For every story, we need characters. For every good story, we need rich, interesting and engaging characters who live on in our memories long after the final page has been turned and the book returned to its place on the shelf. Building such characters means developing as much of ‘what lies beneath the surface’ as possible and finding the best way to make that come alive for your reader.
In my earlier blog “Depth of Character (Part 1)” I talked about building a character, from the metaphorical bones to the metaphorical skin. The three layers of a character (The Skeleton, The Organs, The Body) show how much effort you can put into thinking about the essence of your characters and proves that each character has the potential to be as unique as ourselves, one of over seven billion living, breathing characters in the book of humanity.
So with such variety possible, how do you hone it all down and create something that feels real as well as the artistic portrayal of your creative mind?
The good news is that there are a number of theories, techniques and methodologies for exploring the human character that have been developed over centuries of our philosophies, psychiatry and general observations of real people. Here are a few that you could use to help you fine tune the DNA of your characters:
Myers Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI)
This model of personality types is a trusted favourite in the world of Human Resources and leadership development. Developed by the brilliant mother/daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, it focuses on aspects of our personality that help us to perceive the world around us and make decisions.
MBTI has evolved 16 different personality types based on their preferences and these types have had many years of scrutiny and fine-tuning. There is a great deal of information you can find online that builds on this model. While the application is a great leadership and management tool in corporate environments, authors can benefit from applying this model as it gets right down to the personal preferences of individual characters and maps how they deal with issues like conflict, relationships and even career paths.
Personally, I also find it helps me understand my own personality as a writer and how I can be more effective at making decisions when it comes to my writing (I am an INFJ, in case you were wondering).
This is one that I have referenced heavily on a current project, a series of fantasy novels which I am passionate about (watch this space, peeps). Based on the original teachings of the four humours theory first posed by Hipporates which was further developed by Carl Jung, this model was developed in Scotland by another parent/child team, Andi and Andy Lothian. It is now a global movement that helps improve self-awareness about how the four colour types (Cool Blue, Earth Green, Sunshine Yellow and Fiery Red) match your personality.
The four colours indicate personal style, strengths and sensitivities but the great use of this tool is in team working. It helps you to understand the value you can bring to groups with your strongest styles particularly in certain situations (you would certainly want a Fiery Red leading you during a fire evacuation but maybe not in a sensitive negotiation, for example). Authors can look at this in the context of groups of characters as it gives you a great source of potential conflict between characters.
These have grown in popularity in recent years and their origins reference all the way back to the rise of Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s (and further back to the works of Michael Moorcock and Poul William Anderson). Many great examples of literature have been mapped against the law/chaos versus good/evil axis including Star Wars, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.
Although this method originated from the role-playing genre, it has good applicable use across fiction in highlighting the differences between central characters. Even the “good guys” have different ways of approaching the whole “being good” ethos (for example, Batman and Superman are both good but their methods, motivations and personalities lead to very different actions and results). It is possible to be on the same side and still have conflict between characters.
These are just a selection of some of the fun ways you can not only build an interesting character but explore how all of your characters interact and conflict with each other. After all, where is the fun in building a deep, complex and interesting character then just plonking them in a corner of the room on their own? Try getting a Fiery Red to teach a Sunshine Yellow or see what happens when an INFP has to partner with an ESTJ on the hero’s quest. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination.
Here are a few more hints on how to delve even deeper into the DNA of your characters:
Refrain from building a plot that suits the character as the essence of character development comes from them doing things that go against their nature…don’t be afraid to rattle even your favourite heroes!
Conflict breeds drama so look at polar opposite aspects in your characters and push them down a path where these will come head to head.
Listen to the voice of your characters when torn over which path to send them down (sometimes, literally) as the choices they make will be based on their personalities, not yours!
Remember in some situations, people of certain personalities will end up together in groups. This may be the case for an army in a war where the boldest and bravest warriors all share common traits. But remember that replicating exact copies of your characters defeats the object of giving depth to them.