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?