Personality Theory in Fiction Writing I: Making Characters Personal

If you’re a creative writer who has been using 16Personalities to better understand yourself and your friends, loved ones, classmates, or coworkers, you may have found yourself wondering, Can I use these ideas in my writing?

If so, read on – this article is for you! In this six-part series, “Personality Theory in Fiction Writing,” we’ll explore the possibilities and limitations of applying our personality theory to fictional characters, from laying the groundwork for deep, believable characters to understanding motivations to creating nuanced villains.

First, let’s consider a central question: What makes a fictional character memorable and compelling?

Why Characters Enchant Readers

Written fiction allows us to escape into other worlds and share in the actions and feelings of characters as they progress through a story. Fiction can reach into the heart and mind by reflecting our own values, experiences, and dreams, letting us revel in fantasies or perceptions that we can relate to.

The opposite appeal can be just as strong – fiction can immerse us in things beyond ourselves, help us understand different perspectives, and give us a chance to enjoy a vicarious thrill from that which we do not experience in our own lives. These dimensions can be glorious, whether we’re reading the grand work of a top-selling author or putting our own imaginations down on paper.

One critical element of a compelling work of fiction is characters the reader can connect with and care about. Characters may sometimes seem secondary to plot, but consider the case of filmed fiction: Why do actors put so much effort into body language, facial expression, and vocal inflection? Because they draw the audience in.

Written fiction usually doesn’t define these sorts of visuals as specifically, letting readers participate in the work and make it personal by visualizing their own unique imaginings of the characters. Each reader has their own distinct mind’s eye, and this can be magical.

The Importance of Consistent Characters

Reader imaginativeness can relieve authors from the need to craft every last detail of character imagery, but it also creates opportunities and obligations. The characters themselves must inspire imagination, not rein it in. Authors can offer enough definition to express their own vision without miring their readers in portraiture, letting readers transpose themselves into the heads of characters to understand them better.

Regardless of setting or plot, characters are the vessels that the author uses to communicate human behavior and experience with the reader. Whether the goal is to inspire tension, admiration, sympathy, horror, or excitement, characters become an extension of the reader’s own humanity, as if a piece of their mind and body has been inserted into the work of fiction. Characters almost become sensory organs for the reader, who can begin to feel what they’re feeling and experience what they’re experiencing.

Such melding is far easier when fictional characters are consistent – readers are less likely to connect with characters who behave randomly, because such behavior is unlike their own minds. Characters who are subject mainly to external circumstance instead of realistic internal motivations often seem vague rather than vivid, generic rather than individualized. Strong characters have their own sets of rules, and breaking those rules can leave readers scratching their heads in bewilderment, ejected right out of an otherwise absorbing story.

A Realistic System

Deep characters help make stories more addictive, but even more intriguing, they can also help authors create. Let’s momentarily view fictional characters and their interactions as a car with mechanical problems – a familiar feeling to many writers. Analogous to a capable writer, a good mechanic can replace parts as needed so the car runs. An engineer, however, has detailed knowledge of the car’s design and can go so far as to predict or modify its functions. An author with similarly detailed knowledge of their characters’ personalities can create stories that are not only believable, but also complex, by predicting how known character elements combine with situations and other characters.

Deciding to define characters in detail doesn’t automatically give writers the tools to do so, but they can employ existing systems to help them. For example, some medieval fantasy authors use the rules of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game to compose characters. While useful for the genre, that system does not address critical elements of personality, leaving such authors to decide those things on their own.

Personality type theory can be the knight in shining armor here, rescuing us from spiritless damsels in distress, blandly moralistic heroes, and predictable, mustache-twirling foes. Our research-based personality type theory can be an incredibly useful tool for authors to define, understand, and describe the characters they create. Far from being restrictive, such a system can increase creative potentials – more on that later.

Fiction writers have a lot to juggle in their minds: settings, plots, characters, pacing, etc. Personality type theory can help by guiding, in a supportive way, elements of the creative process. It need not severely limit character actions, since personality types are, in actuality, broad categories of the countless subtle qualities that real people possess. It can, however, help authors portray the reasons behind characters’ actions with eerie realism.

Using our 16 personality types, including the Identity traits, as basic templates for creating characters can give authors a significant advantage over inventing them from the ground up. Each personality type, as broad as they can be, possesses typical behaviors that result in likely interactions between a character and the world around them, other characters, and themselves. Type theory may even give authors a glimpse into common life arcs – personal, social, and professional – for specific personality types, which can inspire plot ideas that dovetail realistically with characters.

When reading about a personality type on our site, many people think, I know someone just like that! or Wow, that sounds like me. Likewise, when authors consciously and carefully model characters on personality types, readers get the feeling that the characters are like real people – and that’s writing gold.

Further Reading

Check out other parts of our Fiction Writing series:

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing II: Employing Type Theory

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing III: Boundaries and Breaking the Rules

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing IV: The Depths of Evil – “Bad Guys”

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing V: Writing for Readers’ Personality Types

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing VI: Broadening Appeal