Write It Sideways

Personality Theory and Your Writing

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

When I was a young parent, I belonged to a support group for mothers of multiples. Each month, we held meetings that often included speakers on various topics relating to parenting twins or higher-order multiples. I learned a lot from these sessions, and one in particular has always stuck with me.

A clinical psychologist and mother came to speak to us about the role of personality in parenting. She emphasized that it takes two to tango in any relationship, meaning a parent’s personality traits and a child’s personality traits together form the parent-child relationship. If you are a type-A, hyper-organized parent and you have a type-B super laid-back child, it stands to reason that in certain situations you’ll butt heads.

One particular example stands out in my memory—the difference between being an introvert or an extrovert as a parent. In this example, she defined “introvert” as someone who renews her energy by being quiet and alone, and an extrovert as someone who renews her energy by surrounding herself with people.

For a mother of multiples, especially young cute babies still in a stroller, it’s virtually impossible to go out in public without attracting attention. According to our speaker, on a bad day, an extroverted mother of multiples would probably enjoy dressing her babies up in their cutest outfits, going for a walk in a public place, and soaking up all the positive energy from the ensuing attention. On a similar bad day, an introverted mother would put off any errands for a better day and regroup by spending time at home alone with her babies.

She went through several other personality traits in both parents and children, and discussed how they may affect the way we parent at different points in children’s lives. Most of it was pretty basic, but the evening was a kind of an ah-ha moment for me. I remember that the psychologist kept emphasizing that personality traits are neither good nor bad, they just are.

So what does this have to do with writing?

I was thinking the other day about how often writers refer to their characters as their babies. After all, we are responsible for bringing them to life. So it stands to reason that the same principals of personality theory come into play in our writing. It can be very helpful to take both your own personality traits and your character’s personality traits into consideration as you work through the tricky process of parenting your characters into becoming fully-expressed, believable people (or zombies or aliens, as the case may be).

Using our introvert/extrovert example from above, an introverted writer may find it exhausting to write about an extroverted character. If that’s you, perhaps before writing a big scene for your extroverted character, you need to spend time alone to recharge your own batteries in preparation for the task ahead.

It’s a cliché, however, that all writers are introverts and that the writing life is a lonely one. It need not be. If you are an extrovert—someone who is renewed by spending time in small or large groups of people—then consider joining a writing group or workshop. Plan to go to conferences and meet people who love writing as much as you do. Build your network, so that when your writing soul longs to be fed, you will have people to call on who know how to nourish you.

A writing network is equally important for writers who consider themselves to be introverted—people who renew their energy by spending time alone. If this is you, you’ll need a few kindred spirits who understand your needs, respect your boundaries, and can be there for you one-on-one when you do need them. It’s vital to have at least one person you trust to critique your work.

The study of the psychology of personality is a huge field that can offer many insights into how our own minds work, as well as how to craft believable characters. You don’t have to become a PhD in psychology to understand personality types and how they relate to your character. Once again, it’s the Internet to the rescue. A quick search and you can find all kinds of online personality assessments, like the 16 personality types identified by the Myers-Briggs Test. There are, in fact, entire websites devoted to online tests, including those that purport to test for IQ, personality, relationship matches, career options, lifestyle, and health. As much fun as it is to take the tests for yourself, you might be able to convince yourself that you are actually being productive if you take them as one of your characters. Businesses use these tests all the time, in part to discover what motivates their employees. Why shouldn’t you use them to discover what motivates your characters?

Unlike the speaker at my parenting meetings, who felt that character traits were neither good nor bad, some experts break them down into positive, negative, and neutral categories. This checklist of 638 personality traits can be very useful when you first begin to develop a chart or profile for a new character. For a great writing prompt, choose one trait from each category (positive, negative, and neutral) and see what kind of character you can draw from just those three traits.

Human beings are complicated. To craft engaging characters, you need to make them complicated, too. If I asked you to describe your main character, you could probably do a pretty thorough job of detailing his or her personality traits. But can you do the same for the supporting characters in your story? Does your villain have positive and neutral characteristics as well as negative ones, or is she simply one dimensional? The more richly you draw each of your characters, adding details with subtle shades as well as bold primary colors, the more compelling they will be to your readers.

A brief word of caution: my mother once said that there is no more obnoxious know-it-all than a freshman college student who is halfway through Psych 101 and home for Thanksgiving break (I’m sure she was not referring to me). It’s a good thought to keep in mind, however, while exploring Internet resources on personality types and how they impact you as writer. As an amateur shrink, you might want to save the psychoanalysis for your characters, rather than attempting to practice on your significant other. Just sayin’.