Personality Theory and Character Development

I unabashedly love personality quizzes. Always have. From my earliest interactions with the internet, back on AOL, to flooding my LiveJournal with results from Quizilla, to newer iterations on Facebook, I just plain delight in them. It doesn’t much matter how ridiculous they are. I will cheerfully find out what flavor of ice cream I am, what city I should live in, or, as tonight, what character from Practical Magic I am (Maria Owens, as it turns out).

I’ve always had a particular soft spot for the somewhat more scientifically- and psychologically-sound tests, though (though with the admission that they’re not necessarily any more potent than one’s horoscope). Personality theory fascinates me — which is a good thing for a writer. My awareness of the patterns that people tend to fall into helps me to create a variety of characters and informs how they engage with each other. Whether Myers-Briggs or the Big Five, Enneagram or the humours of Hippocrates, I eat it all up and enjoy applying it to my work. Even the classical zodiac can be a way of examining twelve basic personality types and how they interact with each other. These are great tools to keep in mind as I’m writing. That isn’t to say that I sit down and build characters to fit the templates that personality theory provides — which, I suspect, would result in wooden and unnatural characters — but I’ll step back and analyze them later, and sometimes that opens up new avenues. I won’t specifically create a character to be a Capricorn, for instance, but figuring out that he is can give me something to fall back on when I’m deciding how to have him react to a given situation — or when he’s interacting with another character I’ve realized is, say, an Aries.

This week, my brain’s been on Myers-Briggs, as a flurry of test results started popping up all over Facebook and, in lovely synchronicity, I saw a blog post on INTJs as the type most often mishandled by writers. It got me thinking about that particular personality theory as it applies to my current cast of characters.

The two leading characters of Aven, Vitellia Latona and Sempronius Tarren, are an ENFP and ENTJ, respectively. I hadn’t really thought of them in those terms until this week, but it does give me a new angle on how they interact with each other: they are both comfortable in public, but in different ways. They both have strong intuition, particularly when it comes to other people — but what they do with that information differs. As an NT, Sempronius finds ways to work it to his political advantage, while NF Latona wants to use it to bolster people in themselves. Latona’s emotions can sometimes overwhelm her, while Sempronius isn’t always as willing to indulge his. Latona can coax what she wants out of others; Sempronius is more likely to drive them — to his goal or off a cliff, whichever proves easier.

The quiz on this site isn’t terribly in-depth, but I quite like how they phrase some of their results. For ENTJ:

If there’s anything ENTJs love, it’s a good challenge, big or small, and they firmly believe that given enough time and resources, they can achieve any goal. … This determination is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, as ENTJs push their goals through with sheer willpower where others might give up and move on, and their Extroverted (E) nature means they are likely to push everyone else right along with them, achieving spectacular results in the process.

Sempronius to a T (for Thinking!), really. As for ENFPs…

More than just sociable people-pleasers, ENFPs are shaped by their Intuitive (N) quality, allowing them to read between the lines with curiosity and energy. They tend to see life as a big, complex puzzle where everything is connected. If they’ve found a cause that sparks their imagination, ENFPs will bring an energy that oftentimes thrusts them into the spotlight… ENFPs will spend a lot of time exploring social relationships, feelings and ideas before they find something that really rings true. But when they finally do find their place in the world, their imagination, empathy and courage are likely to produce incredible results.

Not just Latona’s personality, but a lot of her personal challenge.

I haven’t given as much thought to some of the other characters, but it’s easy enough to suss it out. Latona’s sister Aula is probably an ESFP — a lot like Latona, warm and outgoing, but more practical than dreamy, keenly observant but easily bored. Aula worries less than Latona, living more in the moment and taking joy wherever she can find it. She isn’t always as tactful as she might be, though, and can be overly self-indulgent.

Sempronius’s sister Vibia, meanwhile, is an ISTJ — principled, sharp-witted, and responsible, but a bit reserved, less gregarious, and often perceived by our dear FP types as prickly and stiff. It also makes her the precise inverse of Latona. I was pretty giddy when I realized that. Knowing that Vibia and Latona are stark opposites in the way they process information and interact in the world will help me to further develop their dynamic moving forward. There’s a lot of potential for friction, since they’re so different — but also a lot of opportunity for them to balance each other out in beneficial ways. I already knew what I’m going to need them to do, but this insight gives me a little more how.

So — What’s your Myers-Briggs type? This site has a fairly standard test, if you don’t already know. (I’m an ENFP, like my dear Latona, though occasionally a test will put me on the J side of things instead). Do you use MBTI or other personality theory when writing?

For Bear

From my yearbook, 2002

Everyone — if they’re lucky — has that teacher. The one who manages to send a hook into your soul and pluck out something you didn’t even know was there — who challenges and encourages and supports in equal measure.

For me, and for hundreds of other students who have passed through the Thomas Jefferson/Maggie L Walker Governor’s School since the late ’90s, that teacher was Bear O’Bryan. We lost him, suddenly and shockingly, this past weekend.

Bear taught American literature and creative writing at the Governor’s School in Richmond, Virginia. As an educator now, I tell stories about him all the time — how he never had to raise his voice to settle his students, how his classroom was a refuge and a comfort, how much we all wanted to impress him. He set high bars and expected us to clear them — and no one wanted to disappoint him. Anglophile and genre-fiction-lover that I am, I’m not really the biggest fan of a lot of “classic” American literature, but by heaven, I tried for him. For Bear, I read every damn word of Moby Dick and Fountainhead. In his class, we engaged in Socratic seminars that taught us more about how to use our brains than about the books we were discussing. We put Thoreau on trial for tax evasion (I’m still mad that I, as the prosecution, lost just because my co-counsel totally flubbed the cross-examination, but I also still remember Bear catching up to me in the lunch line later to tell me that had “aced it” even though the jury hadn’t gone my way). We put together personal anthologies — a legendary project in the school, that you spent your freshman and sophomore years hearing about from the juniors and seniors. Each student had to pick a personal theme (mine was “Identity”) and assemble a compendium of essays, poetry, prose, artwork, and such relating to that theme, then write personal responses to them. It was such a special thing — at the end of the year, we traded them in class and read from each others’. We could block out things that were too personal, if we wanted, and though I’d let my heart spill in all its gruesome glory all over those pages, I decided not to censor anything. Through that bravery, I ended up finding out how much I had in common with a girl I hadn’t really bothered to get to know up until then, who I definitely would’ve pegged as too cool and pulled-together to be facing the same tangled identity issues I was struggling through. He made us open our hearts not just to ourselves but to each other, fostering that awareness of a world outside yourself that is so critical to growing up.

I looked back on my personal anthology recently, and while some of it is pretty embarrassing to recall (as is true, I think, for most things from most people’s teenage years), it also provoked a strange fondness in me for the girl I was then, tumultuous and melodramatic though she was. Someone on Facebook commented that he’d done the same thing recently, and suggested that maybe it’s time for a new one, to reflect where he is now — I wonder if that might not be a great collective project for his former students to undertake, revisiting his signature project in his honor.

In his creative writing class and on the literary magazine, we learned a lot more about what the act of writing can do for the human soul. Bear’s guidance nudged me out of the fairly narrow confines I’d written in up to that point and got me exploring new avenues, new viewpoints. I even gave poetry a try (I’m not much good at it, but once again — I tried for him). Across that year, we learned about narrative structure, point of view, tone, and voice. And we learned to work together creatively, evaluating each others’ strengths as writers and finding the ways to make the most of them. At the end of that class, each student assembled a portfolio of work — the things we’d done that year that we were most proud of. I cried when he gave me mine back with an A+ and a note saying, “We’ll be studying you someday.” He was so sure. He knew I’d be a success as a writer, at a time when I was far from that confident in myself. That this man I admired so much had so much faith in me… it’s been an inspiration and an instigation to this day, to live up to that potential that he saw and to make him proud. I still have that note, tucked away somewhere in my notebooks and papers.

The 2001-2002 MLWGS lit mag crew

Bear provoked my intellect and my creativity, but he was also unfailingly kind and patient with chaotic teenage emotions. Two moments in particular stick out for me. One was on 9/11. The news about New York came just as second period was ending — but no one knew anything at the time. For a while we weren’t even sure if it was terrorism or a horrible accident. My next class was creative writing. Bear came in, switched on the radio, and said, “Take notes. Write.” No one talked. We just listened, as the second plane hit, as the towers fell, as the stories of death and devotion rolled in. We listened as a plane hit the Pentagon. And that’s when I started, very quietly, freaking out — because my father, who worked in public safety and national security, had been on his way to the Pentagon for a meeting that morning. I didn’t want to say anything, but Bear noticed that something was wrong. He came up behind me and quietly asked if there was someone I needed to call. Gratefully, I nodded, ran out to my locker and the illicit cell phone I had stashed there, and confirmed that my father had only gotten halfway up 95 before word about the WTC hit and the governor called him back to Richmond. I was able to return to class much calmer than I’d left it.

Another was much less epic in scale, but also telling of the empathy he had for his students. When I wandered in to lit class once, teary-eyed after a particularly dramatic lunch period, he quietly gestured for me to go out and take a few more minutes to compose myself, if I needed them — with no condemnation, no warning about missing the start of class, without drawing any embarrassing attention to me. It was such a simple little thing, but such a tremendous gesture of kindness to a 16 year old who had way more emotions than she had yet learned to negotiate.

There’s always an element of selfishness to mourning, I think, and I’m keenly aware of it as I write this post. I want to honor the man, to tell everyone what an astonishingly good teacher he was, how many students he reached over the years. And at the same time, I’m just eaten up with guilt, that I hadn’t talked to him in a while, not since running into him at the Playhouse when he was chaperoning a trip. He was so happy to see me, so proud that I was working for the ASC, doing something he knew I love. I’m glad I got to see him then, but I’m so sad that I never got the chance to tell him about my book. I thought about writing him to tell him about how things were progressing, but I wanted to wait until there was something real to tell, y’know? Until it was a sure thing, a sale, a preorder-able physical object. Now I feel dumb for holding back.

I’m heartbroken that now I won’t get to send it to him, like I was planning to, inscribed with a note so that he’d know just how much his encouragement meant to me. My mother and I were just talking on Friday about how much I was looking forward to doing that. Over a decade later, I still wanted so much for him to be proud of me.

5 Fandom Friday

The idea for this post comes from The Nerdy Girlie, by way of Gail Carriger.

What five fandoms were my gateway into the reader and writer I am today? This was actually really easy for me to suss out, though I did decide not to include some of the earlier childhood obsessions that, while I’m sure Tumblr might call them fandoms today, weren’t thought of in that way then — or, at least, I never conceived of them that way. I spent years obsessed with dinosaurs, for instance, or my early fixation with The Last Unicorn, or my life-long love affair with Disney — none of those were formative fandom experiences, though, as they were mostly private. So for the purposes of this post, I’m not counting “gateway fandoms” as “things I liked a lot”, but I’m thinking about the things where I really got involved with discussion, fanfic, RPGs, etc on a public level.

1. Star Wars

just a short little girl with a gun

This can’t possibly come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or has been following this blog. I’ve talked about how Star Wars changed my life. I have strong feelings about its future. But it was also the first real fandom I participated in publicly. This was where I realized that you could share your geekery with people other than your cousins or next-door neighbors. The original trilogy was re-released right as AOL was becoming a big thing, and man alive, did I jump in head first. At 13, I had unquestioned dominance of an RPG chat board and room, and I had the high score on AOL’s Star Wars trivia for several months running in the late 90s. I played X-Wing vs TIE Fighter (badly), dressed as a Rebel agent for Halloween twice, and drove a LARPing campaign in my middle school before we even knew what LARPing was. (And when I tell people about the contorted tricks, convoluted schemes, and nefarious double-crossing I came up with in that game, most find it somewhat alarming and wonder why I didn’t become a CIA agent). The obsession eventually waned, replaced by other items on this list, but my love is no less. I still watch the movies several times a year (and am waiting with apprehensive optimism for Episode VII), and just a few weeks ago, I joined a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG group and am enjoying myself immensely.

2. Broadway

fun dresses

Bless anyone who knew me from the ages of about 13-17, because they had to listen to more off-key belting than anyone should ever have inflicted on them. I’ve loved musical theatre my entire life — one of my earliest memories is of seeing Cats when I was three, learning difficult vocabulary just so I could read the entire libretto, and dancing to “The Jellicle Ball” with my mother when she got home from work. But when I was a teenager, it turned into a whole other thing. My friends and I went through a series of fixated obsessions on particular musicals — The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mamma Mia!, Into the Woods, Aida, Chess, Wicked — and sang them. Everywhere. Living Room Musicals were a staple of our entertainment. We attached fierce meaning to various songs, communicated in quotes via our AIM away messages, used them as weapons in intra-group feuding. And we wrote fanfic. So. Much. Fanfic. I am so damn grateful that YouTube wasn’t a thing yet for most of that time, because there would be some seriously blackmail-worthy material out there if it had been. But the thing is — musical theatre can teach you a lot about the heights and depths of emotion. I build playlists for books and characters that I’m working on, and most of them are still dominated by showtunes.

3. X-Men

XM24

This is something I’ve flitted in and out of throughout my life. I got hooked early, with the 90s animated series. I distinctly recall the Pizza Hut tie-ins, and I think I still have one of those comics you used to get with Personal Pans. As a teenager, I came back to it with a mania. My favorite was, is, and always has been Rogue — and believe me, I’ve done all sorts of psychological soul-searching as to why I feel such a strong connection to the untouchable Southern spitfire. When I was 16, I even managed to convince my parents to let me bleach a white streak into my then-auburn hair so I could be her for Halloween. I’ve actually been more out of than in this fandom for a while, mostly because I started getting so ticked off about what the series I’d typically followed were doing with my favorite characters — but I’m sure I’ll come back someday, when new writers take over, and in the meantime, I’ve been branching out into some new material (it helps to have a friend who edits at Marvel and another who writes for DC to nudge me towards different titles). Because comics are such an ongoing medium, I feel like this fandom introduced me more than any other to the idea of writing being subject to the various pressures of the time. Just since I was a kid, the X-men have diversified a lot. They’ve been as subject as everything else in fiction to the “dark and gritty” treatment that’s been so popular the past few years. They’ve dealt with shifting perceptions and philosophies in regard to feminism, race relations, LGBTQ, terrorism, the economy, and so forth. Writing never takes place in a vacuum, and pretty much all published works are subject to a lot of different influences, from those within the writer’s own head to those imposed by the industry. I feel like those influences are more public in comic books than they are in other forms.

4. Harry Potter

harry-potter-2013-uk-adult-covers

This fandom dominated late high school and pretty much all of college. It took no time at all after reading the books (up through Goblet of Fire, when I got into it) to start costuming, writing fanfic, and joining RPGs (now on LiveJournal rather than the dying AOL or other forums). HP fandom is a lot of why I am so positive on fanfic in general. There is really no better way for young writers to get feedback than writing in a popular fandom. It’s really, really hard to get people to read original works, especially when you’re an inexperienced teenager (who, let’s face it, is probably not that great a writer yet) — but fanfic brings folk in. You get reinforcement and you get concrit. For me, it ended up building a really tight group of friends, many of whom I still chat with regularly. I certainly won’t claim that there isn’t a lot of nastiness, competition, and trolling out there, but if you pick your cohorts well, you end up with a great support system that can last for years. HP was and remains the most public of all my fandom loves, too. I was a founding member and the social chair of Wizards and Muggles, William and Mary’s HP fan club (which is now thought to be the largest in the nation), and I now co-run Virginia is for Wizards. All the cons I’ve been to so far have been HP-themed, and I’ve easily costumed in this fandom more than in any other.

5. Kushiel’s Legacy

Kushiel's_Chosen

This fandom is so niche. The others on this list are all pretty huge names, so it’s not really surprising that they were what I’d consider gateway fandoms, but Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy has never gotten much mainstream attention. It’s easy to see why — the masochist heroine, the frank sexuality that imbues the entire culture, the overt paganism, as well as a lot of other darker themes and experiences that aren’t quite middle-America-friendly. It’s sort of just slightly more beyond the pale than A Song of Ice and Fire (which merely shocks, but all the alarming things there are overtly bad — the pearl-clutching bits in Kushiel are often the things held up as good, one of the reasons I like it so much). I didn’t find this until college, making it the latest addition to the list, but it definitely had an impact on me as a writer. Aven owes a lot to the complex interplay of politics, fantasy, history, and sexuality displayed in Kushiel’s Legacy. I think it influenced some of my writing vices as well — It’s a cast of thousands, which I love (though I know not everyone does), and it definitely has moments where it doesn’t move as swiftly as it might, choosing instead to luxuriate in character studies and world-building — but I’m okay with that. My fandom involvement here was mostly online, in a tight-knit group (that had a lot of overlap with HP and ASoIaF groups).

So — Those were the five fandoms that I think had the biggest influence on me, as a geek and as a writer. How about you? What were your starting fandoms?