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Friday, March 9, 2012

Who Are You??

No, really, who are you? Is a string of adjectives pouring out of your mind? Things like wife, mother, son, chemist, librarian, athlete, physicist, cook, chauffeur? All of those things describe either where you fit in a family system or what you do to earn a living. Or how you like to spend your spare time.

What happens if you strip all that away? How would you describe yourself if you couldn’t include familial data or vocational and recreational pursuits? Not all that easy, huh? It’s important, though, because this is the basis not only for self-knowledge, but for developing three-dimensional, believable characters.  In most evocative fiction, the main characters lose things—a lot of things. It’s what’s left that forms the bedrock of personality.

Jung proposed a dimensional theory of personality. One of the dimensions was introvert-extrovert. All of us lie somewhere along that continuum. Extroverts gather their information about the world from others; introverts from themselves. The next dimension is intuitive-sensate. Intuitives gather knowledge about the world from their inner landscape. Sensates rely on body knowledge. Then we have thinking-feeling. Some of us lead with our hearts. Some with our heads. There is a fourth dimension, but it was developed after Jung’s death, so I won’t include it here.

If you’re curious about yourself, go online and type Myers Briggs Type Inventory. There are some free versions of the MBTI you can take.

Even though much of this exists at a subconscious level, I believe really good authors place their characters in situations with challenges that fit their personality structures. Character consistency is really important. When you build story people, they need to feel like the same person from start to finish in the book. One of the tools is to structure their personalities and have them act congruently.

Do I engage in a conscious thought process of, well this character is an introverted intuitive and that one’s an extroverted sensate? No, not at all. But by the time I’m done with the first few chapters of a book, I know my characters pretty well. If there are a lot of them, I’ll use a story board so I can keep what they look like and sound like straight. I’ll also add a few notes about basic personality.

In addition to basic personality structure, there’s a social veneer many of us adopt. That’s what allows us to smile pretty no matter how we’re feeling inside. Some of us do that a lot. Some of us thumb our noses at convention and say, “Hey, world. This is who I am. Like it or leave it.” Ditto for fictional characters. I mean, what are story book people, but projections of ourselves? To the extent they mirror something that resonates for us, we can relate to them.
Let’s take a quick look at Lara McInnis and Trevor deGroot, the two protagonists in Psyche’s Prophecy and Psyche’s Search. Lara is an introverted intuitive who leads with her mind. Trevor is an introverted sensate who leads with his heart. Trevor has quite the social veneer. He’s very good at keeping secrets. Lara, on the other hand, is fairly thin-skinned. The two of them have complementary personality traits, which makes them a good bet as a couple. It’s really hard to pair up with someone just like you. They have your strengths, sure, but you both have the same Achilles’s heel. So, the pairing works fine when the waters are smooth and way less fine when you have to deal with stressors as a couple.

One of my beta readers for the last book of this series, Psyche’s Promise, commented that she wondered why antagonists in fantasy are so often filthy, stinky and dumb. I took her words to heart. There’s not much I can do to give Gradoxst, my primary antagonist, a bevy of personality traits he didn’t have in the first two books. What I did was write another novel—YA Contemporary Fantasy—and build an antagonist who’s a truly worthy adversary. He’s stunningly beautiful—sort of a male equivalent of a Siren—cunning and very smart. Outwitting him wasn’t easy—for me or my characters. In fact, there’s a place where he actually won in spite of my best efforts.

Circling back to the question at the front end of this blog post: Who are you? How much of that are you willing to share in a comment?

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