Thursday, September 16, 2010

Aspiring Advice: Personality = Character

A good friend of mine asked a rather intriguing question the other day - how do you create a personality for a deaf mime who is void of all feeling? While this question may have been in jest, there's actually plenty to go on here. A deaf mime who is void of feelings . . . now that makes for an interesting character! More importantly, how do you create a personality? I may have touched on this a little, not too long ago, but I think the topic is worthy of a closer look and deeper scrutiny. We'll get back to the deaf mime in a moment.

First, let's ask what personality is. There's a wide range of definitions out there, but for this column, I'll describe personality as this - the character of a person, noticed by a collection of behaviors and qualities as impressed by others. These qualities are culminated by physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social characteristics or traits. The first step in creating a personality is to generate a character for it.

How do you do this? There is no straight answer, but there are a few points (or questions that I keep in mind) when I begin a new project and need to generate characters to fill the void. First, what is the nature of your story and how many characters do you need to carry out your story? Second, what has happened to these characters before your story begins and how does that affect them at present? Third, how many traits do they need to make your character interesting and appealing? Lastly, will these traits play a role in your story's future and conclusion?

Characters tell the story. You do not. To tell your story effectively, you must imagine, role play, and really get into the mind of your character(s) and understand what they would do when given a certain situation.

Let's go back to the deaf mime. For some reason, I see a person who is a war veteran, who experienced hearing loss from a explosion and saw his buddies die, which rendered him emotionally detached from other people. Maybe this person was born "deaf and dumb," and the life of a mime provided an adequate living, as mimes are not supposed to speak and being deaf allows the person to work without hearing the ridicule of others. As a result, this person never learned how to interact with people, being emotionally withdrawn. Poor fellow . . .

The long and short of it - you create personalities by knowing everything about your characters before your story begins. Does the reader need to know that the mime is a war vet right away? No. That's something the reader will gradually learn as the story progresses, which makes for a more interesting read, that is, if you can get us involved in the character. The writer knows all, which means the writer would (or should) know what the mime would do in any given situation. Below is a link to an excellent list of personality traits, to get an idea:

Creating one personality is like generating a matrix - the possibilities and combinations are endless. Strengths - impairments. Loyalty - distrust. Dopey - grumpy. Notice how, in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, their very names reflect the dwarf's personalities. To me, that makes the story fun. My advice this week - pay attention to the characters you read and watch - actively pick them apart for their personality traits and the reason(s) for these characters to behave as they do. Do this long enough, and you'll be able to generate intriguing, plot-driving personalities in no time. I know you can do it!

I'm David, and Sun Chips make for a good breakfast.


  1. Hi David! It was great to meet you today at the book signings. I love connecting with other writers!

    Great post, by the way. I love picking apart characters in books and movies. I love picking apart my own characters, too! I have a sheet I fill out for all my main characters that helps me get an idea of all the things you listed. I also really like using the Color Code and Myers-Briggs Inventory-- they give good insights into general personality types.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. You sound exceptionally seasoned - I didn't even think to mention Myers-Briggs . . . I shame myself. Thanks so much, and keep at it.