Personality Theory in Fiction Writing VI: Broadening Appeal
In part five of this article series, we explored the idea that understanding readers’ personality types can help fiction authors connect with an audience. We also discussed specific subjects that are often distinct from personality type, such as culture and religion, and how taking different personalities into consideration can still be useful when treading in those areas.
In this article, we’ll look at ways to apply personality theory regardless of subject – broader strategies for appealing to readers’ personality types.
Inviting More Readers to the Party
A work of fiction is the precious brainchild of its author, often a beloved personal playground of imagination, creativity, and individual expression, and even more so if there’s a heartfelt message underlying the story. The idea of writing for readers’ personality types might seem like a restriction on this creativity – but it needn’t be.
A story idea or message can stand on its own, crafted in free, unrestricted mental space. Personality theory can bring more readers into that space to appreciate what the author has wrought – enhancing communication without diluting creativity.
To put it in practical terms, authors can write with reader personality types in mind by adding specific elements or crafting scenes in certain ways, rather than limiting themselves when creating their worlds.
Showing a deeper dimension of subject matter like graphic violence can humanize it, making it interesting to many types of people for different reasons. Fiction doesn’t have to be fully justified to every reader’s own morals. Remember, the idea is to invite and facilitate mental and emotional involvement, not necessarily approval.
Continuing our example, in addition to detailed carnage, Jack describes how the warriors feel, their adrenal exhilaration mixed with pain and their bravery tempered by fear for their fellows. After the battle, the realization of their losses strikes deep. For some, it turns to regretful introspection and for others, pure and simple hatred of the enemy.
The intent of the battle scene – to showcase the ferocity of the warriors and offer vicarious thrills – remains as Jack wishes. But Jack also acknowledges the serious implications of these elements, validating the perspective of readers who dislike violence.
When authors portray a fuller scope of humanity, characters become more broadly appealing. Some readers may admire Jack’s warriors for their bold deeds, while others may appreciate seeing something deeper than just a “Job well done, lads! Pity about all the death, but now we’re off to nab that magic rune key!” attitude.
This is an example of how writing with consideration for diverse personality types calls not necessarily for censorship, but rather crafty nuance (which is likely to be a goal anyway). An author with awareness of personality theory can draw more people into their vision by exploring things more thoroughly.
A host who wants to help diverse guests feel welcome at their party need not forego making their famous mini-meatball recipe, but they might want to also prepare a lush veggie tray. Authors can welcome more readers to their party by thinking addition, not subtraction.
Giving Readers Someone to Relate To
Deeply exploring story elements can create broader appeal, but characters are also a powerful draw. Whether readers find them resonantly similar to – or intriguingly different from – themselves, specific types of characters may strike a chord.
Let’s look at some ways authors can use personality theory to increase the likelihood that their readers will connect with characters in a story.
Expand the Complement of Characters
One way to reach different reader personality types is to include multiple characters with differing views on life, ways of relating to other people, and personal values. When characters display the traits of differing personality types, readers can pick their favorites as well as enjoy the depth of contrast between them.
Example: In her coming-of-age story about a group of teens lost during a mountain hiking trip, Sarah doesn’t merely assign the characters roles: The Bully, The Kind-Hearted Peacemaker, The Bookish Kid Who Hates Nature, The Injured One, The Idiot Whose Foolishness Puts Everyone in Jeopardy, etc.
Instead, Sarah also takes care to give each of her characters a clear personality type with a unique voice, style, and trait-driven behaviors. To enhance their depth and complexity, Sarah also juggles stereotypes – The Bully is also The Smart One, whose dominating ego is fueled by great intellectual ability and knowledge.
Strong and varied character traits create multidimensional opportunities with which different types of readers can relate. And readers don’t only like characters similar to their own type – those who represent their aspirations, hopes, or hidden desires can also be attractive. Portraying multiple character personality types makes any such positive overlap more likely.
Expand the Characters
Increasing the appeal of a main character with a specific personality type for readers of various types is as simple as pushing the boundaries of that character’s behavior. It can be very compelling when a character’s tendencies are laid out clearly and realistically – and then they battle their own instincts, perhaps as part of the plot.
Example: In a story about a troubled family of two, a shy, sensitive teen boy wishes he were more confident and popular among his peers. He begins to imitate his highly successful father’s aggressively charismatic style, even going so far as to borrow some of his fashionable clothes and mannerisms – with entertaining results.
Meanwhile, the father, who has chronically neglected his son in favor of making big deals, regrets being so out of touch. Deciding he can “win” parenting as he has other areas of life, he takes a vigorously intellectual approach, trying out the advice of numerous self-help books in an amusingly ham-fisted series of attempts to bond with his increasingly baffled son.
Many people strive to overcome undesirable aspects of themselves and will relate to characters who attempt behavior that is outside the norm for their personality type. Readers of similar types may identify with the struggle, and types with the traits the character is trying to attain may feel validated. Either way, the appeal of the character is enhanced.
When a story’s cast of characters displays a wide spectrum of perspectives and behaviors, it tends to welcome readers of many personality types, especially if the characters are vivid and realistic. And, as we discussed in the first four parts of this article series, using personality types to create characters makes them more believable – and relatable.
Authors can capitalize on the interplay between characters with starkly different personality types, whether they’re in conflict or yin-yang symbiosis. Playing up such differences – and maybe even having characters call each other out on them – may appealingly echo readers’ own experiences with contrasting personality types.
Bull’s-Eyes or Barn Sides: Personality Type Target Size
Authors may want to be clear in their own minds about scope: which types they’re specifically writing for, which types they’re writing with some consideration for, and which types they’re essentially ignoring. There’s nothing wrong with the latter choice, as seemingly fewer compatible types may still connect with a work – probability isn’t certainty.
Let’s look at reader personality type targets in three basic tiers.
A classic goal, writing with consideration for all types has the potential to reach lots of people. This might seem easy because whatever you write will likely appeal to at least one of the 16 personality types, but randomly hitting “the broad side of a barn” isn’t the same as writing for everybody.
If the goal is to reach every type, then our “addition, not subtraction” strategy applies: include something to appeal to each personality type. This is a challenge, but it’s not 16 times harder than writing for one type, thanks to personality trait overlap, or in other words, Roles.
Our personality Role groups are a helpful way to view the types in coarser resolution, giving authors an easier target size. Each type within a Role shares certain common traits, enabling authors to compose character and story elements that are attractive to the Role as a group. Because of this focus on shared traits, authors may want to consider how those traits relate to the story and characters.
One Personality Type
It might seem an odd choice to write to a single personality type, but when a story or underlying message is likely to relate to a particular perspective, narrowing the focus can be valuable. This doesn’t preclude other types enjoying the work – there’s often lots of auxiliary appeal, especially for similar types.
Deciding on a type target size can help authors apply their knowledge of personality theory to an intended goal – and help prevent a sense of being overwhelmed by too many considerations. Whether the goal is to share an inner vision (or just a good story) with as many diverse personality types as possible, or to reach certain readers with a specific message that will resonate powerfully in their own hearts, minds, and lives, knowing who you’re writing for and why can increase the chances of making a connection.
In our next installment, we’ll explore what some personality types prefer in the fiction they read and the traits behind those preferences. There are statistical correlations between what people indicate that they like about books and their personality type, and we’ve got the lowdown – or at least the broad strokes of probability.
Until then, we’ve got some more optional “homework”:
- Reread this article, noting any characters mentioned in the example sections.
- Reread the description of their personality and behavior, no matter how brief. Pay attention to the circumstances and story as well – context can mean a lot.
- Decide what you think their personality type most likely is, based on our personality theory and their behavior.
- Decide which (oh, let’s say three) reader personality types each character would most likely appeal to, and why. The possibilities are endless, so just shoot for the most obvious broad probability.
- Share your evaluations with us in the comments below. See what other people think, and be open to everyone’s interpretation. The fictional characters mentioned in this article have specific traits but are deliberately vague to allow for multiple “correct” answers. The point is to inspire creative interpretation, so have fun with it!
Check out other parts of our Fiction Writing series: