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Get intimate with your characters

I recently picked up a book called Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling. Not only did it sound interesting, but I figured I could pick up something that would help with characterization. While the book wasn’t quite the field guide to which traits certain bits of “behavioral residue” were linked to that I expected, I still gleaned plenty of useful and interesting ideas.

One of my favorite sections was about a series of studies done by Dan McAdams to determine the requirements for escalating intimacy. That is, what kinds of things do we need to know about another person to feel like we really know him or her? How do we move into those deeper levels? And can we move through those levels in a matter of hours or days instead of months or years?

Aha, I thought. This applies to me.

In a romance, we're often trying to throw the hero and heroine together and get them to a happily ever after in a few days or weeks. It's always a challenge to make it believable. This is why reunion romances are popular. It's easier to believe a person would fall quickly in love with someone she already knows, rather than a complete stranger.

So here's the payoff for sticking with me this long. According to McAdams, there are three layers of identity, each one providing a deeper level of intimacy with the other person.

  1. Traits. These are the basic, outward manifestations of personality that are fairly easy to spot. The five he uses are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. When describing someone’s traits, you might use words like kind, honest, smart, sexy, fun, loud, lazy, moody, or shy.
  2. Personal concerns. These include the person’s values, political beliefs, goals, roles, regrets, and skills. She might be a wife, mother, and writer. She may want to be published by age 40, lose 10 pounds, and spend more time with her kids. She may value things like peace, family, and health.
  3. Identity. This is the inner story of the person, her past, present, and expected future as she sees it. If she strongly identifies herself as a computer expert, she’ll do everything in her power to maintain that identity, even go back to school to ensure that she’s always on top of the latest technology. If he identifies strongly with being a successful executive, he may struggle with more than just he bills if the gets laid off and can’t find equivalent work. This is why people kill themselves when the stock market crashes.

So if my characters are forced into a situation where he reveals his integrity and she proves her kindness, then they move on to scenes where their personal concerns are illuminated, and finally are thrust into circumstances that challenge their very identities, they might be able to develop a believable level of intimacy in a short span of time.

Now I just need to figure out what all of those illuminating situations are going to be.

Want to read more about characters and personality? Try these posts:

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  1. carihislop


    This sounds like a great book! I still have my Christmas book money to spend – I think I may have found what I want to spend it on! Thanks for the post!

    • Reply

      Thanks for stopping by Cari! SNOOP was definitely interesting. Not quite what I’d expected, but I love learning about human behavior, and this was an easy read.

  2. Reply

    I love studying human development too. Anything that might help me understand human nature is worth a read. My stories are always character driven so anything I learn gets fed back into the story machine! Have you ever taken the Myers Brigg personality test? I give that to all my characters now. I find understanding the individual characters helps me understand what the characters are doing. Of course they rarely take me into their confidence, heaven forbid they should tell me what’s going on!

    • Reply

      Cari, I was into all this long before I was a writer. I’ve always liked to know what makes people tick. I took the Myers-Briggs years and years ago, so I can’t tell you what my letters are now, but I’m a huge fan of Tony Alessandra’s Platinum Rule behavioral styles.

      I actually did a post about personality styles and writing more than a year ago, if you’re interested:

      I haven’t tried giving my characters the test, but I do try to decide which direction they lean. And yeah, mine don’t talk to me much either. 😉

      • Reply

        Thanks for mentioning the Platinum rule thingy. I’ve never heard of that one. I shall definitely look that up after reading your other post. 🙂

        Another thing I use all the time is The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. His theory is so simple yet so profound. I use it everyday in real life as well as my characters.

        • Reply

          Cari: I read The Five Love Languages years ago. It opened my eyes to how different my husband and I are with regard to that. It’s interesting too, because we’re pretty much the same personality type, but when it comes to love, he’s Service, and I’m…everything else, LOL.

          Thanks for the reminder about that one.

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