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Getting to Know You: Personality Tests for Your Characters

Take a second and picture some of your favorite literary characters of all time, the ones that are most memorable to you. They don’t have to be the main characters of the story. They could even be the villains.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a ton to choose from. Luna Lovegood… Carswell Thorne… Literally every Tamora Pierce protagonist ever…

So what is it about characters like these that sticks with you long after you’ve finished a book? I think it has something to do with how these characters are so very human. They’re great, but they aren’t “perfect.” In books, perfect is boring. None of us real folks are perfect, so how could we ever identify with a perfect character?

Instead, these characters have feelings, goals, distinct voices, mannerisms, and flaws. You can picture them so clearly you’d think you met them on the street rather than in the pages of a book.

For most writers, it’s not easy to come up with three-dimensional characters on the spot — it certainly isn’t for me, personally. It takes time and multiple layers of multiple edits. I always feel like I’m getting to know a character as I’m writing about them, building a persona from the ground up.

The baseline for a character is pretty simple to establish: Age, gender, race/ethnicity, general appearance… but if we want our characters to stand out, we have to go much deeper than that. We need to give them a memorable personality.

Back in college, one night my roommates and I decided to take the Myers-Briggs personality test for funsies. (Yeah, we were cool like that.) It’s a questionnaire of yes or no questions that sorts you into one of 16 categories based on how you view the world and the way your mind works: Introverted vs. extroverted, logic vs. emotion, and other factors.

My friends and I took the test to see what jobs we were supposedly most suited for. But after taking the test and going back to my writing, I thought, “Hmm… I wonder what personality type my heroine would be?” So I went back and took the test again, but this time giving the answers I thought that she would give. Now, taking that test on their behalf is something I do for all my main characters. Not only did it give me a bunch of psychological background information to fold into their personality, but it also forced me to put myself in that character’s head.

But I like to go even further. Once I have a baseline with a general personality type, I have fun filling out a questionnaire about the character. For the life of me, I can’t find the exact one I used the first time, but this one put together by the wonderful folks over at NaNoWriMo is pretty darn close. There’s a whole bunch of questionnaires out there, like this one written by French author Marcel Proust, or this one compiled over at Gotham Writers Workshop, but the first one is my favorite.

You wouldn’t believe some of the fun little quirks you can come up with for your characters if you have to answer questions about them!

For instance, I was writing a story last year, and I was having trouble with my main character, Jordan, because he was feeling bland to me (and if he’s feeling bland to the writer, imagine how he must feel for the reader!). But after filling out the questionnaire, suddenly he had a tattoo on his back, scars on his hands from years of tinkering with dangerous machinery, a pet husky named Luka, and a fear of hospitals, among many other little character traits.

A lot of those small details were completely irrelevant to the story I was writing, and the ones that did make it in were mostly only used in passing. But after going through all that, I could see Jordan so much clearer in my head, and I had a much deeper understanding of his motives and his feelings. Suddenly he was more than just a character to me: He was a person.

How about you, Swooners? Do you do anything special to get into your characters’ heads? Do you draw them? Make a music playlist for them? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Author spotlight

Emily S.

Swoon editor, IT girl, customer service representative, Small Council member, the-one-who-makes-the-coffee-but-mostly-just-on-Monday-and-sometimes-Thursday, etc.

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