Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Unless you hold an advanced degree in human psychology, understanding the intricacies of characters who don’t think like you can be tricky business.
In previous articles, we’ve taken deep dives into a few powerful personality tests to enrich the character development process. Today, I’d like to offer a glimpse at a selection of other tests that can take your characters to the next level and inform their interactions and motivations.
One of the advantages of the DISC profiling system is its simplicity. It measures only four characteristics: dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance. In a story that’s more action-driven than character-based, characters still need layers and levels of interest. Assigning simple identifiers based on a DISC assessment can give you a basic framework on which to build.
The DISC assessment can also be useful for assigning personality traits to minor characters. Some authors like to have a comprehensive character profile for every character, from the protagonist to the grocery store clerk, and though that’s not a bad idea, it may not be feasible or desirable for every author. If you don’t want to know your secondary characters as well as you know your life partner but you’d still like them to be more than one-dimensional plot devices, the DISC assessment can be a quick way to predict how those secondary characters will make choices and what motivates them.
One more thing: the DISC personality concept can be used to achieve a good working balance among your characters. Ever notice how some books feel a bit off, but you can’t pinpoint why? Sometimes this is the result of a cast of monochromatic characters. They’ve been assigned different hair colors, financial brackets, and hobbies, but the way they react to the world is unbearably predictable. One of the reasons workplaces use DISC is because they want to balance their teams with different types, knowing the contributions of a diverse yet unified team will yield dynamic results. If you want dynamic characters, you not only need to work on the individual characters, but the flavor each brings to the book and the chemical consequences of mixing those flavors.
Here’s a quick peek at what the four DISC personalities look like. They derive from the combinations of two human polarities: to be outgoing or reserved and to be task-oriented or people-oriented.
The ‘D’ (Dominant) type is task-oriented and outgoing. Think of these people as the movers and shakers. They are driven and they, well… dominate any setting. They should talk more than other characters, be action-focused, friendly but sometimes overpowering, and efficient. In return, they expect others to be respectful and provide results, so you can imagine the conflicts they might have with those who don’t deliver.
The ‘I’ (Inspiring) type is people-oriented and outgoing. These people are influential, good at getting people to do what they want, but they also don’t want as much as the Dominant characters. They are interested in everyone and have a lot of interests themselves. They are less efficient, as they are often more interested in interacting with others than they are in getting stuff done. Social butterflies, usually quite likable, possibly (but not necessarily) flighty. These folks are approval-seekers, wanting admiration and recognition.
The ‘S’ (Supportive) type is people-oriented and reserved. People in this category are steady, reliable, and loyal. Their personal lives are highly stable. They may not be classic extroverts, but they value the relationships they have and are intensely committed to them. They love to help and they’re great at teamwork, wanting friendliness and appreciation from others.
Finally, the ‘C’ (Cautious) type is task-oriented and reserved. People of this persuasion tend to be more solitary. They are hard workers and value precision and accuracy. They are often highly competent and, as their type suggests, careful. This does not necessarily mean that they are fearful, but they may be distrustful, and they value integrity in others.
When working through your characters’ desires, choices, goals, and relationships – as well as the overall cast harmony in the book – consider how these different types work together or foster conflict or mistrust. Check out the intensity index (page 5) to dig for a list of adjectives that will expand your understanding of each type.
The HEXACO personality inventory is a relatively narrow platform – measuring Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, eXtraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to experience – and yet offering surprising insights into how different personality manifestations within each domain affect a person’s values and behaviors. There are subtle but important differences between a person who scores high in Honesty-Humility because they are sincere and the person with a high ‘H’ score because they value fairness.
The format of the HEXACO assessment is useful to authors because it helps them envision viewpoints vastly different to their own. An author may decide at the outset that a certain character leans toward the angry end of the agreeability spectrum, but if the author is fairly agreeable, they may have a difficult time making that character respond consistently or realistically. In the absence of a real-life model, a dependable psychological profile will be essential to the character’s believability. Even less obvious is an emotional person’s response if the author is not emotional, or vice versa.
People with conflicting personality types can be married, living together, and learning about each other for years without fully understanding why their partner behaves the way they do, so trying to write a character who’s not like you in a matter of months can easily fall flat. The HEXACO traits are the kinds of personality traits that cause conflict in real-life relationships due to lack of understanding. Of course, real-life relationships are the reason personality assessments exist, but if you can use HEXACO to better understand a friend, you can definitely use it to flesh out a character.
Take a close look at the HEXACO types here. For all personality tests you want to apply to your characters, I advise taking the test, but this is especially true for the HEXACO inventory. Why? Because some of the questions are surprising. ‘How much TV do you watch?’ What’s that got to do with humility or extraversion? Well, if you’re a person who scores low on Openness to experience, you may not be aware that your high-scoring ‘O’ character isn’t likely to watch much TV, if any. Taking the test exposes you to the kinds of mundane behavioral traits that bring characters to life.
I won’t spend a great deal of time on the NEO Personality Inventory, since the traits it measures mirror those of other tests discussed in this article (extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness). It’s worth including in our discussion, though, because one of the profiles the test measures is neuroticism – that is, ‘how sensitive a person is to stress and negative emotional triggers.’
Most other standard personality assessments (that is, assessments designed for the average person, not someone who is clinically depressed or has some other cognitive behavior disorder, however slight) look at overall emotional reactions. Each category in the results will have positive and negative implications. People who are hyper-emotional, for example, tend to be more compassionate and generous, but they will also take everything personally and get upset easily.
The NEO test, which takes its name from the original three categories (neuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience), permits another dimension: the neurotic. This category offers better insight into the characters with higher-than-average levels of anxiety, impulsiveness, hostility, and depression. You can imagine how understanding neuroticism and how it presents itself in the everyday would be useful to character creation and development. As with anger, mentioned above, in the absence of a real-life model, neuroticism can be hard to capture convincingly.
Explore a sample report here to become acquainted with a high-N personality, or (if you dare!) take the test yourself and add this powerful assessment to your toolkit. If you have a neurotic character, you may find some of the questionnaires used in cognitive behavioral therapy much to your advantage.
The Birkman Method likewise doesn’t require a deep dive. The reason I like it is because the personality types are color-coded for ease of communication and can offer a fantastic visual representation of your characters or even your entire text. I’m a big fan of color-coding manuscripts to get a quick, quantifiable look at the balance (or lack thereof) between different elements in a book – backstory, dialogue, and action, for instance.
With Birkman, your personality types are readily recognizable:
- Red represents action, energy, and practicality,
- Green represents persuading and communicating with people,
- Blue represents innovation, creativity, and working with ideas,
- Yellow represents order, repeatability, procedures, and systems.
Each of these are determined according to needs, behaviors, expectations, and stress behaviors, so the spectrum of what drives a personality type is covered. The types should be pretty easy to apply to well-developed characters, after which you can put the colors to use in a few different ways. You can quickly color-code your character profiles and add types to round out the cast if needed. You can not-so-quickly color-code your manuscript, or at least your plot outline, to get a visual of overall balance, or lack thereof. Or you can color-code your characters’ actions and dialogue to make sure most of what they do and say is congruent with who they are or, as the book progresses, who they are becoming.
Types and individuals
We’ve looked at several personality profiling tools in this article, but these aren’t magic solutions – believable characters still require hard work – and I advise you to avoid the trap of treating a well-rendered type as a substitute for a developed character. Instead, use the types to explore and learn more, see patterns, discover motives, and design a path for growth.
Which of the personality tests are you most likely to try? Have you used any before, either that I covered here or that I haven’t mentioned? I’d love to hear your insights or questions in the comments below. You can also check out How To Use Myers-Briggs Types To Help Your Characters Make Decisions and Character Alignment Can Improve Your Book With A Simple Grid for more great advice on this topic.