Writing: Figuring Out Characters’ Emotions and Personality

My research into humor had definitely helped, but I still had some characters I couldn’t quite figure out. So I decided to move on and tackle my characters’ 3 Main Emotions (as per the Seventh Draft podcast). Boy was that a big mistake!

If I thought that figuring out a character’s sense of humor was hard, it was nothing compared to trying to decide what three emotions a character typically feels. Right away, I found myself at a loss when trying to come up with enough emotions to cover all the characters. So I went searching for emotions.

I found a great book by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi called The Emotion Thesaurus. What’s great about this book is that it not only lists possible emotions, but it also defines each emotion, lists behaviors and thoughts associated with the emotion, and lists emotions each one could escalate or de-escalate into. I could see that all this information would be really helpful. 

Unfortunately, understanding the emotions better was not helping me decide which ones suited my characters. That’s when I realized that maybe I don’t understand their personalities well enough. Ugh!

So I began searching for ways to flesh out a personality.

The first thing I came across was the Myers-Briggs Personality Types in an article on K.M. Weiland’s website, Helping Writers Become Authors. The Myers-Briggs sorts people into sixteen different personality types, using a combination of eight elements in either/or pairs: Introvert or Extrovert, Intuitive or Sensing, Thinking or Feeling, and Judging or Perceiving. For instance, I am an INTJ (Introvert, Intuitive, Thinking,  Judging).

The first time I heard about the Myers-Briggs was in a “career awareness” college course, so I knew about it before I read Weiland’s article, but I had never thought of using the Myers-Briggs as a writing tool. But this was a great idea. And the internet is loaded with tests to determine your own type and descriptions of the different types and their individual parts.

However, this wasn’t the panacea I was hoping for because the personality types are pretty complex. Funnily enough, that which made the Myers-Briggs a good tool also made it a bit overwhelming. But in one of the articles I read (unfortunately I can’t recall which one), I came across a reference to Enneagram of Personality, so of course I had to check that out!

For this, I just went to the Wikipedia page which describes Enneagram of Personality as “a model of the human psyche which is principally understood and taught as a typology of nine interconnected personality types.” Instead of sixteen types there are only nine. So, at least a little less complex!

Also a plus, the Wikipedia page has a lovely chart that both describes and compares the different types, with helpful-for-writers categories like “ego fixation,” “basic fear,” and “basic desire.” 

As I was reading through this graph, I suddenly remembered something I had read a few years ago about the big five personality types. And since five is less than nine, I went looking again.

I found what I was looking for on the Psychologist World website: “Five-Factor Model of Personality.” This article explained how five factors (Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) are used to do psychology research and to study personality. Far from being limiting because there are so few options, each factor represents a spectrum, and the five factors include subsets of related personality traits.

For my purposes, the thing that made this so useful was the idea of each factor as a spectrum. For instance, Extroversion is the label for that dimension, but it is only one end of the range with Introversion at the other end. So in deciding if a character is introverted or extroverted, I picture a sort of old-fashioned radio tuner, with the pointer sliding along from one end to the other until I find a spot somewhere between the extremes that seems to fit.

There was an inherent comparison of behavior I had to imagine as I decided where on the spectrum of each factor a particular character was. For example, how neurotic is my main character? Did I picture her as someone who feels anxious all the time and who exaggerates the significance of her problems? Or did I see her as someone who is calm in the face of stress, and who can put problems in their proper perspective? Or was she somewhere in the middle, mostly calm but occasionally anxious?

Ahhh! This was the one that worked the best for me—I was finally able to fill in some information on all of my characters, not just the main characters. And as an added bonus, learning their personalities helped me not only understand their emotions better, but also to understand their senses of humor better!

I wonder where the rabbit hole will take me next . . . 

Links to sources I mentioned can be found here:

Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s website: https://writershelpingwriters.net

K.M. Weiland’s blogpost about using Myers-Briggs to develop characters: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/myers-briggs-for-characters/

More on Myers-Briggs Types, including a test: https://www.personalityperfect.com/16-personality-types/

Wikipedia’s entry on Enneagram of Personality: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enneagram_of_Personality

“Five Factor Model of Personality”: https://www.psychologistworld.com/personality/five-factor-model-big-five-personality

One thought on “Writing: Figuring Out Characters’ Emotions and Personality

  1. Love your humorous asides throughout your posts. As a plus, I understood exactly what you were talking about. Clear cut and concise, some of my favorite words and you uses them well.

    Liked by 1 person

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