Sorting people into boxes or categories is not something I would usually encourage, but there can be an exception made if you are a writer who is looking for a starting point in character creation.
Most of the time, you won’t sit at your desk and think up a character. The best main characters just appear, materialise out of thin air and take over your brain. If you try to ignore them, they’ll flip you off or stomp their feet. Scribble down those quirks and mannerisms for later.
In the early stages of character creation, I like to analyse what personality the materialised gal or guy (or alien, animal, tree…whatever floats your boat) might have. For example, for my current protagonist, I knew right away that she was an INFJ from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. INFJ is also called the Advocate personality. In my story, she is an idealistic young lady, slightly neurotic and secretive, but with genuine care for her people. Her sense of morality, however, makes her life incredibly complicated in the face of her corrupt family.
Your characters will evolve and grow throughout your story. They might become completely different people with new tendencies and ideals, or they will become their own worst nightmare. Either way, you need a foundation before you can start building. Look at it like a skeleton that gives your character the ability to stand. Add tendons and muscles through physical features, quirks and mannerisms. Finally, never forget the flaws that make your heroes and villains human and relatable.
Not every character needs to be loved and admired, but even the bad guys have a reason for what they are doing. Often their motive stems from an even more intense feeling or ideal than that of the protagonist. It makes them such good villains in the first place. That creates a conflict that drives your plot. Be careful though too many heroic ideals can be overstimulating. The core of your character might get swept away in a creative tsunami. So decide on a foundation and stick to it. It steers your plot.
Your secondary characters will probably fulfil more archetypal roles. That’s fine! It’s not to say they won’t change at all, but there is a reason they are behind-the-scenes.
Carl Gustav Jung’s typology gives an excellent overview of 12 common personalities. Jung’s work was actually the basis from which the Myers-Briggs Test was developed. So, while your protagonist will most likely break out of his original box, as he, she or it should, your secondary characters might be happy to stay ‘the mentor’ or ‘the caregiver’ to the end. This will help you keep focused on your main characters without being distracted by extensive character development at all levels. No one can keep up with a cast of twenty people that all go through different crises.
Over the next few weeks, I will look at some of these typologies more closely. For now, have a scroll through the ones listed below to get you started. If you haven’t done so, I’d recommend doing some tests yourself. The better you understand yourself, the easier it will be to understand others, including your own characters.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
Love Languages (requires you to create a profile)