On personality and character creation

July 19, 2010 Writing Comments (0) 132

Personality Type cartoon from Toothpaste for Dinner

Comic lifted from "Toothpaste for Dinner." Go read.

Often when I’m on a journey of emotional self-discovery (as I am now, thanks for asking) I will revisit the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a means of re-centering myself and making peace with my own tendencies.  I first took a Myers-Briggs test in high school, and since then have consistently and strongly tested to the same result.  This post is not about my personality, though, it’s about the personalities of your characters, and whether personality type-sorters can be useful tools in character development.

This weekend was my first encounter with the Enneagram of Personality model, which sorts personalities into nine major archetypes, numbered one through nine.  I have to say, when I took the test and read about my own type I was astonished at the accuracy.

Now, I’m sure not everyone is going to match their type so precisely, and there is always the horoscope phenomenon, where the wording of a type profile is vague enough to allow anyone to see themselves reflected, but having read the other eight types I can honestly say that I fit one very precisely, and the others not nearly as well.  Being that both enneatypes and Myers-Briggs personality profiles are based not on something as random as your birth month but on your actual behaviors and thought processes, I do put a fair amount of stock into the results.

So how do we use this in our writing?  Naturally my first thought is that we can use these personality profiles to help create consistent, realistic characters, but I wonder how we can go deeper.  In examining myself, for instance, I started thinking that some characters might be very self-aware – perhaps they’ve even taken these tests and examined their own personalities – while others may be very blind to their own tendencies.  Some may fall victim unconsciously to their fears and insecurities, while others may be on the lookout for their triggers.  What if a character has taken such a test and, as many people are prone to do, hides behind his personality traits and takes the attitude that he or she is incapable of some behavior because “it’s just not who they are?”

I find that the enneagram model is easier to try and use this way because (a) it breaks personalities down into nine distinctive groups that are easier to remember; and (b) it more clearly delineates the fears, hopes, dreams, and defense mechanisms of each personality.  Myers-Briggs seems to be more concerned with behaviors and tendencies, whereas enneagrams are more oriented toward inner thought processes and motivations.

As I read through the nine different enneagrams, one thing that struck me is how I have unintentionally placed many of my characters into groups without realizing it.  I expect this is something many good writers do – we observe real people and form links in our minds between certain behaviors and emotional tendencies.  Workaholics, for instance, are frequently impatient people who get frustrated with unstructured time.  Artists are sensitive to others and open with their emotions.  Many writers have used the tool of completing questionnaires for their characters, to help them feel that they know that fictional person inside and out.  I’ve never been a fan of that approach, preferring to intuit a character’s reaction to something based on the personality in my mind.

If you’re looking for an introduction to enneagrams, I’d recommend 9types.com.  As a beginner myself, I found their resources on each personality type to be straight-forward and easy to read.  They also offer a brief sorting test – try taking it as one of your characters, and answering as they would.  See what result you come up with, and see if the answer surprises you.

So what do you think?  First of all, do you put stock in these sorts of personality sorters as they apply to real people?  Do you think they are useful for writers in developing fictional characters – and how do you think they are best applied?

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