Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’ve talked before about using personality tests to add depth and complexity to characters. While such tests may not be definitive psychological measures, they’re sincere examinations of how people think and behave, which can make them valuable tools for writers. Well, today we’re going to be looking at another new addition to your tool belt – the StrengthsFinder.
The StrengthsFinder can empower your character creation in a whole new way thanks to several unique features, all of which we’ll be covering in today’s deep dive.
How does the StrengthsFinder work?
Practically speaking, the StrengthsFinder works like most personality tests. Users answer a series of questions and receive results in exchange. In the StrengthsFinder test, the questions describe life scenarios and ask users to choose how well those scenarios describe them.
But what about those unique qualities? First, instead of pitting one personality trait (or a set of several) against others, the StrengthsFinder acknowledges that all people have some manifestation of all its thirty-six traits at some time in their life. The difference is that their top strengths will determine how they live and make choices, as well as in what sectors they will either thrive or suffer.
Though the focus is on a person’s strengths, the StrengthsFinder also allows the user to explore their weaknesses and blind spots to help them overcome things that might be holding them back, and to help them navigate both their own life circumstances and the personalities and tendencies of others in their lives.
The themes in the StrengthsFinder tackle qualities that other tests don’t touch on. The belief strength, for example, belongs to the man or woman of faith. You know them in life as unwaveringly devoted to their belief system, probably often praying for those loved ones in their lives, and quite possibly trying to convert people with different beliefs. These people tend to be emotionally strong and very loyal. They also tend to see things in black and white and can be stubborn or judgmental.
In addition to discussing top strengths and weaknesses, the test categorizes each strength into one of four primary themes – executing (taking action), influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking. Everybody does these things, but they do them in different ways. StrengthsFinder explores different expressions of these basic human functions.
Finally, the StrengthsFinder provides both results and a path forward. As they advertise it, ‘It only takes 177 questions to uncover the one true you. But it takes commitment to become the best you.’ The report you receive after taking the test includes detailed information and advice on how to best harness your strengths and conquer your weaknesses.
What does all this mean for you as an author?
The ideal use of any personality test (for an author) is to fill it out as various characters to gain insight into their core beliefs and resulting behavior. This helps create consistent, true-to-life characters, as well as offering up opportunities for unexpected but believable behavior and conflict that draws on personality rather than contrived circumstances.
The StrengthsFinder can be a particularly powerful tool if you know your characters’ prototypes – whether they’re introverted or extroverted, say – but feel like those traits have only gotten you so far. You can explore the Clifton StrengthsFinder themes and suggestions for moving forward to gain character complexity and authenticity in the following important ways. (It may be helpful to have the quick reference card open as you proceed.)
Identifying all thirty-six strengths
By recognizing the presence of all thirty-six strengths in your character’s life, you leave room for them to act out of character without deviating from the core of who they are. A character who is talented in the area of adaptability (they go with the flow, take things as they come) may be forced into a lower area of strength if, for instance, their changing circumstances call for a command strength – the ability to take control of a situation and directly, even forcefully, shape the direction it will take. Because this strength is present in all of us (though less prominent in some of us), it isn’t unnatural for the character to behave in this way; it will be challenging for them to behave in this way and may either be very upsetting or a phase of intense personal growth (or both).
In one of literature’s most famous examples, Bilbo Baggins is called to act entirely out of character for the sake of a greater mission. Through the course of his adventures, he not only learns to apply his strengths differently than he might have expected, he overcomes a number of weaknesses – and some of those weaknesses become strengths by the end of the book.
Helping characters overcome their weaknesses
Strengths-based living calls for people (and in our case, characters) to focus primarily on what they are already good at, maximizing their natural abilities. Neglecting weaknesses entirely, however, can mean that people who take this tack ignore major personal flaws, fail to grow in important ways, and never understand alternate worldviews. The StrengthsFinder is a perfect tool for understanding your characters’ flaws because their weaker areas automatically inform personal weaknesses and interpersonal conflict.
Somebody with the strengths deliberative, analytical, and command may very well find adaptability near the bottom of their list. When life careens out of control, this person is going to suffer, and their highly adaptable, positivity-strong friends is likely to drive them nuts, even though they may not know why. Their inability to adapt will manifest itself in hyper-control and a sense of bitterness or rage when the world doesn’t bend to their will. This is a drastically different personality flaw than that of their adaptable friend, who goes with the flow but may fail to plan for the future and struggle with decision-making.
The conflict in any relationship can be based on differing strengths. The person who is strong in harmony and the person who is strong in belief are likely to misunderstand each other. Harmony dislikes conflict and seeks agreement. Belief values absolute truth and will defend their truth to the point of conflict. Until they understand and respect each other’s different way of being in the world, there will be friction between them.
Likewise, any internal conflict may derive from a person’s weaknesses and, possibly, failure to recognize and work on them. A character who is futuristic, deliberative, and context-oriented is likely to have a hard time living in the present and feeling a sense of contentment in life. Their internal conflict may range from dissatisfaction to depression. We see an extreme version of this in The Silver Linings Playbook in Pat’s desperate efforts to control his circumstances and the resulting frustration, depression, and anger.
Play around with the strengths and their descriptions to see what conflicts – internal and interpersonal – may naturally arise from your characters’ strengths and weaknesses. You can do this in a couple of ways, depending on how you’re tackling your book. If you’ve started with strongly developed characters, they probably already have a detailed personality profile. You’ll put them through the StrengthsFinder before you ever begin writing the book itself. If your book is plot-driven, you still want to create character profiles and flesh them out as you go, but you may do some of this retroactively. The StrengthsFinder can help you find your characters as the plot unfolds. You may have a conflict in mind that you know you want to have happen about the midpoint of the book, and you can add strengths, weaknesses, and points of conflict to your characters or tweak existing strengths in order to bring the conflict to life.
Utilizing the StrengthsFinder’s unique personality types
When you look at most of the popular personality tests out there, you’ll notice a lot of similarities. These tests are definitely valuable, but the StrengthsFinder adds a whole new dimension. It may be helpful to know that a character is introverted, but it begins to feel flat and stereotypical if they just stay at home and read every evening. That character needs further layers, which is where the StrengthsFinder comes in.
Maybe your introvert has the strength of individualization: they ‘are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person. They have a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively.’ If this is your character’s gift, they may already be in a position in life that maximizes that strength (e.g., they are a talented manager and know how to coach their teams to success). Or they may have an unhealthy manifestation of that strength (e.g., they give a lot of unsolicited advice) because they don’t have a healthy outlet for this particular talent. In conjunction with knowing your characters’ weaknesses, identifying unhealthy expressions of their strengths will give you loads of material for their flaws and growth throughout the story.
In addition, the StrengthsFinder resources provide advice for test takers – how to build on their strengths and navigate their weaknesses and grow as a person. Where this is useful for authors is that much of the advice can be applied to carving out your characters’ growth path. They will need to do certain things and learn certain things in order to grow, depending on their specific strengths profile. If you are unfamiliar with your characters’ strengths (i.e. if they are different from your strengths), or if you haven’t spent your life studying human psychology and personal growth tactics, these resources offer a wealth of information to help you define what a character’s growth path would actually look like in real life.
Figuring out how your characters live out the four major themes
Everybody lives in the world in the following four ways: executing (taking action; making things happen), influencing (leading others or asking them for things; speaking up for yourself or others), relationship building (forming and sustaining relationships in all of life’s sectors), and strategic thinking (absorbing and analyzing information in order to make decisions).
How people act in each of these areas varies from one person to another. For example, significance is an influencing strength. People with significance as their strength will work independently to create projects that will have a positive impact on other people. Though they are working alone, they are outward-oriented in this work, with the focus being the impact their actions have on other people.
How different from the influencing strength command, whose proponents are more likely to tell people directly what needs to be done. The latter strength is a more obvious, easy-to-identify way of influencing others, but just because somebody doesn’t have this strength doesn’t mean they aren’t influencing.
If you have a pretty reclusive character (they aren’t wooing or commanding people, they aren’t competitive or particularly self-assured), they must still be influencing others in the world in some way. Find which influencing strength best suits their character. If they are not currently acting in an influential way according to one or more of the influencing strengths, this will show up as a character weakness or latent desire in their lives.
How can I put this into practice?
If you don’t have a current project underway, take advantage of the time you’re not spending on writing, researching, publishing, and marketing to take the StrengthsFinder yourself. This is a valuable way to learn about yourself and harness the innate strengths that will push you forward into your next project. It also familiarizes you with the test and the descriptions of the strengths for future reference, and gets you access to the report. If you don’t want to pay for the test and report, check out the free quick reference card and other free resources.
Using these resources, play around with possible character profiles. Imagine their successes and struggles, their internal conflicts and relationships. Create character files based entirely on strengths and weaknesses and relationships. Some of these profiles can be so extensive that careers and families will present themselves as you get to know the characters as people. For now, leave out names, hair color, food preferences, what kind of car they drive, etc. These characteristics are peripheral and can be layered in as you go.
If you already have a project going, putting the StrengthsFinder to work will depend on what phase you’re in. If you’re near completion, you might want to run your characters through the test to see where they land and whether their choices line up with a consistent behavior model. If you’re closer to the beginning, you may find the character profiles you create give rise to natural sources of conflict that you can incorporate. If you’re anywhere in the middle of your project, understanding your characters’ strengths and weaknesses can help you hammer out any areas that aren’t coming together or add depth to sections that need a serious emotional punch.
Even just exploring how each character acts out the four main themes in life will supply you with considerable insight into their personalities, choices, needs, desires, and paths for growth so, if you still have questions, that’s the place to start.
Do you have any experience with the StrengthsFinder? If so, what did you learn from it? If not, will you try it for your characters? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. And be sure to check out Character Alignment Can Improve Your Book With A Simple Grid and How To Create Characters Using The Enneagram for more great advice on developing nuanced characters.