What a Character
by Christina Carson
Have you ever read a book, fallen in love with it, but been completely unable to figure out why? To Kill a Mockingbird has always been one such book for me. I have read it several times solely to understand why it captures me so, but only when I sat down to write this blog the other day, did it finally hit me. The characters are so authentic, so utterly real that not once in the entire story do I ever trip over anything in any character that has me leave the story. Once immersed in that book, I am captured in another world so perfectly, so completely that I am no longer reading a book; I am one with the story.
Characters, for me are the heart and soul of fiction, because only they have the power to hold my focus sufficiently to have my world drop away and their world own me. The real power of plot or story then becomes to create a place where the character can reach that level of authenticity. We are people; thus we care most about people (with the occasional animal taking their place) and understand best what they do. Their job in a novel is to pull us in and hold us there until the story ends.
When a story is largely autobiographical, much like To Kill a Mockingbird, the writer has a leg up because the characters are thoroughly known, so they come with their own consistency and cohesiveness. Harper Lee, being particularly observant of her world, picked up on the characteristics of people so thoroughly that she made them not only real but also unique. Let’s face it, there are no two of us alike anywhere, not even identical twins. So Harper Lee put together the two most important aspects of a character—consistency and uniqueness— and set us readers so undeniably in her childhood world that I felt like I lived next door. As beginning writers, we generally use people we know as templates for characters we’re creating, for intuitively we sense the consistency they offer even if we refer to it as something else. They’ve already put themselves together and the fact is people don’t change over a lifetime, not at their core. They may intensify a trait or attitude but they don’t change it. So this approach helps a start-up writer to have characters that can pass muster. But what happens when we want more depth in our characters or when we want to create our own? How then can we create characters that are authentic, real beyond any reader’s doubt?
The short answer is we must become students of human nature. We must observe, watch and question. But there is something else that assists that process, that being to use the work of others who have studied human behavior and let them help us see the bundle of aspects that accompany the various characteristics people present. For example, if our character is to be an introvert, then we need to know the basic features that characterize an introvert. Introvert isn’t the word for one behavioral quality; it is a bundle of aspects. Introverts aren’t just seemingly shy. Here is a bundle of behaviors that characterize them. They are someone who prefers:
• thinking as opposed to acting
• depth of knowledge and influence as opposed to breadth
• substantial interaction as opposed to frequent
• and they recharge not with people but through solitude
If you integrate all of those into you character, the reader will keep sinking deeper into their reality, maybe without even realizing it, because deep in their core they know those qualities represent the introvert experience; they’ve known introverts and here is one believably before them. And that doesn’t mean an introvert can’t surprise the reader by, say, pushing his boundaries way out there to become the person who endures the crowd to stand tall for what he believes. But, and this is where so many writers lose their character, he doesn’t then become the extroverted hero. Once an introvert, always an introvert, for our core preferences don’t change.
I would have to say, though I have not checked this out, that the great characters, the ones we carry with us forever once we meet, are those who originate with a writer who has either made it a point to study human behavior, or intuitively senses the various natures that people express, and is observant enough to keep them in their appropriate bundles. It’s not impossible to do. In fact, the development of this area of interest is called personality typology and started with Carl Jung. Later it was packaged by a mother-daughter team, Katherine Briggs and Isabelle Myers, into the now well-known Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory. If you have never taken the Myers Briggs inventory, some of the validity of the results that they accumulated may be lost on you. But they have done a fine job, in a non-exact science, of organizing bundles of behaviors that characterize human beings. Since there are an inordinate number of ways that a person can go about cataloging, what lends validity to any personality inventory is the commonness and usefulness of those traits explored and describe.
I am not going to explain their whole system. You can read about that for yourself, but they ended up with four areas that they then identified with letters. These letters represent core psychological preferences in people. They are not telling people who they are. They are describing what in their deep core they prefer, and the behaviors they demonstrate based on those preferences. Anyone who knows me and has read the description of an INTP will say without taking a breath, they got her pegged.
The preferences Myers-Briggs chose cover much of what we all experience with the people around us, the characters in our world. They include the attitude of introvert/extrovert; four principal psychological functions: sensation, intuition, thinking and feeling; and then the major way we prefer to make ourselves aware of the world—perception, and the major ways we draw conclusions from that data—judgment. They have described bundles that you can use in creating your characters, authentic bundles that will give breadth and depth to a character, dimensions that will enrich them and give you more options for their behaviors that are consistent, thus real.
Consistency is the key to an authentic, riveting character. You don’t want your introvert going out to discos to rejuvenate or chatting away on the phone to relieve her angst. Nor do you want your character you’ve set up as deeply intuitive giving the time as 4:28:05 or going to the thermometer to decide if she’ll wear a coat to work. Can you begin to see how deeply authentic a character can become in an understated show-don’t-tell manner? Can you begin to feel how you would perceive who they are?
There are other personality typologies; the very best to my thinking is one that never got written up. Someday I might write that one down, but until then, take a look at the sixteen bundles that Myers-Briggs came up with and begin to imagine the full, rich characters you could create with just a bit more understanding of human nature.
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