How to create a character's personality

Sep 14, 2011

One of the hardest things for me in writing is character development. I write a lot of blog posts about it, probably because I'm constantly trying to learn more about it so I can improve my characters. Today, I wanted to share something I do at the very beginning of character creation to come up with a starting point for my character's personality.


Keep in mind this is only a baseline. It's two small parts of my character worksheet, which is like ten pages long. And I've gradually discovered that the best way to find out who my characters are is to write about them. Still, these two tips help me a lot, especially when I have NO IDEA who the heck these people are before I write about them.

One of my first baselines is the color code. Basically, it's a personality theory that breaks people down into four colors: red (the power-wielders), blue (the do-gooders), white (the peace-keepers), and yellow (the fun-lovers). It sounds a bit Divergent-esque, but it's actually quite helpful. The point is that people have traits of all of these colors, and usually are stronger in one or two of them. If you go here, you can see the full breakdown of what each color means.

I start by deciding what two colors are strongest for a particular character, and list what particular traits from a color they have. Then I pull a few traits from the other colors. This gives me a quick list of personality traits that are both complimentary and contradictory, so my character starts out just a little bit complicated.

My next baseline is the Meyers-Briggs personality indicators. There are 16 "types" of people, according to this personality test, all of them listed at the link. I do MB second because once I have the color code basics, it can give me enough of a hint of my character to guide my choice in their MB test. I pick one of the MB types and highlight certain traits within that type that stand out in my character.

And voila! My character is no longer a complete blank face to me. With these two (very) basic points as a foundation, I can build the rest of my character until they drip with tree-dimensionality.

So, my friends, what are your preferred character-building techniques? How do you create characters from the early beginnings of the story when you don't know much about them?

63 comments:

Jessie Humphries said...

Oh my goodness. I love this post. I love the Color Code. I am SOOOO yellow. I love psychological tests and personality indicators. I actually bookmarked these links! So cool.

Abby Fowers said...

I LOVE this Shallee! Great tips. I am working on some character building worksheets and these are GREAT ideas! I'm so glad you shared. Can't wait to hit these links. I am totally a red and yellow. Weird, right?

Joe Vasicek said...

While I find personality tests useful from time to time, I've also found that they can get me fixed into a too rigid idea of who the character is. Often, I find the best way to write characters is to outline their background--how they were raised, what were their major formative experiences--and discovery write the rest.

Jess said...

Wow that color coding idea is awesome! What I do is fill in these blanks for my character: Name, Age, Hair Color, Eye Color, Personality Traits, Approx. Height, and Back-story.

Meredith said...

I've never heard of the color code, but that's amazing! I'll definitely use that from now on. Thanks, Shallee!

Reece said...

As you said, you don't know about a character until you write about him/her. This is really where the free writing comes into my process. I actually start with a fairly nondescript character and start writing random scenes to see how the character thinks, acts, and reacts. For example, I was working on Dathan, intending to make him rather meek and angst-ridden. But as I wrote, he turned into a very self-possessed, no-nonsense character bordering on arrogant. It was fun!

I like your Myer's-Briggs suggestion though. I'm going to try it out!

Angela Cothran said...

I LOVE the "Color Code" by Taylor Hartman! I use the same thing to flesh out my characters :) Great tips.

Ruth Josse said...

I love tips and tricks! I like to discovery write my characters, but I have to have somewhere to start. I'm going to try this method!

Jenny S. Morris said...

These are great tools. I'm a total panster when it comes to characters. I usually do the basics, then ask myself what type of music they like. I know, a weird place to start, but my world is filled with music, and it helps me to know what kind they like, before I go any further.

Royce A Ratterman said...

I remember eons ago when 'doing your colors' for clothes was popular ( if you were a Winter,Spring, Summer or Fall).
I generally keep a profile (Bio) on each character that is fairly brief. I add to it as the character progresses. The criminals, however, fit the standard psychological profiles, but with some twists - I like to violate the 'profile dictionary correct' predictability of those folks to catch a reader by surprise.
Thanks for all the info!

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Lindz Pagel said...

I can't say character development is one of those areas that I spend gobs of time on, I like letting the character to show me who they are. That said, I do love learning other ways to consider character creation.

I've heard of both the Color-coding and the Myers-Briggs, and though I don't use them to make my characters, I like going back (after they're pretty fleshed out) and see where they fall. It's fascinating.

I also do that for horoscopes. I don't willing choose my characters astrological signs, but I look at they personalities, and then determine where they fall. I'm an astrology dork like that :)

Joe Vasicek said...

Hey, that astrology idea sounds interesting. How do you go about doing that?

I'm kind of partial to the Meyers Briggs typology, because it's a lot more mathematical. It's not perfect, but if it's the spark that gets the wheels grinding, who cares?

Angie said...

Those are both great ideas. My characters usually come to me at fairly well-developed already. Then I just have to get to know them, mainly by daydreaming about them.

Jenilyn Collings said...

I took a class on theories of personality in college and LOVED it. I love personality tests, but I've never done one for my characters. I'm going to have to try that. It sounds like lots of fun!

ali cross said...

These are great ideas! I admit that I don't do anything, lol. I get to know my character during the drafting process (I plot, but don't character-build). Sometimes it's a couple revisions before I REALLY know my character. Your method is FAR superior to mine!

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Unknown said...

This sounds like a great idea! I'm going to check out the color code a little more and the Meyers-Briggs personality indicator.

What I do is make out character worksheets. I have several blank copies on hand with spaces for the generic name, date of birth, place of birth, currently residing, significant other, etc. Then I leave large spaces for general background, traits, and other special information.

elizabethanne said...

What a wonderful idea! I've been through those two tests for myself, but had never thought of applying the tests to my characters. This is going to be very useful, I am sure! Thank you!

I have a long list of questions I answer about my characters, external and internal profiles, but I am very intrigued by using the methods you suggest.

I'm so glad that I found your blog!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

I actually let the character tell me who they are. Most of my stories start with a character who shows up, although fuzzily. Then I find out more by writing the story and wondering about them and scribbling little notes as I go along.

Kelley said...

You seem very thorough, and that does sound very Divergent like lol. I'm glad it works for you :)

Margo Berendsen said...

This is perfect timing - I'm just about to start brainstorming a new book for NaNoWriMo coming up in November. I have a hard time with characterization, too, and don't seem to really know my characters until the first draft is done. But you have to start somewhere - I'm going to try your methods this time to get me started. Thanks!

PK HREZO said...

Awesome idea! And it really is that complex. Non-writers have no idea what we put into our stories and characters, but the character have to be believable to me before I start writing a draft in order to understand where the story's going. I try to remember the character triangle: trait/need/flaw and how every character must have these. Then I use a series of questions to define them, sometimes even by knowing their zodiac sign I can give them certain characteristics. I love your color code idea here tho... and how coincidental that I just did a post on color. :)

Rachna Chhabria said...

I love this post, Shallee. I will check the links. Thanks for sharing them.
Perfect timing as I am brainstorming my next few stories.

KM Nalle said...

Love the color code idea. I discover most of my characters through free writing. Sometimes I'll assign them a zodiac sign to help me get a feel for them.

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