Taking the Test: Why Psychology Matters in Character Creation

I’m going to get personal again, but this time it’s in the service of sharing some writing secrets that I have learned over the last few years. It was 2008, and I was struggling emotionally while trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. Writer’s block (fostered by this emotional turmoil) had me in its unmerciful grip, and a writing career of any sort seemed a dubious prospect at best. What had seemed like a dream technical writing job had devolved into a never-ending grind of a nightmare, faced with an impossible task, most likely set up to fail. Something had to change, and it seemed to be my dreams. I hadn’t written serious fiction in a year or two, and I figured that part of my life was done; now I was no longer interested in technical writing, either. So what did interest me? How could I branch out?

The answer seemed obvious: become a therapist. Psychology had always fascinated me and I was told that I was something of a natural at it by some professionals. It had to be the next logical step, right? I’d finish putting the girlfriend through stylist school, then she’d give me a hand up to that career.

Obviously, it never happened, for several reasons that aren’t relevant to this entry. Instead, I changed companies, and started writing fiction again. But that love for psychology? That never abated. It’s just taken me a few years to realize why I love it so much: because I’m fascinated with people. And really, isn’t that what creating characters is all about?

That gets to the meat of what I want to talk about today. Creating characters is not easy. It’s probably one of the toughest things we do, at least, if we want to create something compelling. Sure, it’s easy to create “generic genre character #5”, slap them with a significant name, and send them out the door to face their fate, but getting into their guts – really getting to know them as people – is far trickier, and of course you need to do this if you want your characters to have any agency whatsoever in their story.

“That’s all well and good, Jonathan, but this is all fuzzy, feel-good stuff. What exactly do you mean?” For today, I mean personality profiles. Whether you believe in what the personality profile tests measure or not, they can be incredibly useful for determining just what is going on in your character’s head. Hell, just the act of filling them out can give you more information and ideas for stories. Writing World has a great article giving examples of certain characters and how you can use the Meyers-Briggs test to evaluate your characters. Sherlock Holmes, for example:

Sherlock Holmes (ISTP). Content to live a solitary life or to socialize with a single roomate, Holmes is galvanized into action by problems that challenge his mind (I). Acutely aware of minor details in his environment, the detective repeatedly cautions that one must not theorize before having facts, and he solves puzzles by refining tried-and-true methods (S). His primary motivation, besides entertaining his brain with intricate puzzles, is to achieve justice (T). His rooms are a disorganized disaster area, and he fills his days with a variety of interests — scientific experiments, playing the violin, taking drugs — for as long as they are interesting (P).

All very interesting, but I thought I’d walk you through an example test at Keirsey.com. I decided to take mine with the protagonist of The Corridors of the Dead, Matty DiCamillo. This is, of course, Matty as she appears at the beginning of the novel. Interestingly, some of this will have changed at the opening of City of the Dead.

First, the instructions.

The questions seem fairly straightforward, but they can be tricky, especially when keeping in mind how the character might react in a situation that’s not strictly related to where they are at the beginning of the novel. For example, we first see Matty in a work situation, and we’re explicitly not to answer in that context unless instructed to do so.

So you fill out the questions as laid out, supply some information, and click Score It.

You’re offered a spectrum of possible reports. The simple report will show you a simple character sorter – in this case, Rational – with a breakdown of what that means, exactly:

It’s handy, but since I’m actually building a character, I think it’s worth it to pay the $4.95 for the whole thing (keep in mind this is not some advertisement, I just want to show you the full report and how you can use it). So the test says that Matty is a rational architect, and that’s pretty dead-on. She’s an artist, yes, but rationality is very important to her. The section that I’ve drawn a box around is especially useful for understanding the foundation of her character, and perhaps you can see some potential in how this would help you to understand your character:

Interestingly, this blurb on her communications skills shows the gulf between who she is at the beginning of the book and who she is by the end – the Matty at the outset of the novel would never sit down and tell her story, but by the end, the story has to be told. There’s a tightrope to be walked here, as she is narrating as that changed person, not the closed-up person at the beginning. In this, you sometimes have to let your character’s actions speak a lot louder than their words as narrator.

Of course, a character’s relationships and their attitude toward love can be a huge motivating factor. Here’s an example of what the test can offer (and dead accurate about the early Matty, who often shuns Kristy’s shows of affection).

At last, we get to what I consider the meat of the report, the character’s learning style. Viewed through the correct lens, every story is about the protagonist learning, as the changes in the story should teach the character lessons about either the world, other people, or him/herself, etc. Their style of learning can and should affect how they learn those lessons and incorporate them into their psyche. I think this portion will show you exactly the sort of thumbnail view you need. Matty, for example, when confronted with strange new situations, adapts to them quickly, but is all about the questions, finding herself more and more frustrated as her questions are ducked. Another character might accept these things in an unflinching fashion, based on their personality.

I’m showing  you this first as a writing tool, and second as a way to ensure that your character has internal psychological consistency. Much as a fantasy world must be consistent to maintain suspension of disbelief, so too must a character. This is a very handy tool to maintain that suspension.

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10 Comments

  1. Hi Jonathon,
    Great post! I have a lot of psychology in my background (almost became a counselor) and I think it helps me tremendously with my characters–what you suggested here is really interesting–I hadn’t thought of taking the test as one of my characters! I have a bunch of stuff in a box somewhere (myers-briggs and so on) Thanks!

    • Hi Nikki,
      That’s awesome! I’ve found it particularly handy to refer to when I’m in a scene and having trouble figuring out what a character might do next or what might come out of his or her mouth. It grounds me in the character once again. Hope it helps you!

  2. Hi Jonathan!

    Found this off a tweet from @VaChicklet. I use Enneagrams in the same way. The Enneagram Institute has tests that you can take also, and Laurie Schnebly teaches workshops on using enneagrams, Myers-Briggs, and other psychological tests to understand your characters (and therefore motivate them properly!) I really like the above test, though. It’s so thorough. Gotta try it out with my next character.

  3. Excellent post. Definitely a tool I’ll check out.

  4. I loved the post, and you are providing some great tools when I really need them. Something we both have in common is a love of psychology. I graduated with a BA in Psychology, but afterwards ran into finance for about nine years and then on to writing. I knew I liked you for a reason or a hundred 😀

    • Uh oh, a psychology major in our midst! You can probably school us quite a bit on character motivation. Pretty impressive to take a psychology BA into finance, though – haven’t heard of too many people making that jump. But thanks, you’re pretty swell yourself 😉

  5. Interesting, I never thought about doing a personality test for my characters!

    I studied law but almost went back and studied psychology just because it interested me. I changed my mind when I realised it would cost me thousands of dollars, I had no intention of changing my career, and I already didn’t have enough time to do everything I wanted to.

    I seem to instinctively understand some psychology though without meaning too. When I was at university, I was mistaken for a psych major by a psych major because of some things I said LOL. Sadly, I recently found out that my depiction of an adult woman sexually abused as a child was spot-on.

  6. I couldn’t agree more… My interest in psychology is one factor that led me to my genre (suspense). Understanding characters’ psyche is crucial and a blast. 😉 Glad I came upon your blog.

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