Separating Yourself From Your Characters

 

by Doug Lewars

 

I expect most people, whether they agree with it or not, are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality classification system which divides the population into 16 groups. Many psychologists complain this is over simplified, but although the system appears to consist of four binary couples, each pair is, in fact, a spectrum and the four letter classification merely a place to start. Be that as it may, the idea can be a pretty good place to start when developing characters. It also raises a yellow caution flag for writers.

One thing I find difficult is separating myself from my characters. So, for example, using Myers-Briggs, I am INTJ. An ESFP character would react differently in just about every situation. Consider a scene in which the main character, a marketing manager, is meeting with his team prior to a product launch. The first question I would ask in such a meeting would involve clarifying the timeline so I could plan an effective campaign, verifying my resources and evaluating demographic possibilities, but if this guy is ESFP, his chief concern would be how the customer might relate at an emotional level to the new product, how they might create a marketing campaign fully inclusive of women, indigenous people and minorities, and how the campaign might grab the buyers at a visceral level. However, before even getting to the question stage, this main character would likely lead off the meeting by displaying considerable excitement at the opportunity. He would be effusive in his praise for the product, how it would contribute to the company brand and how it would enhance the lives of customers. This might inspire his team; however, someone such as myself would find him lacking in substance.

In addition, should someone raise concerns with respect to the effectiveness of an idea, I would probe to find out the specifics of the concern and try to work out means to mitigate them. My ESFP character would become instantly defensive. He would likely accuse the person raising the objection of not being a team player and being a naysayer. In all probability he would override the concern and press on. Simply put, he would be someone I would find highly unpleasant and not presenting him as a villain would be challenging for me.

A single scene might be managed without too much difficulty, but over the course of a novel I’d have difficulty remaining consistent. If this is my hero, I need to present him in a positive light, but what’s positive for me, for him, and possibly for my readers may be three different things. Even worse, if he’s going to be the hero, then the plot must resolve to something consistent with his values. Sure there will be obstacles but he’ll have to overcome them his way – not mine. He wouldn’t think his way through problems; he’d most likely steamroll over them and somehow be successful.

While it might be time consuming, I think if you’re writing a character who is totally unlike yourself, you need to enumerate his or her characteristics in a spreadsheet or even just a text file and review them scene by scene to ensure consistency. There are some situations in which anyone might step out of character; however, for the most part people respond to scenarios in something of a Pavlovian manner. This is particularly true if the individual is experiencing stress or is being thrust into an unfamiliar environment.

For example if I were to enter a social event in which I didn’t know anyone, I would initially step back, examine the groups, possibly identify one or two people with whom I might engage, and then proceed. My extroverted character would more likely grab a drink and start a conversation with the nearest person or even inject himself into a small group. He wouldn’t worry for one second about appearing ‘pushy’. He’d assume a social situation called for socializing on a grand scale and further assume his gregariousness was entirely appropriate. As a result, we as authors need to be prepared to cringe at our characters’ behavior. It may be unpleasant, but if we choose to develop someone whose profile is drastically unlike our own, it’s important to do justice to the character and remain consistent. Otherwise, we’re just going to wind up writing ourselves over and over and over.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published thirteen books on Smashwords.com.

 

13 thoughts on “Separating Yourself From Your Characters

  1. I can’t fault any of your logic. I did find this amusing: “This might inspire his team; however, someone such as myself would find him lacking in substance.”
    Yeah, me too.
    I suspect the easiest path, however, is to find someone you despise or admire, who is different from you and model your characters after them. Is this what Uncle Ernie would say? Is this how my boss would act?

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  2. Very good points. It may be worthwhile to create a spreadsheet of high level situations, such as crisis, social, romance, conflict, etc and a cross hatching of the types of engagement that could be expected from the 16 personality types (aggression, invigoration, fear, anxiety, analysis, e.g. ) Though there could be overlapping behaviors in many cases. Hmm. Perhaps I will, though possibly a huge undertaking. I am fascinated by the personality types. But then, I am an INFJ….

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  3. Great points. I find this a challenge too, not to always inject my own ways of seeing and doing things into my characters. I usually figure out a character’s birthday and thus astrological sign to pinpoint them with certain common characteristic behavior. Great idea to look at the Myers Briggs for a quick way to see how certain types react and behave. Thanks.

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  4. Very good advice although it can be very challenging at times to apply. You bring up a lot of good points especially about being consistent in their characterization even if it’s the polar opposite to how you personally would respond in a given situation. I think that’s why many writers like myself end up writing characters that are similar to ourselves whether we realize it or not because it comes more easily. Funny enough I wrote a post about that very thing happening subconsciously. Btw thanks for sharing.

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  5. I see characters as a chance to put on a costume, and do what I normally would not do. As a child, I played cops and robbers, and creating story characters is not much different.

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