Friday 16 August 2019

Musings on Personality by Claire Fayers

 First, a digression. (I know I’ve only just started and there’s nothing to digress from yet, but bear with me.) When I’m sick, I don’t have the brainpower to read fiction. Non-fiction, however, I can cope with. I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s because fiction is more immersive and when my body is actively reminding me it wants to curl up with a hot water bottle, I can’t imagine myself into a fictional world. Does anyone else share this quirk?

Anyway, the last time I had a stomach bug, I read my way through a book on the history of the Myers-Briggs personality test, and the book is well worth a read for anyone interested in psychology, social history, or indeed, people.

I found it fascinating that a test devised by a mother and daughter with no formal psychological training, in an era where women didn't usually work, became such a huge commercial success. 

For those who don’t know, the test uses a series of multiple-choice questions to boil all humanity down into sixteen personality types, based on combinations of four categories. Are you introverted or extroverted, sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving?

I’m sceptical of personality tests, but in the interests of research, I did a free online test (there are loads available if you want to try it yourself). I came out as INFP - that’s introvert, intuitive, feeling and perceiving. But if I do the same test tomorrow, I may well get a different result.

What’s missing in the multiple-choice questions – and this is the reason I’m sceptical – is context. “I’d rather read a book than go to a party.” Well, it depends. What book is it? Have I already started it, in which case I’d be far more likely to want to finish it before heading out. Who’s at the party? Is it people I like? Has it been in my diary for months or is it a last-minute thing? Will there be ice-cream?

I am a big believer in context. Stick me in front of a group of kids and I’m a very different person than, say, at a family dinner or when I’m sitting on my own, writing. Sometimes I like things to be quiet and tidy, sometimes I like mess and noise. Sometimes I plan in advance, sometimes I prefer to improvise – and never mind the fact that I improvise best when I have put in hours of planning.

I like to think that people defy categorisation, but is that just because of my personality type?

These musings brought me round to thinking about fictional characters and how their personalities are revealed through context. I’m in the early stages of a new project and, as I often do, I began the first chapter with my main character sitting about, admiring the scenery.

“Do you get a sense of her personality?” I asked my long-suffering husband.
“It’s hard to tell,” he said, eyeing me nervously. “She hasn’t really done anything yet.”

One day, I swear I will learn how to start a book properly.

On a recent writing retreat I met the lovely Amy Butler Greenfield, who said she likes to audition her characters. She’ll devise several characters and put them one at a time into the same scene, like actors trying for a role, to see which one works best. I will be stealing that idea. I've just done the opposite, however, and put my main character into different scenes, looking for the one which would bring out the right parts of her personality.

Kelly McCaughrain recently posted an excellent quiz for working out your character arcs. I’d like to propose a further exercise. Imagine a scene in which your main character is provoked to act seemingly out of character. If they’re normally quiet, what will make them stand up and yell in a public place? If they’re known for their honesty, what would make them tell a lie? You may discover facets of your main characters you never knew were there.

Context is everything.

Claire Fayers is the author of The Accidental Pirates series, Mirror Magic, and Storm Hound.
website  Twitter @clairefayers


Steve Way said...

Clarie it looks suspiciously as though you are actually a DOCHIF (OHMCR) ('Depends On Context How I Feel (Or How My Characters React)'). I understand this is largely a very sensible condition!!!

Susan Price said...

Claire, I'm more convinced by your way of finding character than by most others I've read.