Want to write a believable character? Give them a personality test

Creating believable characters that jump off the page is probably one of the most difficult things for fiction writers to do. Consulting personality tests can help.

A personality test can help you determine what guides your character’s inner most motives and thoughts. It can help you streamline your character’s tendencies, fears, and desires.

It doesn’t matter if you’re using a Myers-Briggs test, an enneagram test, or a horoscope chart. All of these systems separate personalities into bundles of traits and motives that you can apply to your characters.

You may know the color of your character’s hair or eyes, but do you know what keeps them awake at night? How do they react when they break a glass at a restaurant and spill wine all over themselves — do they jump to blame others or do they get down on themselves? Do they laugh it off or do they become extremely embarrassed?

The answers to these questions may not seem significant instance by instance, but they add up to a larger picture. A character who blames others for their misfortune might come off as an arrogant jerk, but their behavior might stem from constantly feeling victimized. Why do they feel so victimized? That’s for you, as the author, to tell us. Alternatively, a character who berates themselves after a minor mishap may have an inner narrative that tells them they are always doing something wrong. What else is this character aside from apologetic, and how would this character interact with the character who constantly blames others? Would they ever be compatible in a relationship?

A personality test can help you tease out those inner narratives, and illuminate things that you hadn’t known existed before in your characters. They can help you see more deeply into their hearts, and they can help you devise characters that are fully dimensional.

I know there’s resistance to personality tests because it’s true that not everyone fits squarely into a personality type–in fact, I doubt that anyone really does. But they are helpful, generally, to think more deeply about the ways your characters interact on the page and what their guiding motives are. And you can even reveal to the reader what personality test you’re using to formulate your characters; in They Could Have Named Her Anything, I included a scene in which my protagonist learns her horoscope sign and everything seems to click into understanding. Something like this can help your characters understand themselves as much as help your readers understand your characters. So even if you shy away from the mystical or the magical or the reductive or the too-general in your own life, let your characters indulge in them. A good personality test might reveal more than what you think.

 

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Stephanie Jimenez

Stephanie Jimenez is a former Fulbright recipient and Prep for Prep alumna. She is based in Queens, New York, and her work has appeared in The Guardian, O! the Oprah Magazine, Entropy, and more. Her debut novel, THEY COULD HAVE NAMED HER ANYTHING, will be published in the summer of 2019 (Little A). Follow her @estefsays.