Misbehaving characters, and creating personality

One of the most awkward things I find with writing my stories is that once I actually start writing them, describing the events and putting the characters in them, then very often the characters start reacting in ways that the original storyline doesn’t involve, and which sometimes threaten to derail the whole plot.

This is most vexing, and I wish my characters would just do what I want them to. The thing is, they become (I hope) rounded individuals, which means that they do what people do. Which in general terms seems to be “be awkward”. One story I started hit the rocks when the lead couple, who were supposed to end up as an item, turned out to annoy one another quite a lot due to the circumstances of their meeting. I’d planned it for there to be some tension, but when I put those two in a room together… the chemistry was of the nitroglycerine variety. I took it as a challenge, to talk them around to maybe seeing each other as okay, and then build the relationship from there, but very awkward.

One would think that, since the characters all come from my head and I can pretty much make them whatever I want them to be, and therefore they ought to behave and react in just whatever way is convenient for my storytelling. All I know is that however much I try to generate a character’s personality with the precision to do that, there are always wrinkles that only come out when the story itself starts to flow around them, and they bump into the other characters. Character produces story, and story produces character equally so I never know with 100% certainty what’s going on until I hit the keyboard and the first draft starts rolling out.

One piece of advice I’ve seen for creating distinct personalities for one’s creations suggested assigning zodiac star signs for them, and then using the astrologers’ guides to those star signs to guide the responses of the characters, thus distinguishing them from one another. It is dreadfully easy – I know from experience – for an author to end up writing every character as sharing the author’s personality, so some such approach seems positive. I don’t like that specific option, because I am generally sceptical of astrology and I don’t know how to choose a sign that fits the type of personality that would act the way I want my character to act. However, I am a big fan of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which produces personality profiles based on 4 binary indicators, creating a total of 16 different types. I have the Keirsey/Bates book “Please Understand Me”, which presents a version of the MBTI known as the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (KTS). So before I started writing my novel, I sat down with the book and for each main character filled out what I thought they would put for the questions – an exercise that also allowed a much more detailed examination of their behaviour in specific situations (by looking at the specific questions, and if any of them related particularly to situations I expected to turn up in the story).

It turns out that one of the characters shares 3 out of 4 traits with me (so I suppose she’s probably my strongest “surrogate” in the story). The other characters, though, it’s proving very valuable to remind myself what sort of person they are according to the book and think about how that sort of person would react. This helps in terms of keeping the characters consistent, but it also means that when I sketched out in my head the storyline for them, I was thinking a bit too much like me and not enough like them. Guess what? They drift away from where I want them to be in the story! Not disastrously so (like I said, in creating their profiles, I was able to input a lot reference back to the key plot points and directions) but enough that it’s awkward. Also, with one of them I find that I’m still pulling a bit more back to my way of thinking that what the strict interpretation would be. It still feels like it’s this character’s way of being, and the profile came out only narrow X instead of Y on a couple of the dimensions, so I figure it works well enough. (Although I suppose to prove that it works, then I would need for someone else to reproduce similar profiles for my characters, just from reading the book.)

And they still won’t behave entirely how I want them to. Unruly bunch of anarchists – just like their creator.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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