Creating Characters with Personality

My characters didn’t always have personality.

In blind date jokes, the matchmaker skirts around the topic of a candidate’s looks and plays up their wonderful personality.  It was the reverse situation for my characters.  According to an editor, they had the looks, even the quirks, but no personality.  I was mortified to discover I had cardboard characters. I didn’t understand how it could be possible when I had developed a character notebook filled with descriptions, pictures, and imaginary back story.

I might have stayed in denial if my editor hadn’t challenged me to study personality typologies.

I quickly discovered by using type theories that someone else had already done all the work. I didn’t have to dream up any more character bios or answer a hundred silly questions about what my characters would do in various situations. I dreaded those kinds of exercises.  But I loved research. In a sense, this was researching my characters. All I had to do was find a key piece, and all the other pieces fell into place. I didn’t have to force myself to do something I didn’t enjoy. I found the process fascinating.

Now all my major characters have designated personalities which drive their actions and dialogue, and create tension and plot. I use a popular personality typology called the Enneagram. If you’re interested, personality TYPE helps are as easy as Googling personality typology.

First I look at my story premise to see what will be expected of my heroine. Then I examine the Enneagram chart’s short summaries to see which type will allow her to perform what’s required for the story. After reading more about her type, it’s easy to match her personality or purposely clash her personality with other characters by setting all their personality types. Some typologies even recommend matches, especially in the love and occupation departments. Back story practically writes itself because there’s also a section devoted to childhood.

Once you set a character’s personality TYPE, the story unfolds in a more believable way. That doesn’t make it predictable. It deepens it.

During writing when things aren’t clicking like they should, we often tear into our plots. But uncooperative characters may actually be the culprits. Before they can enhance the story, they must be equipped with personalities that will move the plot forward.

A roller coaster slowly climbs to its peak. In the same way, a story builds toward its climax. Imagine what would happen if the occupants of the roller coaster jumped out, swung from the scaffolding or pushed the coaster off its track.  It might be perversely entertaining at first, but the ride would be ruined. Readers expect characters to stay on track, so the story’s climax is thrilling and fulfilling.

I use the Enneagram at the beginning, when the story gets in trouble, and before I start edits.

While personality typology works for me, it’s not the only way to get the job done. What method do you use?  Just for fun, do you know your personality type?

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21 thoughts on “Creating Characters with Personality

    • It’s an area I’ve struggled with, but using using personality types has boosted my confidence in characterization. Thanks for sharing.

  1. I started doing something similar in college – I kept a couple of my psychology textbooks and refer to them when I’m developing my characters. I also stock up on old college textbooks from $1 used bookstores (a weird hobby of mine) and I’ve found a few dealing specifically with personality types. They are interesting not only for writing purposes but just for understanding people in general!

    I’ll definitely check out the Enneagram. Thanks for the tip!

    • Those old textbooks come in handy! I have some of my kids’ grammar books. Thanks for tip.

  2. Thanks for this article. Characters and plots really are intertwined. To this day, one of the most amazing aspects of being a writer is the way that stories really do ‘unfold’ in ways. It seems we can make some events happen quite predictably but other times we write along and find that the true nature of given characters or events surprises even us.

    I did check the Ennegram mini freebie. The main message was that I have a mostly evenly balanced disposition. Of all 9, only 2 personality type categories had more than a difference of ‘1 point’ from all of the others.

    • Thanks for sharing. If you’re interested, when you get into it a little deeper, there are other factors like wings and stress points. But for characterization it’s not necessary to get in too deep. I just enjoy doing it. I also remember that one type has the most difficulty typing themselves. LOL. I think it was 5 the observer. I tried to check it out for you, but couldn’t pull it up quickly. Thanks for your interest. Perhaps you are just a very well rounded and mature individual. Great job on that.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. Sometimes it’s hard to choose topics that will benefit everyone the most.

  3. This is a great tip! Thanks! At a writers conference last fall, a writer gave us character worksheets to fill out.

    Those worksheets have really come in handy for me. So now I use them regularly!

  4. I used this book:
    http://www.amazon.com/Believable-Characters-Enneagrams-Laurie-Schnebly/dp/0930831039
    this time for plotting and it was great. One character is my opposite in personality and so I’m glad to have it as an anchor on what she would do because it is not what I would do! And I learned that I was a bit off on my hero’s personality and the book helped me figure that out and gave me good ideas on conflicts between characters. I’ll use this book every time from now on!

    • Thanks for the book recommendation. Yes, typing helps us think from the character’s perspective rather than our own. Kindred hearts, here.

  5. Great post, Dianne! I have always used Myers-Briggs for my characters just because I’ve worked in an organization that studied and leveraged it for years so I feel like I know it well, but I’ve heard lots of great things about the Enneagram method, too. I’m definitely going to check it out as I outline my next book. I am supposedly a ‘INTJ’ (Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgement), though I do fluctuate to INFJ depending on situation, which tends to serve me well in this profession. (:

    • Thanks for sharing your type, Rebecca. Very interesting. Regarding the Myers-Briggs, since you know that one, that’s got to be a big advantage. But maybe the Enneagram can give you some new inspiration. Thanks for sharing.

    • I just checked your blog and will follow your interesting challenge. Can’t wait.

  6. As a Certified Personality Trainer, I’ve studied the subject for two decades, and can assure you, your article is on target. Human personality puts the pizzazz in every story. Without our quirky reactions, most plots would fizzle. Great post!

  7. Very interesting. I do a lot of personality research just for fun and to try to understand both myself and others better. Always loved the Enneagram, but never considered using any of my research for my characters. Kind of a “duh!” thing now that I think about it. Thanks for the tip.

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