Characters are my favorite part of writing fiction, because even after you write a great story with a complicated plot, the characters still remain to keep entertaining you. A truly great character will live forever. But how do you design a great character? Do they just happen?
No. Even characters who appear in your head fully formed (and they do) take time and effort to get to know before you can write about them with any excellence.
I have a character named Karl who pretty much walked onto the scene of a novel I was writing when I was 12 years old or so. He had his own ideas and his own opinions about things, and he definitely had his own perspective on the world. He didn’t have a back story at the time, but he was a fully realized character with no holes in his personality. And I didn’t do anything to create him. He just — happened.
But before I could write about him and really communicate the person who was talking in my head, I had to get to know him. Yes, he sort of just jumped into the picture. No, I didn’t really have much to do with creating the concept of him. But to introduce him to people so that they could know him as well as I did, I had to learn who he was on a very deep level. And that took a lot of time, kind of just having conversations with him.
If you’re not a writer, this won’t make any sense to you. To sit in an empty room at a computer having a conversation with yourself in any other context might indicate some kind of psychotic complex. But that’s the best way I’ve found to get to know the vast world of people who live in my head. And Karl is no exception.
But at the writing workshop I attended back in June, I learned something about characters that I hadn’t known before. I attended a workshop/breakout taught by writer and former homicide detective Mark Mynheir (The Night Watchman). And in our breakout session he went into detail about the type of character profiling he used to do when he was a cop. He was in charge of interviewing suspects and getting them to confess, and he used this type of profiling to help him know how to approach the people he had to talk to.
He referenced a book that was neither a character design book nor a book for police officers. It’s actually a book about relationships: How Can I Get Through to You? by Dr. Glen Foster and Mary Marshall. It’s out of print, but I found an old copy on Amazon. It’s really brilliant. And it’s what I’m using for most of this information, so consider that my disclaimer; I didn’t come up with this on my own.
This book (and Mark) states that there are four basic personality types: the Feeler, the Driver, the Analyzer, and the Elitist.
Everyone in the world is one of these personality types. You’re born with this personality, and it shapes you your entire life. Granted, your personal history will also affect the person you become, but even wrapped in back story, your personality type will remain the same.
It’s the same for characters. And once you can understand the four basic personality types, your characters will become more real, both to you and your readers. Because if you can accurately communicate who your characters are and why they do the things they do, your audience will understand it too.
So for now, I’m just going to do a brief overview of the four personality types, and next time I’ll get deeper into the nitty-gritty of each one. One thing you need to be aware of is that these personality types are only relating to those without a psychological condition. In instances like that, you can’t trust that character to remain one character.
The Feeler is the most commonly encountered of all four personality types. This emotion-based personality type makes up more than 50% of the population. According to Mark, they’re usually women. They are introverted and bases decisions about situations and relationships based on how they feel about it.
Feelers are usually laid back, quiet, warm and considerate of other people. They listen patiently and respond in a more controlled way to others. They rarely force their views on other people. Actually, you may never even hear their personal opinion on something … unless you ask them for it.
Feelers are empathetic. They feel the pain of others, often long after the other person has moved on from it.
They are unagressive, dislike conflict of any kind, and doubt themselves and their ability to act successfully in a confrontation. They are sensitive, non-violent, nonconfrontational and trusting.
The Driver is the exact opposite of the Feeler. Drivers don’t really make decisions based on how they feel but on what they can prove to be true based on observation. A Driver will use facts to appeal to someone else. Not feelings.
Drivers are extroverted and must be in control all the time, of every situation and every relationship. Drivers honestly believe that if they aren’t the ones in charge, the whole show will go down the drain. Drivers have one main goal: to convince you to do what they tell you.
They are vibrant, enthusiastic, lively and full of spark. They think fast and talk faster and will tell you their opinion of life, the universe and everything — whether you want it or not. They are decisive and controlling.
Drivers live for confrontation, viewing it as a game that must be won. They have very expressive faces and animated body language. Their every emotion is displayed whether through facial expression or nonverbal communication.
Drivers are great manipulators, highly perceptive and constantly aware of how they are affecting people around them. In order to control people, they will change their approach to people. They can alter their tone and their demeanor mid sentence to achieve this if they feel the situation warrants it.
The Analyzer can be similar to the Driver in that they both thrive on facts, but their approach is completely different. While the Driver moves fast and loud, the Analyzer sticks with one unwavering line of logical thought without any use of drama.
Extroverted but thoroughly logical, the Analyzer can only process decisions through the filter of reason and fact. They are reliable, the type of person you can count on to remain calm and level headed in a crisis. They rarely lose their cool, even when people around them have lost theirs. And while they can appear at times to enjoy light-hearted exchanges, they never seem to engage themselves wholeheartedly.
Analyzers are interested in the here and now. They don’t care about the abstract qualities of life. They are sensible and serious, focused and methodical, self-controlled and exacting. They are direct and assertive. And they are extremely stable because they put no stock in emotion at all.
The Elitist personality type is the smallest percentage of the population. Fortunately. Elitists are people of great charm and style who can be considered charismatic. People are drawn to this type of person, but even though they are surrounded by people, the Elitist will never condescend to interact with them on a personal level. Elitists are aloof and removed from situations and relationships because they consider themselves to be above everyone else.
They rarely display extremes of behavior or emotion. They will rarely raise their voices, whether it’s cursing or disagreeing or laughing too loud. They will never do anything inappropriate.
They are loners and keep their real thoughts to themselves. They are only truly comfortable with the people they consider to be their intellectual peers. This type of person can mix humor and charm with toughness and candor, so effectively manipulating others that he can convince two people of opposing viewpoints that he agrees with both of them without compromising his own position.
They have enormous egos. And they’re fine with it. They can use aspects of the other three personality types to endear themselves to others, all as a point of control. They are elegant and impressive and brilliant. They never fail at anything.
They are precise and insightful, and they will dominate any situation, not because they feel like they must be in control but because they believe they are the only person worthy of being in charge.
So there you have it: the four basic personality types. These are rough sketches. In following posts, I’ll go deeper into what the book says about each type. But just starting out, do you recognize your characters in any of these? I tell you, when I first got Mark’s notes, it was all I could do to keep quiet. Because instantly I recognized four of my characters who were associated with each of these types.
I’ll use them as examples as we progress, but I can tell you right away: Karl is a Driver.
Next time: The Feeler.