So what makes a story’s character convincing? The Authors Collection.

Inspector Morse was a well-defined character, both consistent and predictable.
Inspector Morse was a well-defined character, both consistent and predictable.

Characters are the heart and soul of fiction. We often hear ourselves asking if a book is story or character driven, but the truth is there is no plot without the machinations of someone, and, animals aside for the moment, people are our major choices for the creatures that make things happen. Characters are what writing is primarily about. And the job of the character is to be so convincing that the reader will sense him or her as real. Suspense, thriller and mystery genres may not weigh in so heavily in terms of a need for character development, but the Raymond Chandlers of those genres sit on the top shelf because characterization was as important to them as to anyone else. So what makes a character convincing?

Christina Carson
Christina Carson

People as a whole are a fairly consistent crew. Their behaviors as individuals are rather predictable. It is this predictability that makes them convincing. It says they are a particular way. So the question becomes then, for those of us charged with creating characters, what is responsible for that predictability?

During WWII, a woman named Katherine Briggs and her daughter, Isabelle Myers, having studied with Carl Jung, used his theory to create a personality inventory to help people identify their psychological preferences and thus jobs they would most be suited to.  Jung theorized that there are four principal psychological functions by which we experience the world: sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking, and one of these four functions is dominant most of the time. Added to these were the attitudes extravert and introvert and a final descriptor referring to all the ways people become aware of things—perception, and all the ways they draw conclusions from this data—judgment. Those categories were indicated by four letters and those letters indicated a great deal about the behavior of an individual. The predictability or consistency of an individual can credibly be related to his or her psychological preferences.

For example, let’s say a writer creates his character as in introvert. Since this is a core attitude, even if the introvert is required by the story to push beyond his preferred attitude in order to keep his crummy job as a complaints officer, this in no way means he stops being an introvert, someone who prefers:

  • thinking to acting
  • depth of knowledge and influence to breadth
  • substantial interaction to frequent
  • recharge not with people but alone

DyingToKnowFinal (3) with Bleed SpaceIt behooves us as writers to understand the core preferences associated with various behaviors, or otherwise we lose the predictability and thus the consistency of the character we’re creating.

Mind you, I started out a skeptic when such systems were presented to me. Like most people, I didn’t like the idea of someone “telling” me who I was. But then I took the inventory and was amazed. Rather than being told, I was being recognized. When I read the explanation of my personality type, INTP, I felt like knew myself for the first time. It wasn’t so much a description as a validation, and at that point in my life it helped immensely.

What were otherwise seemingly random behavioral choices on my part, when viewed through personality typing, appeared quite orderly and consistent. Since consistency is the determining factor of authenticity in characters, it occurred to me that a writer could start at no better place than understanding these patterns that have already been identified. To create a character with no more insight into their nature than something equivalent to a roll of the dice will create either as very flat character or one that doesn’t have the depth and interest of an authentic character because they won’t play true. You’ll have your introvert going to parties to refresh himself or being a chatty partner, or someone you portray as intuitive using a thermometer to decide if he’ll wear a coat or not.

If you are naturally observant, you may have intuitively picked up what behaviors would characterize, say, a person who on the Myers-Briggs scale is an INTP (introverted, intuitive, thinking based, perceiver) and that would make for a rich and interesting character and have them thoroughly authentic. But if you don’t yet appreciate all the nuances of preference that live in us at a core, I would suggest reading some schools of thought in personality typology if you aspire to create characters that thrill your readers and amaze you.

Please click the book cover to read more about Christina Carson and her novels on Amazon.

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