Personality Theory in Fiction Writing III: Boundaries and Breaking the Rules
In part two of this series, we discussed how personality type theory can guide character development. Now we’d like to explore some possibilities for taking characters beyond or outside of the typical behavior of their type. Although the boundaries of our 16 personality types are wide, no author wants to feel limited by the definition of a given personality type.
Sometimes, the most compelling moments in a story happen when characters face a decision of whether or not to act against their own natures. When inconsistency is desirable for drama or plot, or is otherwise unavoidable, authors may want to understand or justify how a fictional character can seemingly act outside their personality type.
There are several ways that an author can create some flexibility in a character’s likely behavior. Authors don’t need to restrain plot ideas to avoid conflicts with a character’s personality type, but they may want to create additional frameworks that allow plot points to “fit” the character. Here are some ideas, along with examples.
Brief Foray/Sweeping It Under the Rug
Sometimes an author simply needs a character to do something minor that may be hard to explain within their personality type. If it is brief and fits with the flow of events, authors need not worry too much about it, especially if it’s paired with something interesting that redirects the readers’ attention.
Driven by Feeling/Explaining the Departure
Characters can be highly flexible when driven by deep desire or emotion. In cases where a character does something notable that seems outside their personality type, authors can explain it as being the result of an intense need or an in-the-moment reaction. It may be a good idea to add dialogue or description detailing the feelings of the character, possibly including their own recognition of their unusual behavior.
Outside Pressure/Just Following Orders
When it comes to behavior that is very odd for a character’s personality type, authors should use caution. Some things are extremely unlikely – such as a coldly logical character suddenly “seeing the light” and engaging emotionally with the world. In real life, major changes tend to require extensive personal development, and in fiction, they require a lot of explanation. However, such unlikely character actions might be prompted by powerful external forces.
Characters might do things inconsistent with their personality type simply because they have no choice, but authors can still make them react to their actions in ways that are consistent with their type. Perhaps a character suffers recrimination, experiences denial or moodiness, or engages in soul-searching introspection as a result of their actions. Indeed, having a character cope with their own “off” behavior can add a compelling dimension of internal conflict.
Beyond Personality Types: Aliens, Demons, and Ghosts, Oh My!
Obviously, our personality type theory was developed using research data collected from humans and might not apply in the same way to alien races, interdimensional beings, and the like as it does to human characters. But one reason to use type theory for such otherworldly characters is that it will make them more relatable to human readers.
While personality typing might still be useful for nonhuman characters, the rules of type theory can be ignored at the author’s whim, and traits can be taken to extremes or even used individually as building blocks, so that personality theory becomes a wild playground. The usefulness of personality traits as a tool to compose the behavior of nonhuman characters is immense and full of imaginative potential.
Hopefully by this point, personality type theory seems more like a life jacket than a straitjacket, lending support and buoyancy to fictional characters rather than restricting them. Remember, there are just 16 types to cover all the people in the world, so some variability will always exist.
Check out other parts of our Fiction Writing series: