Creating characters that readers can connect with is the key to writing kingdom. Stories are all the same. Unique worlds, though numerous and sometimes extremely vivid, are all just variations on a theme. Characters are the only part of writing that can be truly unique and original. Characters sell the story and the world and can stay with us long after the riveting action and intriguing backdrop have faded from memory.
So, how to write a unique and memorable character? Most of them don’t spring fully formed into a writer’s mind. It takes some effort to create a multi-dimensional made-up person! It’s definitely not as simple as giving them an interesting physical trait, tragic backstory, quirky saying or hard-to-pronounce name.
What makes characters memorable is authenticity.
The characters that we connect to are the ones that seem the most real to us. The ones who we see a part of ourselves or a part of someone we know in them. The ones who we understand and empathize with.
Authentic characters are fleshed out and well-rounded. Yet in my reading and critiquing, I see writers (myself included!) struggle with fully fleshing out characters. That’s despite the oodles of activities and worksheets–interviews, descriptions, stats–you can download to help. I have used them all at one time or another, and while they create a snapshot in my mind or a handy reference list, nothing has ever worked as well for me in getting to know my characters as the tool I’m about to share with you.
The most well-known structure for plotting a story of virtually any type is called The Hero’s Journey, popularized by Joseph Campbell in 1949. The Hero’s Journey is in large part based upon the work of a Swiss psychologist by the name of Carl Jung, who defined the character archetypes (the hero, the mentor, the trickster) that we’ve all come to recognize intuitively. Though Jung’s theories are nearly 100 years old, they have yet to be improved upon. He was also the first to define introversion and extraversion. Thanks to Jung’s work on these fronts, the Myers-Briggs personality Type Indicator (MBTI) was born.
MBTI breaks personality features into 4 categories:
An individual is one of two types in each category (each type given a unique letter):
- World – (I) Introverted, favors internal world; (E) Extraverted, favors external world.
- Information – (N) Intuitive, adds meaning; (S) Sensing, takes things literally.
- Decisions – (T) Thinking, favors logic; (F) Feeling, favors emotion.
- Structure – (P) Perceiving, prefers things dynamic; (J) Judging, prefers to stick to a plan.
These combinations result in 16 dynamic personality types. I can attest to the fact that everyone fits one of these types pretty succinctly, and most people are shocked by how accurate the typing is. You can take a free quiz to find out your unique type here, and I highly recommend that you do! It’s a very useful tool for everything from excelling in a career to making a marriage work.
But we’re going to have a little bit of fun with it and use it to flesh out fictional characters… let’s get started!
If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know that I”m a huge cheerleader for the GMC method of plotting. I love how versatile that tool is, and I find it works great in tandem with this character-building exercise. If you want to know what your character’s goal is or should be or how they would respond to a certain type of conflict, it’s all mapped out in their MBTI type. Once you get the hang of it, it’s so easy and fun to use!
Step 1: Type your character.
You probably think I’m going to tell you to go and take that 20 minute quiz as each of your characters, right? Not so! It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of MBTI with function stacks and whatnot, but there are shortcuts we can use since our characters are made up. On this page, you’ll see each of the types distilled down to, well, an archetype. You could just pick the one that best fits your character and proceed to Step 2.
If your character is a little more formed in your mind or you’re not sure which archetype fits best, answer these four questions to quick-type your character:
- Is your character more moody (I) or annoying (E)?
- Are they more detail-oriented (S) or big picture (N)?
- Are they more likely to be cold (T) or overly emotional (F)?
- Are they more high-strung (J) or a free spirit (P)?
Let’s do some examples! Look here if you want to see a type list of popular fictional characters. Obviously, these are up for interpretation. I’ve seen variances across the internet, but here is how I would quick-type two well-known characters:
Example #1: Hermione Granger
Annoying – detail-oriented – cold – high-strung
ESTJ (The Supervisor)
- Strengths: dedicated, strong-willed, direct & honest, loyal, patient, reliable, great organizer
- Weaknesses: stubborn, judgmental, difficulty relaxing, difficulty expressing emotion
- Tell me that doesn’t peg our favorite bossy Gryffindor!
- Rob Stark
- Darth Vader
- Briana Spurrier from my Skydancer series
Example #2: Harry Potter
Moody – big picture – emotional – free spirit
INFP (The Mediator)
- Strengths: Idealistic, flexible, creative, passionate, energetic, dedicated, hard-working
- Weaknesses: too idealistic, too altruistic, impractical, take things personally, hard to get to know
- Daenerys Stormborn
- Luke Skywalker
- Hedvika the Enchantress from Veil of Thorns
Note that Harry and Hermione are completely opposite types, which can be contradictory or complimentary. With those two, I think it’s complimentary. They are such great friends and would probably be good partners in a romantic relationship too. Did you also notice that I listed examples of both heroes and villains of each type? It’s so important that villains be fully-rounded people too. No one is 100 percent evil, or starts out that way. Most great villains are made of the same stuff as great heroes and are only misguided, so they will have the same strengths and weaknesses that just show in different ways.
Step 2: Read up on your character’s type and get to know them!
Now that you have a type, you can ask the internet just about anything about them. I suggest starting right on the 16 Personalities page and reviewing your character’s strengths and weaknesses, but there’s also bound to be an opinion article out there on anything you’re curious about. Some examples:
- What Each Personality Type Looks Like Under Stress
- How Each Myers-Briggs Type Reacts to Stress
- How Each Myers-Briggs Type Likes to Fall in Love
I like to use MBTI as a character model and bouncing board for ideas. It’s a great way to evaluate if your character is responding authentically to events and circumstances, i.e. “staying in character”. It’s very helpful for picking unique traits too! If you want your character to have a nervous tick, for example, an introvert is more likely to pick or chew on themselves where an extravert probably leans more towards leg shaking and pacing. Will your character splurge on that dress they see in the shop window? Probably only if they are an F or P (or FP) type.
Now you have a framework for how your character would handle anything you throw at them AUTHENTICALLY. I hope you find this tool helpful and come up with new and creative ways to use it to build your characters. In the next post of this series, I’ll go into more detail on how I used MBTI to help build the villain of my current book.
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