You already know the single most important question to ask about your protagonist:
What does he/she want?
With that alone, you can make it pretty far into your story. But then something happens. You realize you still don’t know your protagonist. Maybe you have some backstory worked out, you know her education level, even her family history, but there’s a difference between the what of it and the who of it.
Does she like her environment neat and organized or prefer it messy? Does she value money or people more? Does she shut down and deny her involvement when something goes wrong or own up to it?
These are the questions that start to give your protagonist (and all your characters for that matter) the multi-dimensions that they and your readers deserve. Creating distinctive personality types ensures your characters aren’t, well, acting out of character or worse—reacting to situations in the same way. So here are five resources to check out that will help you understand your characters better:
1. The Enneagram Institute
I recently learned about this one from author William Craig Reed at the La Jolla Writer’s Conference (you should check out his newest book and support a worthy cause here: 7 Secrets of Neuron Leadership: What Top Military Commanders, Neuroscientists, and the Ancient Greeks Teach Us about Inspiring Teams).
The Enneagram Institute breaks personalities down into nine major types, falling under the “Thinking,” “Feeling,” or “Intuiting” categories. Those types can then have “wings,” meaning someone can share traits of another personality. And each type can also “integrate” or “disintegrate,” becoming a better or worse version of that personality.
Whew! That’s a lot to take in, right? For the purposes of defining characters, you can start with reading about each of the nine types (enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions) and try to categorize your characters accordingly.
2. Astrology – Zodiac Signs
I might as well put the Google search link for this one because you’ll find plentiful articles and horoscopes out there for Zodiac signs. Astrology never resonated with me until I found out there was more than just a sun sign. There’s also a rising sign, a moon, a bunch of houses, ruling planets but without getting carried away, the two most useful categories are:
Sun sign: This is the sign that the sun was in when your character was born. This is your character’s essence or who they are at their core.
Rising sign aka Ascendant: This is the sign that was rising over the eastern horizon when your character was born. This is your character’s surface personality or how they appear to others.
For instance, your character might have a Leo sun and Libra rising sign. This means that, while she would run headfirst into battle to protect her own, she also has a harmonious side—a side that might try to stop a war or argument from happening in the first place. See how these two signs can interact and add some dimension to your characters?
Again, there are many online resources for numerology, even a Numerology for Dummies book that will get your pretty far. Like Enneagram, numerology also has nine distinct number types. The most important number is the “birth number.” That is, the number you’re left with when adding up the birth date. For instance, someone born December 22, 2017, would be an 8:
1 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 0 + 1 + 7 = 17
1 + 7 = 8.
Okay, you don’t actually have to assign your characters birth dates and do a bunch of math, but you can read about each number and its basic traits and then assign a number to each character.
A 1, for instance, would be much more independent than a 2. A 4 would be a worker bee, while an 8 values money and power. A 7 would be very inward and pensive, while a 3 might be an artist. Once you get to know the numbers, you will see how assigning each character a different one will produce interesting conflict within your scenes.
4. Myer’s Briggs
There’s been some backlash on this one recently, but I stand my ground as an INFJ and still believe there’s some merit to it! Myers Briggs claims there are sixteen possible personality combinations. They are broken down into polarities:
Introverted vs. Extroverted
Observant vs. Intuitive
Thinking vs. Feeling
Judging vs. Prospecting
Assertive vs. Turbulent
Since it would be an undertaking to read up on all sixteen types, you can work with these basic questions:
Is your character more introverted or extroverted?
Do they analyze their surrounding or go with their gut?
Do they use their head or their heart more?
Are they organized planners or flexible improvisers?
Are they self-assured or self-conscious?
Once you decide which way they sway, you can read up on that specific personality type.
5. Secret Language Birthdays
It’s actually scary how accurate this one is! The data was collected from a forty-year empirical study of the life stories of more than twenty thousand people, analyzed by date of birth. If you select your birthdate, you will get a two-word description of yourself. I, for instance, am “Revelational Winner.” My sister is “Wondrous Explosive.” See how fun these can be?!
Under the title, there are specific traits and then larger descriptions of each aspect. While I don’t recommend painstakingly sifting through hundreds of birthday combinations, try searching for yourself and a few friends or family members. Start to pick up on traits and how those simple, two-word descriptions can define someone. As a bonus, you can choose a second birthday and read about how two personalities would be in a relationship together.
There are many other ways to develop your characters, but these five techniques will give you a jump-start. The technique that resonates with you may be different from project to project. On my last book, I used both numerology and astrology to develop my characters, whereas on my current project I’m finding the Enneagram personalities incredibly helpful. There’s no one right way, and not many wrong ways either!
Melissa Bloom is a writer, writing coach, and certified yoga instructor who is passionate about exploring the connection between productivity and wellness. As the founder and director of the Mindful Writer, Melissa has developed targeted writing tools and techniques that help people develop a sustainable writing practice to accomplish their writing goals without burning out. Melissa has a background in film, animation, and creative writing. She travels often, learns daily, and attends workshops, trainings, and conferences in a continued effort to hone the crafts of writing and living well.