciplined enough to do that, so I tend to immerse myself in each character as I'm writing from his point of view. Going by instinct instead of planning leads me in interesting (but not always good) directions. I do a lot of revising after a first draft is finished.

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