Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

Typing your Character

By Garry E. Ward
Copyright 2007 by Garry E. Ward, All Rights Reserved


There are many guidelines for creating characters. They ask about the character's height, hair color, eye color, hobbies, work, politics, and religion. Obviously they ask about the character's role in the story. All of these questions have simple and specific answers.

Jack is six foot two, has dark hair, brown eyes, does woodworking in his free time, is a police detective, is conservative in his politics, belongs to a mainstream religion, and has a goal: try to jail as many street gang members as he can.

Jane is five foot two, blonde, has blue eyed, likes to travel in her free time, is a professional social worker, is politically liberal, formerly belonged to mainstream religion but is now uncertain, and has a goal: try to reform as many street gang members as she can without jailing them.

We have a lot of information, but not much about their actual personalities. At least not much beyond the traditional, cardboard tough cop vs. softhearted social worker.

Most character questionnaires will have an entry for personality, but unlike the clear cut responses to the other questions, this one isn't so easy to fill out. Friendly? Morose? Curmudgeonly? How do you describe their personalities so that you'll know how they act, react and interact?

The answer I found to that question wasn't in a book on writing, but in a self help book called Type Talk. This book is about improving your life by understanding the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator for personalities, but I have found it useful for designing character personalities.

The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator uses four BI-valued attributes to describe 16 general personality types.

The attributes are:

  • Extravert / Introvert. Represented as E or I

  • Sensing / Intuitive. Represented as S or N

  • Thinking / Feeling. Represented as T or F

  • Judging / Perceiving. Represented as J or P

Each of these attributes gives a clue as to how a person, or in our case, a character will behave and react.

Extravert / Introvert

We're all familiar with the people who are comfortable in crowds, thrive on attention, and charge full tilt into public view. We're also all familiar with the people who gravitate to the edges and corners of crowds, shrivel under attention and avoid the public view like a vampire avoids sunlight.

This attribute reflects how the character will interact with the world around him or her. This attribute also isn't a one or the other; just as real people aren't. Some Introverts move towards Extravert behavior as the size of the group shrinks. Some Extraverts begin to be more introverted as the size of the group goes up.

What else can the Extravert / Introvert attribute tell us about a character? For one it will affect what the character likes to do when not working at their primary job. Extraverts will have hobbies that involve others. Introverts will have hobbies that they can do by themselves. In the two characters I mentioned earlier, Jack is into woodworking, Jane is into travel. Even if Jane travels by herself, she will still be going to new places and meeting new people. She may travel with a tour group of strangers. Jane obviously is an Extravert. Woodworking, unless we're talking about barn raising, is generally something done by one person in the privacy of their workshop. No crowds, no distractions. Jack is an Introvert.

What else can we glean from this for our writing?

Jack, as an introvert, hates distractions and interruptions. They derail his thought processes and make him lose focus. He retreats to his workshop to think. He may carry a small knife with him so that he can 'think and whittle' every once in a while. His whittling knife may prove useful in the story later, since it is common knowledge that a cop will carry a main and backup gun, but not many will also carry a knife. He hates being in court and testifying because it focuses attention on him.

Jane, as an extrovert, can focus on things easily and isn't distracted by background noise and interruptions. She does some of her best thinking in the coffee shop or even a bar. She loves being on the street and interacting with the people there. She hates being stifled alone in her office with just piles of paperwork. She comes alive in court on the witness stand.  

Sensor / Intuitive

This attribute describes how characters gather information.

Sensors deal in the precise and clear cut. Sensors observe that it is 2:57, not just before three. They deduct not infer: a person has been in a bar, a person has been drinking beer, therefore, that person will have a measurable blood alcohol level. Sgt. Joe Friday's "Just the facts, ma'am." is an example of a Sensor's attitude. Sensors deal with one thing at a time.

Intuitives won't be as concerned about precision; gaps can be filled it. Asked the time, they'll tend to give it relatively, like "mid afternoon" or "close to supper time". They infer rather than deduct: a person has been in a bar, a person has been drinking beer, so a person might catch hell from their spouse upon arriving home. It isn't so much the exact words that people say but what meaning can be found in the words, the intent of the words. Intuitives see possibilities more than realities.

For our two characters, Jack is a Sensor. He, like Sgt. Friday, deals with the facts. He sees blood on the ground, the broken window and knows that a burglar cut himself breaking in. The person standing over a body with a bloody tire iron in hand is obviously the killer.

Jane is an Intuitive. She will also see blood on the ground and a broken window, but can see someone tripping and falling into the window. She can see someone being pushed into the window. Sure, maybe a burglar cut himself breaking in, but there are lots of other ways for the window to have gotten broken and blood having gotten on the ground.

Thinking / Feeling

The Thinking / Feeling attribute guides you determining how your character makes decisions.  The Thinkers are the ones who keep their heads when everyone else is losing it. They're more interested in truth and fairness than in making everyone happy. They'll even focus on clarifying a point before moving on to the next issue. Feelers can't see a decision as fair and truthful if it hurts anyone's feelings, they consider some points as beyond clarification, will always be concerned about how a decision will affect others, and are more concerned about getting people to work together than determining which person is right and which is wrong.

Jack is a Thinker; his decisions are clear and precise. He gathers the information and makes a decision based on it. The chips will fall where they fall. Break the law, pay the price. Obeying the law isn't optional.

Jane is a Feeler; her decisions are based on the consequences she perceives of those decisions. A kid that made a poor choice doesn't deserve jail but needs help. If she decides to turn someone in, then no one on the street will trust her in the future which will compromise her ability to do her job, so she doesn't. She may keep trying to get the criminal to turn himself in, but she won't turn him in.

How does this affect them in our story? Obviously, Jack would expect her to turn in someone she knows has committed a crime and when she doesn't, they're going to be at odds.

Judging / Perceiving

The Judging / Perceiving attribute guides us in determining how our characters will orient themselves in their lives.

Judgers are structured; the everything has a place and it damn well better be in that place, make lists, pay attention to the list and perhaps even make a list of lists to organize their lists. They proceed through life in a direct, orderly fashion. Distraction and delay are more than just frustrations, they're down right painful to them.

Perceivers are spontaneous and adaptive. Even if they start out with a plan, that plan is likely to sketchy and ambiguous. The unknown fascinates them; doing something the same way a second time borders on unbearable boredom. When reality throws a wrench into the works, they're the first ones to recover from the surprise. If one goal is unreachable, they'll move on to another goal.

Jack is a Judger. Like his woodworking, he follows the plans, he gets the result he wants. Same for his police work; he follows the procedure and he'll get the criminal off the street and into jail, which should make society safe.

Jane is a Perceiver. Some people just get crushed in the machinery of society; sometimes you have to save the person even if it means the gears of social order end up slipping once in a while.

Again, for our story, because Jack and Jane have different Judging / Perceiving attributes, they'll come to exactly the same plot point, but each will react to it differently and that difference will drive their interaction on to the next plot point.

An interesting aspect of this is neither Jack nor Jane end up being 'evil' in the classic bad guy sense, yet one of them will be the protagonist and the other will be the antagonist. The same story can be written in two ways, one with Jack as the protagonist and Jane the antagonist then again with the roles reversed.  

Not sure why a character is doing what they're doing? Not sure how a character should response to some situation? Consider these four attributes for the character and you'll understand them better.

Reference:

Type Talk (Dell, ISBN 0-440-50704-9, Kroeger and Thusen, paperback).