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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:

The next dimension

Now that my (very) rough draft is complete, I'm working my way through Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass, and applying it to my current MS. Chapter 2 is called Opening Extra Character Dimensions, and it is a real eye opener.

It's a great exercise–similar to one I did at a workshop by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love–where you identify a strong character trait for your protagonist. Then, you determine the opposite of it, and write a paragraph where your protagonist demonstrates that opposing quality.

Repeat four times.

For my hero, I found this fairly easy. In fact, I had done this already in many instances throughout my MS. Yay me, right? But wait. What about the heroine?

I failed. Not only did I make her as multi-dimensional as a piece of cardboard, I had a much harder time coming up with four personality traits for which to find antonyms. I didn't realize she was that boring, but she could probably use some work.

I think I'm biased. I like men, so I spend a lot of time working on my hero and making him amazing, but human. I want the reader to fall in love with him as much as I do.

But ideally, the heroine is just as human and complex as the man. The reader needs to like her enough to feel that she deserves our beloved hero after all.

None of this was conscious on my part, so going through the exercise was enlightening.

How do you bring out the many dimensions of your characters to make them complex and compelling?

Cult of personality

Have you ever met a person who rubbed you the wrong way, but you couldn't figure out why? Have you ever had a boss or coworker you didn't know how to deal with? Did you ever wonder how two siblings raised by the same parents could be so different (like my own boys)?

It's all in the personality.

Understanding your personality style can be valuable for determining career choices and understanding why you act the way you do. Recognizing others' personality styles can help you get along better with the people you deal with every day.

But as a writer, you can use an understanding of personality styles to craft complex characters who act in a consistent and believable way. Besides knowing your character's goals and motivation, choosing a personality style for her will help you create a believable reaction when she meets an obstacle.

Using The Platinum Rule™ Behavioral Styles developed by Dr. Tony Alessandra, here are four potential responses for your character when she's faced with an obstacle:

  • The Thinker might gather information, make a list of pros and cons, and plan a response, finally acting when she has as much information as possible. Her response will probably be timely, but not immediate.
  • The Socializer would probably make a decision based on impulse. Leap then look.
  • The Relater would worry about the problem, try to avoid it, ask for other's opinions, and hope that someone else would take care of it. Head in the sand.
  • The Director would quickly size up the options, make a decision, and execute it, even if others think it's the wrong choice.

It should be clear that the type of character you choose can have a great effect on your story. Each of the four options above could take the same story in a different direction.

If you'd like to find out more, here are some of the popular personality assessments you might want to check out. Take a quiz as yourself, and then take a quiz as your character. You might be surprised what you learn.

The Daily Squirrel: acrobat

In her dreams, she was an acrobat, flying high above the circus floor while the audience looked on with awe. The gasps of the crowd filled her ears, the wind ruffled her hair and cooled her face as she flew from swing to swing. She could smell the popcorn and cotton candy mingled with the scent of hay and animals. With a sudden bang on her bedroom door, the dream vanished, slipping through her fingers like sand. She stared at the loose drywall tape on the ceiling of her ordinary bedroom, in an ordinary house, where her boring, ordinary life took place.