Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Exploring Personality: Part Two -- "What's My Motivation?"

Without a doubt, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the most well know personality typing system in existence. And why not? It's been around a long time. The first of its kind. It's been used by the government (heck, it may still be being used by the government), especially the military, and corporations of all sizes. It's a good indicator of patterns of behavior.

As such, it can be a useful tool for writers when trying to develop Personalities for their books. And, yes, let's call them Personalities, because not all characters have personalities. Don't get me wrong, that's not always a bad thing; two-dimensional (even one-dimensional!) characters have their place, but they are hardly Personalities.

But there's a problem... Okay, actually, there are a lot of problems. Myers-Briggs falls short of being useful in any kind of practical sense. It's the same kind of useful as deciding things like hair color: brown or blond, as in "What attitude does this Personality have: extroversion or introversion?" It will tell you behaviors, but it won't tell you motivations. At least not motivations that are more than surface motivations like:
"I want to go to a party" because the character is an extrovert. Or
"I want to stay home" because the character is an introvert.
It may as well be, "I need to put on sunscreen because I have fair skin."

Besides, Myers-Briggs is kind of clunky. I mean that in the "overly complicated" sense. It's like trying to do Calculus with a slide rule
Image by Dicklyon and used under the linked license.
instead of the calculator sitting next to you (and I had a friend in high school who used to do that just for "fun."). Having a degree in psychology, I don't say this lightly. In general, Myers-Briggs is overly complex but, then, it wasn't designed by or for lay people. It was designed by and for psychologists.

The Keirsey Temperament Sorter, which is what I'll call an elaboration of the Myers-Briggs, is somewhat better seeing as how it actually provides the information in a format that most anyone can understand. It's actually the most used personality assessment system in the world. However, the Keirsey system relies even more on behaviors, observable data, than Myers-Briggs, making it, by its very nature, more rigid. You are this or you are that. It has no room for aberrations in behavior, no room for you to act outside of type.

Which doesn't mean that it can't be useful for writers in a very general sense. Again, if you need to know how your character will act in a given situation, and you have put that character in a Keirsey box, the Keirsey system will tell you how your character should behave.

But, still, we're missing Motivation. Without Motivation, we don't really have Personality. Especially without the allowance for characters to act outside of, well, character.

Generally speaking, personality typing systems don't actually have anything to do with underlying personalities, only behaviors caused by those personalities. "When you go to a party, do you like to retreat into a corner with a small group or do you want to be the center of attention?" See, that's behavior focused. But why are you at the party to begin with? There can be all kinds of motivations for that, and that's where things begin to get interesting.

I'll admit that of all the systems I looked at during college, the Keirsey is the one I liked best. But that's because all of the other systems were just some sort of variation on the Keirsey and/or the Myers-Briggs. Based on behaviors that could be observed and measured, not any kind of internal drives.

Then, well out of school, I found the Enneagram of Personality.
The Enneagram, at its heart, is based on personal motivations and drives. Rather than express how one reacts to the world, it expresses how one acts, or attempts to act, upon the world. It also accounts for what can be seen as out of character shifts by people. For instance, have you ever run into someone you know in a place you don't normally encounter them and it seems that he's someone other person entirely? You come away thinking, "Who was that person?" The Enneagram accounts for that. The Keirsey system doesn't even attempt to.

One of the great failings in many stories, whether they be books or movies or TV shows, is a lack of understanding by the author about their own characters' motivational factors. Or, rather, the lack of any internal motivational schemes. The author needs certain things to happen for the benefit of the plot and just has some character do the necessary actions. [I don't know if the books are this way, but I know the TV show Game of Thrones is full of characters doing things that don't make any sense for them to do. There's only so much of saying "why did he do that?" that I can take.] Now, I understand moving the plot along as well as the next guy, but you need to give your characters a reason for doing the things they do; that's what makes them Personalities and not just characters.

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the Enneagram, but I have read a couple of books on it, and I think it's a great system to help authors in designing Personalities for their stories. Hopefully, this series will help give insight into why different types of people act the way they do which will, in turn, give you insight into designing realistic Personalities who do things because of internal motivations and not because of the arbitrary needs of the plot.


  1. I'm not sure I followed all the testing jargon (or how to use them) but I think I got the important part here, which is that characters need to have consistent, believable motivations and personalities. That gets overlooked a lot, I agree. Probably a lot more important in a novel than a short story, of course.

    I think where people fail is where you said: they use characters to push the plot forward, making it sort of just an action movie without much emotional impact ("The Expendables" really says it all) or alternatively, they don't give much thought to who their characters ARE.

    In my book 'the After,' which is the one I think had the most detailed characters, I think I kept the characters pretty consistent, by having an overall personality in mind for them. "Up So Down" had that, too -- it makes it easier to have them act believably in a given situation if you have an idea who the person is.

    I'd like to know more about how to use your testing things to help with that.

  2. Loved this! All very fascinating. This was perfect for me because character motivation is one of my weaknesses. Thanks, Andrew!

  3. Briane: After next week, I mostly won't be talking about tests anymore, and, next week, you get to take one, so study hard.
    I thought all of the characters in The Expendables were the same?

    Morgan: It is all very fascinating, which is why I studied psychology. Why people do things is a mystery I have always thought worth exploring, especially since, often, they don't even know why.

  4. Good article. I am so interested in psychology...why people do what they do is fascinating to me. I'm a E.I.F.P. on the Myers-Briggs chart....or thing....or whatever it is! At least I was a few years back. Looking forward to finding out more on this Enneagram.
    I've never seen Game of Thrones, but I find that most characters on tv these days are the same as every other character in their genre.
    Reminds me of Basil Exposition from Austin Powers!

  5. Eva: It can be pretty interesting stuff. People do things, sometimes, without ever knowing why they're doing them, because they don't understand their own motivations.

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