Have you ever taken a Myers Briggs personality assessment? It’s a pretty fascinating way of classifying personality types based on four traits that define how you process the world both internally and externally. I am not sure what reminded me of this recently, but something did. And I am currently a little bit terrified that I am inadvertently making all of my characters exactly like me.
I took the MB test in high school, and I came out pretty conclusively as an Introvert Intuition Judgment type. The third letter I split evenly between Thinking and Feeling, and the resulting direction from the expert giving the test was “pick which type sounds more like you.” At the time I thought I was an INFJ, because writing was listed under careers for F and not T, and because T careers were technical–at the time, as much as liked studying math and science, I didn’t see myself going into those fields. However. Twelve years, college, and several full-time jobs later, I can say without hesitation that I am an INTJ. The personality description is an eerie match for me, and when I look at what I prefer doing in my work, what I am better at doing in my work, it is the technical aspects. I deal competently with people but brilliantly with tasks.
This applies in some ways to my writing. I am a technically good writer. I say this without ego (although with some pride, because I have worked at it) but as a statement of fact: I write grammatically. I punctuate correctly. I use words precisely. I employ parallelism consistently. I generally change up the types of sentences I use and the way I lead into them enough not to be too boring or hard to read. I mean, yes, my work needs some tightening and polishing, but generally not a whole lot on a technical level.
The place where I get derailed is trying to evoke emotion in a reader. I don’t know that I do that effectively with words. Many times I have to rely on the emotion of an event and hope that my words just stay out of the way. The human connection is, shall we say, less robust in my prose and particularly in my first drafts.
I ran into a post aggregated onto Passive Voice the other day about using archetypes to flesh out characters. And I just sort of thought….wait, do people actually think about their characters in those terms? I guess I am more intuitive with my characters than that, because I typically have a sense of their personalities from the way they interact with each other in my head, and the things the story tells me they will do. I don’t ever–and I mean ever–do the character development exercises I see writers talk about. When I see posts like that I get a little paranoid. Should I be using that kind of crutch (which, no offense to those who like that sort of thing, but that’s how I see it)? What is wrong with me that I don’t need to use that sort of focusing technique? Maybe my characters are all flat. Maybe my characters are all understood about as poorly as I understand everyone except my husband and two besties.
Maybe my characters alre all exactly like me.
That last was the thought that really got me. Am I inadvertently making my characters interact with the world and each other exactly as I would? How boring is that? And for many readers how unrealistic? I mean, there are things about the way I perceive the world which I take as self-evident, but which other people would find laughably divergent from their experience of the world. Of life. Of riding along the thought process of a human mind.
I do not exaggerate the potential danger. I have over the years read characters in other people’s books with whom I could not relate, whose decision-making process and set of assumptions about the world was just so antithetical to my own that I could not finish the book. Sometimes I couldn’t read any of that writer’s books, because they all had that intolerable foreignness.
Bringing this back to the MB question, I am currently wondering if it’s possible to understand the behaviors and experiences of another type well enough to fake it on page. I know that writers have subconscious biases we build into our characters, the things we just don’t question but that others won’t take as given or will object to. A logical way to combat this is to consciously and intentionally build other traits into your characters.
What I am struggling to decide is if my characters need that kind of intervention. Do I need to Think through every aspect of their point of view? Or can I trust my highly developed tertiary sense of Feeling to empthasize with and relate to characters such that they grow more organically to be not-like-me?
Sigh. Yet one more editing pass to add to my never-ending list. And a specific watch-for-this request that will be going to my beta-readers.
(Aaaand this whole discussion is basically proof that I am typed correctly. Everything has to be categorized, analyzed, and synthesized into a long-range plan. With bifurcating paths at the end of it which are basically node points for reevaluation. But I feel so much better for having talked it through. :))