So I’m starting the new book. For the first time in years I’m building my characters from scratch and I’m remembering all the techniques I’ve used over the years to flesh them into believable people who will help to form the plot I’ll build around them.
I grew up the child of actors and I’ll admit my approach is a little bit method but it’s always worked for me. When I first start work on a character I know them as a gut feeling, the bare bones of them. I know what they’re capable of and how they think but the surface stuff like dress sense, hair colour, height etc, etc, etc just isn’t there yet.
So there are two techniques I use again and again. They help to give a framework to the instinctive stuff that all the rest can be hung on. It might sound a bizarre or, heaven forbid, pretentious way of going about things but it works for me.
Jungian psychology mighsound a bit involved but really I’m only talking about a psychological tool used extensively by recruiters, team building coaches and their ilk. I spent a few months many years ago working for a crowd of occupational psychologists. They liked to know what made their staff tick so we were all made to do all kinds of psychometric tests, including the MBTI.
Now despite the fact that the detailed analysis of the types has always reminded me of horoscopes, the test can be a handy for building characters. Apart from the fact that, to get it, you have to answer a detailed set of questions as your character – which is always good practise before you start putting words in their mouths – it also gives you an overview of what makes your character tick. Each of the 16 types has a detailed definition which covers what kind of worker they are, what kind of romantic partner, their strengths and their weaknesses. If you don’t know them already, a detailed read gives you all the buttons you might want to press (if you’re planning on giving your character a hard time.)
I wouldn’t necessarily do the test for every character but certainly all the main ones. There are readily available free versions of the test online. The actual MBTI test is trademarked so the free versions that you find (like this one or this one) will not correspond exactly but despite what is said about them they give much the same results. Once you have the personality type that fits your character then the definitions are widely available with a bit of Googling.
I also make playlists for my main characters. I’m used to working with noise around me so I’m not one of those writers that needs absolute silence to get the words down. I always have music or the radio on while I’m working and listening to music that my character would listen to rather than my own personal taste helps to get into their heads. We all listen to music for so many different reasons; because of memories, because we identify, because we are fitting in with the herd or standing out from the crowd. Listening to their choice of music helps me see through my characters’ eyes, not to mention get into the right mood to write them.
Everyone has different ways of working. These are just two things that work for me. As of today my two main characters are personality typed and playlisted. Now the real work can begin.