17 August 2012

Character Trait Tools

I talked here and here about positive and negative character traits, and why our characters need both to be well-rounded and believable, as opposed to a protagonist who is perfect, or an antagonist who is totally evil.

Many of the personality tools break characteristics down into four main character types. These are given a variety of names depending on the book or tools you are looking at, but the four basic character types can be described as:

  • Analytical
  • Agreeable
  • Communicator
  • Determined

A character can have some, or all of those traits depending on the situation and who they are with, but usually they will be strongest in one, with some backup traits from another, while characteristics from the other two groups are much less apparent.

The interesting thing is that any trait taken to extreme can become negative.

The analytical character will be precise and methodical. They like systems and procedures, and are slow to make decisions, but their decisions will usually be sound. However, taken to extreme this could mean they are overly cautious and need a huge amount of information before making a decision. Can you see how this trait could irritate other characters and affect your plot?

The agreeable character is very people focused. They are dependable and friendly, but they may not like confrontation, or may not want to tell the protagonist the truth if it's going to hurt them.

The communicator has great ideas, but not necessarily the staying power to see them through to completion. They are outgoing and social with high energy levels. A quiet character could find this emotionally draining if we put them together in a conflict situation. 

The final of the four character types is the determined or strong-minded character. They are results oriented, intense and focused. These are good qualities in a leader, but if taken to an extreme could mean they are aggressive, or very rigid in their thinking - they are always right. Lots of potential there for conflict, which is what we want in our writing.

When I started my current work in progress I knew the basic personalities of the three main characters, but I wanted to round them out so they weren't just generic cardboard cut-outs.

The character types I've just mentioned are a good place to start, but there are other sources of inspiration.

One of the best known personality assessment tools is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). This uses 4 preference types giving 16 possible type combinations. There are plenty of books and information on the internet on the combinations, and what the main preference types mean.

Natal or birth charts are another way of looking at the positive and negative sides of personality traits for our characters. If using this I've started with the basic birth sign I thought fitted their character, and then given them a birth date and time to see their personality makeup. 

The Enneagram Personality System works with nine personality types. Your protagonist or antagonist will be one of those types, and there is information on how these traits can be positive and negative.

I've found all these tools amazingly helpful in rounding out my characters, and I've also thought of other possible conflicts while looking at how a positive trait can be a negative, or at least perceived as negative.

I tend to be more of a planner, and prefer using these tools while I'm getting to know my characters, but they can be used at any time.

I'd love to hear from you, and find out if any of these helped with your planning or writing.

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