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For example, I have recently taken to analyzing all my characters within the scope of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I already had my characters in place; I just used this test as a tool to get in their heads, to try to understand how they perceive the world and how they make decisions, so when I'm writing them, they can make decisions truer to the personality I have laid out.

Are there any other tools you can use to get into your characters' heads?

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One thing I'd recommend is the Big Five or Five Factor Model in lieu of MBTI. FFM is considered to be more scientifically valid, whereas MBTI is based on Jung; Jung, Freud, and other psychoanalysts have been largely discredited. –  Philip White Nov 29 '10 at 22:28
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Since MBTI has not been discredited (nor other Jungian and Freudian constructs), and in fact is quite widely used and respected, I think that you've made a good start. You should combine this with research, i.e. talking to people who are like your characters. There's really no substitute for research. It's the only way to get out of the limitations of your head. Also, you should become familiar with your own classifications (this is your work, you know). What are your divisions and types of people? How do you see the world? –  bev Nov 30 '10 at 8:12
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I am enjoying the banter about the scientific validity of a personality test on fictional characters. –  Jeff Knecht Dec 5 '10 at 16:48
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@Jakub - that's actually funny, given one of the recurring themes of my discussions with my friend, the world renown psychologist-professor I alluded to in my last post, author of over 200 peer reviewed papers and 7 textbooks on psychology. She says that one of the main problems in psychology as such is that it is so 'soft'. So any claims, such as Furnham's, that something is 'too soft' is absurd rather than cogent. You may not be aware that since 1995, the MBTI designation of I vs E has been shown to be accurate with new brain scanning techniques. –  bev Dec 13 '10 at 4:59
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Other, more anecdotal, evidence of S vs N and T vs F have been shown to be descriptive. You may be confused because of all the crazy web-sites that try to predict what the outward personality traits of someone who is, for example, INTJ, will look like. This is the voodoo, not the fact that, say, introverted and extraverted preferences exist in people. –  bev Dec 13 '10 at 5:00
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6 Answers

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I used to exert a lot of time and effort to creating extensive character biographies and doing things like personality tests. I think all of this is very useful, but in the end, the way one gets to know their character best (I think, anyway) is simply by writing the story. The truth is, you'll never know or understand your character as well as when you see them in action, making their own decisions, even doing things that you didn't necessarily plan for them to do.

Creating scenario-based character profiles that have nothing to do with the story can be helpful, too, and I wouldn't discourage it - but I would ask: Why put forth so much time and energy creating things that have nothing to do with the story? After all, if the story doesn't turn out exactly the way you wanted it, that's why the rewrite was invented.

I believe that its really in the rough draft that we meet our characters for the first time - even if we have a 100 page biography prepared beforehand. Which is part of the reason the phrase "writing is rewriting" is so true. Because once you finish that rough draft, you know your characters so well, you can finally go back through and make them consistent and deep from beginning to end.

One of the rough draft's most important roles is to help the writer get into the characters' heads. I'm just not certain it really, truly happens before then.

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For me, I like to interview them. I have a series of loose questions that I like to have them answer. It helps me not only round out there backstory but get an idea how they will react to situations.

Some of the questions I use:

  • Something that embarrassed them when they where growing up?
  • How did they get along with your parents?
  • Have they ever been so mad they couldn't help lashing out?
  • Have they ever been in a fight, if so, what about and did they win?
  • What do they want more then anything?
  • How far are they willing to go to get that?

And so on. The idea is that each question requires me to find something in their back story to answer it. It makes them more real and lets me understand how they see the world and they will face hard questions.

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You ask your characters how the got along with my parents? Or with you parents? confused ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 13 '10 at 19:34
    
I do something very similar. I write a letter to my characters, asking similar questions. I then try to answer the letter in the character's voice. It helps me get into a different mindset. This is especially helpful for stories that have a lot of dialogue. –  Steven Drennon Jul 26 '11 at 3:28
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I sometimes like to write a short autobiography of my characters. I'll start with a sketch describing them physically, then write bits of their life story. I like to focus on struggles the characters are having or have had in their past because to me, that's what makes a character interesting. One of the great things about writing these background pieces is that often bits of them make it into my actual fiction work.

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Sometimes I just close my eyes and have them walk around.

What is your character's leading center? As in, when they walk, do they lead with their head? Their chest? Are they slumped over? Squinting into the sun, looking around at their environment, or trying to avoid eye contact? Do they move with a purpose, or do they wander aimlessly?

Once your character starts walking, you'll probably start to envision their environment. If you've already chosen a setting, which particular details about it do they notice? What a character sees is EVERYTHING. (By the way, if you have NOT chosen a setting, it's a perfect time to throw them outside, have them walk past other people, buildings, nature, whatever, and imagine how they'd respond.)

I like to get my character moving, and then see if I can glean anything about the character's personality and mood by imagining how they'd perceive obvious things, like the weather. Or the greenery. Do they see bare trees as barren, colorless and dead, or do they delight in the crunch of the leaves that have fallen off of them? Does he choke on the wind blowing in his face and get annoyed that it's drying out his contacts, or is she relieved to feel a breeze against her cheeks, especially with that heavy sweatshirt crowding her neck? (And as you can see, other details about their clothes, their hair, even whether or not they wear contacts and stuff like that, will follow.)

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I like to interview my characters. The main idea is to start with a question that invites the character to tell me something new, then "follow the energy."

For a slightly longer explanation, and links to some examples, see http://dalewriting.dale.emery.name/2008/09/interviews/

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I found this reply not too long ago and finally tried it out over the weekend - it worked incredibly well, and was exactly what I needed to delve deeper into my characters' voices and motivations. Thanks! :) –  Lexi Oct 30 '11 at 2:26
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Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that different methods work for different writers, so it might be a process of trying a few to see what works for you personally.

Me, I opt for the minimum amount of force. Let me explain. With a lot of exercises, I feel I am still forcing the character out, as a writer, sculpting them by racking my brain - so, what did he/she do when he was eight?

What I like to do is a method I learned from John August, I place the character in an interesting situation and then just follow it as it evolves. I try not to push it, only to go with the flow of it, and hopefully I will discover something new about the character - Oh, so that is what he/she would do!

The situation you set up can be one that is completely unrelated to the actual story, whether it be a short story, novel or script of any kind. It can be a banal situation - the character goes out to buy milk, travels to work and meets someone on the subway, anything. Even these ordinary situations can bring amazing characteristics to light and they help flesh out the characters as just people, what they do when they aren't chasing after that treasure or evil wizard. The purpose is to observe the behavior of the character as a third party, and you will often find that what you discovered plays well into and influences the main story as well.

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