Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Give Your Characters a Personality Test by Marie Wells Coutu

Creating fully developed characters can make or break your novel. No author wants to read a review that criticizes his book because the characters are “cardboard” or “one dimensional.”
Marie Wells Coutu

On my bookshelf, I have at least four different titles on building realistic characters, not to mention the numerous other craft books that devote chapters to the topic. Some writers use a 100-item questionnaire to “interview” their main characters about everything from their favorite food to their life goals.

Of course, it is important to know your hero and heroine’s backstory. Her story goal, greatest dream, dark moment of the past, and greatest fear are all important to developing a character your readers want to spend time with.

But I’ve also found that I need to know more about her personality. Otherwise, my characters all act and sound like me.

If you’ve ever worked in corporate America, you’ve probably heard of the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator or another personality test. You may even know your own 4-letter code. But have you ever given your characters a personality test?
There are several free quizzes online (just type “personality test” in your search box) and some that make the rounds on Facebook, but here are three that I like.
Meyers-Briggs uses 16 combinations of 4 letters. The test on this site (https://my-personality-test.com/personality-type-indicator) can be done in about 10 minutes. After your character “takes” the test, read the description of strengths and weaknesses, career paths, and relationships. (I copy and paste the detail into my Scrivener document.)

If 16 variations seem overwhelming, some tests have fewer categories and more memorable labels. From the same site, you can find out what “color” your character is: https://my-personality-test.com/share/5976783401268315692/true-colours. For instance, my heroine for my current WIP is Purple and my hero is Orange. Again, descriptions help you understand each personality or “true color.”
Christian authors Gary Smalley and John Trent developed a quiz that uses four animal types: Lion, Otter, Golden Retriever, and Beaver. You can print their quiz from this site: http://www3.dbu.edu/jeanhumphreys/SocialPsych/smalleytrentpersonality.htm. You’ll see how the animal names play out for each personality.

No matter which test you use (I use all three and combine the results), the descriptions of that personality help me to keep my character acting consistently throughout the novel. It also enables me to develop aspects of his personality that I wouldn’t think of on my own, since he’s not like me. To provide an extra dimension, I may have him demonstrate a trait opposite his defining quality, but then I know I need to show his motivation for the change. If he’s normally likable and personable, in one scene he may act rudely, but I’ll want to show the trigger that causes him to act that way. (It may foreshadow his dark moment event later in the story.)

What’s even more fun is when the personality descriptions provide specific ideas for scenes. For example, my heroine (an ISFJ) is described as a “rule-follower” who “does things by the book.” The description states, “You can also become pushy and judgmental when you don’t agree with others’ decisions.” Bingo! When she’s upset over the actions of the hero, I can create a scene showing her to be pushy and judgmental without contradicting her loyal and responsible personality. Such a scene will deepen her character by revealing an underlying contradiction.

From these personality explanations, I can also see how my heroine and hero will react to each other and interact with other characters.

Spending the time to give my main characters personality tests helps make these people that inhabit my stories more believable. 

What tips do you have for keeping the characters in your stories from being all alike or one-dimensional?

About the Author
The Secret Heart
by Marie Wells Coutu
Marie Wells Coutu began making up stories soon after she began talking. Her most recent title, The Secret Heart, and its prequel, an e-book novelette titled The Divided Heart, are published by Write Integrity Press, along with the award-winning For Such a Moment and Thirsting for More. She and her husband divide their time between Iowa, near their two children and four grandchildren, and Florida, where it’s warm all winter. Marie is working on a historical novel set in western Kentucky, her home state.

Marie is a regular contributor to Seriously WriteFor more posts by Marie, click here.


  1. Great post, Marie! Thanks for the links to personality tests. My characters need to go take one.

    1. Thanks, Sally! I'd love to hear how your characters do and if it gives you any new insights you can use!

  2. I'll use the Writer's Guide to Character Traits. It gives various types of people and takes it from normal to extreme. I've never done the Meyers-Briggs test, but think I'll have to try it, Marie. Thanks!

    1. You're welcome, Sandy. I'll have to check out that Writer's Guide, too. The more resources, the better able we are to find out what works for us, right? Let me know how you like using the Meyers-Briggs test.

    2. I did it for my current main characters yesterday, Marie, and was amazed at how accurate the results were. I think I'm sold. If I get up the nerve, I might do it for myself. :)


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