A reader recently asked me this, and I have added it to my FAQs page.
Q. I’ve heard writers say “I was going to do X, but then the character did Y.” I always think, Wait, aren’t you the one who makes up what the character does?
A. Well, it may sound strange, but when we are writing fiction, the characters do “come to life” and do things the author wasn’t completely planning. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if this does not happen, then the story is not working. All the richest parts of my own stories have come about as a result of this phenomenon.
Of course, the author still has to “make up” what the character is doing in a sense, and write it down. But it seems to come from somewhere else at the same time. This is similar to what happens to actors and musicians when they talk about “being in the zone.” They still have to play the notes or say the words, and they need to be talented and to have practiced. But something more is also going on. This is the reason that ancient poets and storytellers used to invoke the Muse before embarking on their art.
I’m not sure this phenomenon is experienced by every single fiction writer. Perhaps there are some very meticulous plotters who don’t experience this and who still write perfectly good books. But this “characters coming to life” thing is definitely a part of my own process, and I’ve heard many other authors talk about it, so I know I’m not the only one.
On a related note, I’ve heard that some people write up “character sheets” before they begin drafting their novel. They come up with details about the character’s personality, back story, etc. In my case, I don’t do this kind of thing before I start drafting; instead, it’s part of the drafting process. I observe how the characters react in the situations I place them, and they reveal back story as we go. It wasn’t until after writing The Long Guest, for example, that I was able to tell that Nirri is an ESTP on the Meyers-Briggs. And MBTI typing him, by then, was just more a silly, fun exercise than a part of character development.
Fellow authors, please chime in about whether and how you have experienced this phenomenon.Do you count on your characters coming to life during the drafting or outlining process? Or is it something that occasionally happens, and you enjoy, but that you can get through a novel without? Has a character ever become so recalcitrant that you had to re-work your entire plot?
For the uninitiated, a “tag” is when a fellow blogger asks you to answer a bunch of questions, which usually revolve around a theme. I, for some mysterious reason, tend to get tagged by bloggers who are interested in books, writing, and reading.
One. Have You Ever Re-Gifted A Book You’ve Been Given?
Hmm. I don’t think so. But probably. I have been known to buy a book for myself, read it, and then a few years later, give the nearly-new copy to a fellow reader as a gift. And then, after they have enjoyed it, after another few years I have even been known to re-claim it.
Also – fun fact! – I was once given a book that eventually turned out to be a library book. It was pretty good, too.
Two. Have You Ever Said You’ve Read A Book When You Haven’t?
I have definitely implied it.
Back in my college days, when I made an idol of being intellectual and was consequently a poser about it, I would talk as though I was familiar with philosophers like Plato, when I had not read their works but only heard about them.
(Hot tip: if you make an idol of your intellect, you will always feel like a dummy who is about to be exposed.)
Three. Have You Ever Borrowed A Book And Not Returned It?
Yes. I borrowed a book about children in history from a history prof, let it sit around unread, and then eventually returned it. At least, I thought I returned it. She was unable to find it, as was I.
Four. Have You Ever Read A Series Out Of Order?
All. The. Time. Some series seem to stretch on forever into both the past and future, having neither beginning nor end. *Ahem* Dragonlance!
Also, I love Tony Hillerman’s Navajo police procedurals. But they have a big flaw: they are not numbered as a series! Each one can be read as a standalone, but if you read more than a few of them, you realize that they develop over time. You have to read each book to find out where it fits in with the others in terms of Jim Chee’s disastrous love life, for example. I’ll bet that somewhere on the Internet, someone has listed them in order just for people like me.
Five. Have You Ever Spoiled A Book For Someone?
Um, probably, but I can’t remember. What I remember, of course, is when people spoil books for me. The most egregious instance was when a friend spoiled Things Fall Apart.
Six. Have You Ever Dogeared A Book?
Um, so, this is one of those habits that I have had to belatedly realize makes me uncivilized, and have had to train myself out of. (I won’t tell you the others.)
Seven. Have You Ever Told Someone You Don’t Own A Book When You Do?
Maybe, if I forget that I own it. Or, I might think that I own a book, but do so no longer.
Eight. Have You Ever Skipped A Chapter Or A Section Of A Book?
In nonfiction, all the time. Often you can see where a section is going (if you’re wrong it will quickly become apparent), or the author is laying out background that you already have.
In fiction, I occasionally skip atrocities.
Nine. Have You Ever Bad Mouthed A Book You Actually Liked?
Yes. I still feel bad about a review that did for a reviewing site, where I gave a very decent historical fiction volume 2 out of 4 stars just because the characters occasionally spoke like modern people. Once I got more experience, I got more fair with my reviews.
Moral: The Heart is Deceitful
So, it turns out that I have committed every single pecadillo on this list, from the harmless (forgetting I own books) to the prideful (posing as an intellectual). Not super surprised by this. Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.
But one question was left off this list: Have you ever been lost in a book at a time when, in the opinion of people around you, you should have been doing something else?
Just so you know up front, this post is going to talk about a Meyers-Briggs personality type, and also rely on the reader having some background knowledge of The Lord of the Rings.
Now that I’ve weeded out 90% of readers, let’s proceed.
The Meyers-Briggs Typology
The Meyers-Briggs (MBTI) is a personality typology that describes people’s preferences on how to process information and make decisions. People can be Extraverted or Introverted (E vs. I); Intuitive or Sensing (N vs. S); Thinking or Feeling (T vs. F), and Perceiving vs. Judging (P vs. J). I’ve discussed elsewhere the limitations of these binaries. Some people fall right in the middle between two of the preferences, for example, and the four MBTI preferences don’t tell everything about a person’s personality. That said, I still find the typology interesting and useful. In an earlier post, I discussed the ESTP, who is often the disruptive force in the story. Today, I’m going to discuss a much more passive type, the INFP, who is almost the ESTP’s opposite.
Frodo as an example of the INFP
When I say the INFP is “passive,” that’s not a slam. I’m an INFP myself.
The INFP is Introverted. This means that he or she has a rich inner life, and draws his/her energy from within. Interacting with the outer world drains him. (Extraverts get their energy from the outer world.) Many of the strongest characters in The Lord of the Rings are Introverted, from which we can guess that J.R.R. Tolkien probably was as well. That’s not surprising, given that he was a professor who created, just for fun, several languages and an elaborate world with its own history and mythology. Introverts are less than 50% of the population, but they are overrepresented in literature because so many authors are Introverts.
As an NF (Intuitive and Feeling), the INFP is very sensitive to the feelings of those around him. He or she cares a lot about all relationships being harmonious at all times. Conflict of any kind stresses the INFP out to a greater degree than other types. This can mean the that INFP will unhealthily say or do anything to avoid conflict. The up side is that the INFP wants to have a good relationship with, and believes that he can reach, anyone. Exhibit A is Frodo’s ability to understand and even win the loyalty of Gollum.
INFPs are not quick to thrust themselves forward, take leadership, or take the initiative. They don’t want to do a task until they feel they understand it and can do it well. Mistakes are an unacceptably high cost when you can’t tolerate any damage to any relationship (read: criticism).
As a not very quick, ambitious, or assertive type, the INFP can often appear to be contributing nothing to the group.
This is really apparent when we look at Frodo’s role in the Ring saga. He delays a long time leaving on his quest and needs a push from his friends. Once he does set out, he spends all three books getting into hot water and getting rescued by people who are more powerful, capable, or (in the case of Sam) harder working. Like the other hobbits (but even more so), for about the first half of the adventure Frodo appears to be almost a pure taker. In fact, some of the most famous scenes in LOTR involve someone literally carrying him: the humans carrying the hobbits down out of the snow drifts on Carhadras. Aragorn running out of Moria with Frodo in his arms after Frodo gets speared by an orc. Sam carrying Frodo up Mt. Doom.
What is this guy good for, anyway?
Of course, as we all know, Frodo is weak and passive not just because of his personality but because he is in fact carrying a heavy, but unseen, burden: the Ring. It’s a spiritual burden that occupies his mind, allows him to see what others can’t, and exposes him to terrors. It also, more and more as the story goes on, saps his strength. He may not appear to be contributing anything, but he is doing real work for the group, though that work is hard to quantify.
Tolkien makes it so that the work Frodo does, bearing his burden, is obvious to the reader and is also clear to, and appreciated by, the rest of the Fellowship. Most people don’t read The Lord of the Rings and come away saying, “I don’t see what the big deal was about Frodo. He didn’t do anything.”
Non-Frodo INFPs also bear a burden. They bear the burden of their worry about every single person and relationship they are aware of, and of their ability to take personally everything that happens in the world. Of course, the nature of this burden varies with the maturity of the INFP. When immature, our burden is self-absorbed in nature. We want everyone to like us, we want never to be criticized. But as we mature, this can move on to becoming genuine concern for the well-being of all the people whose existence we know of.
This is a heavy burden indeed. When news travels around the world in seconds, no problem or tragedy can fail to come to the attention of the INFP. An INFP who really takes every human tragedy to heart will be too overwhelmed. Only one Man (who, in my opinion, was the perfect example of all the Meyers-Briggs types) is capable of bearing the sins of the world. As an INFP of a certain age, I have had to master the skill of consciously setting things aside as not my problem to worry about so that I can function.
Still, even if we limit the INFP’s burden to the sins and sorrows of the people in his or her immediate circle, that’s a lot. If you know an INFP (and you are not one), they are probably thinking about all of this stuff a lot more than you are. They are expending a lot of mental energy on it. That may be why they need so much sleep. If they are a Christian INFP, they are no doubt also wrestling in prayer for you and for everyone in their circle.
Today’s post is about cognitive science. But it’s also about love, in ways that will become clear.
In this post, I will regurgitate what Jordan Peterson has said about the Big Five personality traits, and then I will have a comment about them. If you doubt my word, or want to hear the same things said in a much more detailed, professional, and actually egg-headed manner, please feel free to watch the JP video below.
I have posted before about the MBTI, a personality typology which some people find insightful, but which was developed by amateurs. The MBTI makes a lot of intuitive sense to many people, but it was still made up. And it is not the only one with this problem. Peterson points out in this video that most personality typologies started as a theory which the developers then tried to apply to actual people. Not so with the Big Five. These are personality traits that emerge naturally from data. (JP says that much more convincingly than I do, of course.) They vary among individuals within every culture, and they are fairly stable throughout a person’s life. These traits are on a continuum, not binary. Each of us comes into this world falling at a certain point on each of these continua. As we mature, we expand our range along the continuum, but we are never going to move our set point from one end of a continuum to the other.
The Big Five Personality Traits
This will be easier to understand if we look at the Big Five.
Openness (to new experiences)
Very extraverted people draw energy from being around others. Very introverted people are drained by this. (This is the only trait from the Big Five that shows up, with the same terminology, in the MBTI.)
People with high neuroticism are more susceptible to negative emotion.
People with high agreeableness want to please others. Less agreeable people are less motivated to please others and more motivated to reach their own goals.
People with high conscientiousness are more industrious and more orderly than people without.
People with high openness tend to be creative types. They are also more likely to be politically liberal. (I am high openness, but due to a long personal journey, not politically leftist. My politics are spite of my temperament. This does mean that typical conservative arguments often don’t appeal to me.)
The Big Five and the Sexes
This is an aside, but Peterson often refers to the Big Five traits when talking about average differences between men and women. Women are, on average, more agreeable than men, higher in neuroticism, and slightly higher in conscientiousness. It is easy to see why these traits would flow from being designed to be moms. Even a greater tendency to negative emotion is an advantage when you’re taking care of preverbal children and you have to be sensitive to their distress.
These Are Factory Settings
It’s easy to see how a person could feel inferior by virtue of having any given one of these traits. It’s also easy to imagine how people who are proud of their trait could think there is something seriously wrong with people on the other end of the continuum.
Why don’t you want to be around other people?/ Why can’t you ever entertain yourself? (Extraversion)
Why are you so sensitive?/so insensitive? (Neuroticism)
Why are you so domineering?/so wishy-washy? (Agreeableness)
Why are you so lazy and irresponsible/so uptight and controlling? (Conscientiousness)
Why are you such a stick-in-the-mud/a hippie? (Openness)
All of us have character flaws. And sure, they fall along the fault lines of our Big Five traits, no doubt. But having any given one of these traits is not the same thing as having a sin nature. Conversely, not a single one of these traits will make the bearer a perfect person, either. These are just the factory settings.
And now we get to the love.
I was thinking about these traits as I sat in a Sunday School lesson about the love of God. To be specific, I was bemoaning that my natural tendency is to be low in conscientiousness. This has often caused me trouble with loved ones who are higher in conscientiousness. How can that be a good thing? Why didn’t God set my natural conscientiousness level a little higher? What was He thinking?
In a move typical of people who are high in openness but low in conscientiousness, I was lost in my thoughts rather than paying close attention. But then, the topic of the Sunday School lesson abruptly broke in upon my consciousness.
He loves me.
He loves me, and He made me, and, for some reason, He chose to make a person who is a bit low in conscientiousness. In fact, He chose to make people with all different Big Five factory settings. Ergo, all of these factory settings are by design. He must think we need all kinds.
Ergo, He likes your settings. Even if someone else doesn’t. Even if no one else does.
Mr. Haig-Ereildoun may be like me. Full of charm, winning everyone’s affection, but somehow not quite doing the job. I can say that the advertising agency chose me to fire because I was the youngest … But I know it was more basic than that. I did win awards. But I lost hours, days, weeks, trying to make jewels out of the twenty-five-cents-off coupons ads. Everyone loved me, but in a practical world I wasn’t what they needed. It’s hard, actually scary, being the kind of people Mr. Haig-Ereildoun and I are.
The Diary of an American Au Pair by Marjorie Leet Ford, Anchor Books, 2003, p. 182
ESTPs are observant, energetic, and crude. David Keirsey, in his book Please Understand Me II, calls them Promoters:
Witty, clever, and fun, they live with a theatrical flourish … Promoters have a knack for knowing where the action is. ESTPs have a hearty appetite for the finer things in life … Promoters are so engaging with people that they might seem to possess an unusual amount of empathy, when in fact this is not the case. Rather, they are uncanny at reading people’s faces and observing their body language … ESTPs keep their eyes on their audience, and with nerves of steel they will use this information to achieve the ends they have in mind – which is to sell the customer in some way. Promoters can be hard-nosed utilitarians … they can keep their cool in crises and operate freely … although they ordinarily have little patience with following through and mopping up.
Keirsey, Please Understand Me II, pp. 64 – 65
How Did This Guy Get in The Story?
I’m an INFP. I have little natural sympathy for this type. Thus, I didn’t set out to write an ESTP character. But I also didn’t set out to write a likeable character, which perhaps helped open the door to a temperament I wouldn’t normally consider.
When I began writing the novel, I only knew that Nimri was smart, strong, snobbish, and involved in building the Tower of Babel (the ultimate project to promote). I knew I was going to put him in a difficult situation where he’d be humbled and have a chance at redemption. Once I put him in this situation (paraplegic, being cared for by people he once looked down upon, and unable to speak their language), ESTP is the personality that naturally emerged.
At first, Nimri behaves like a jerk, which is what we would expect of anyone in such a situation but especially of this personality type. He first yells at his rescuers and attempts to order them around even though they can’t understand him. He then falls silent and begins to observe them. Later, he tries to assault one of their young women, at which point they start treating him like a prisoner. (ESTPs, remember, are crude and utilitarian.)
At this point, Nimri’s Promoter
gifts kick in and start to serve him well.
He is energetic and adaptable, so instead of brooding, he starts a diary
and occupies himself with things like arm exercises. His ability to read people’s body language
helps him as he observes his captors and begins to figure out their names and
who is related to whom. When he eventually picks up a little of their language,
he begins joking with them. His concrete
nature helps him find tasks he can do, such as music and weaving.
By the end of his time with his
captors, Nimri does find redemption … but not by turning into an INFP. Instead, the positive aspects of his Promoter
personality start to shine. He becomes
what you might call a “good” ESTP. Still
a source of energy, but energy that’s a bit more positive. Red Kryptonite.
Yet whether using his talents poorly or well, Nimri is a disruptive force in the story.
Some People Are Like That
Perhaps you know a person like
this. Some people need only enter a room
– or just walk by it – and chaos immediately breaks out. Disruption follows in their wake. They don’t even need to do anything (although
they usually do). In Nimri’s case, he
causes a stir even when sitting imprisoned in his room not talking to anyone.
And We Need Them
Though I started out to write Nimri
as an unlikeable character in need of redemption (as are we all), I actually
needed his maddening nature more than I realized. A story needs a disruptive force to keep
things moving. Jordan Peterson would
say, speaking his language of archetypes, that we need a balance between the
forces of order and the forces of chaos.
Too much chaos and society falls apart, but too much order can be
stifling, enslaving. And so in a
novel. You need a steady source of
trouble or nothing will happen in your story.
(By the way, Peterson relies
heavily on Jung for his archetypes. Concidentally, the MBTI is also derived –
distantly – from Jung’s work. I realize
there are problems with the MBTI and there would certainly be problems with
trying to draw solely on Jung for your complete philosophy of life. However, both are useful when talking about
The disruptive force in a story is often the villain. It can be that character that readers love to hate. Or it could be something more abstract, like Nature. In some stories of the sane-man-in-a-crazy-world variety, almost all the characters are colorful and disruptive, and only the protagonist is vainly trying to hold things in order. This is true of Dave Barry’s novels, of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and of the TV series King of the Hill (all of them comedies). It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing a “serious” novel and wish to have a number of admirable characters. You can’t make them all admirable, or no one will cause trouble, and then where will you be? Still, stories can accommodate more than one disruptor. It’s often best if you have several, including some outside force and one or more characters closer to home. In Beowulf, Grendel is the monster but Beowulf himself disrupts Hrothgar’s court by his arrival, and he is also challenged by Hrothgar’s designated mocker.
What’s a favorite story of yours and who is the disruptor in it?
This post is for people who love the MBTI (Meyers-Briggs
I realize that some people hate it. That’s cool.
It has apparently been woodenly applied by overzealous managers (as,
what hasn’t?). And some people just
don’t like to be “typed.”
If you hate personality typologies, feel free to skip this
How the MBTI Works
For the initiated, the MBTI is a personality typology that classifies people according to their “preferences” among four pairs of traits:
I vs. E: Introversion vs. Extraversion … This is about how people renew their energy: alone or through social interaction. Extraverts are drained by the library, Introverts are drained by parties.
N vs. S: Intuition vs. Sensing … This is about how people take in information: basically, top-down (intuition) or bottom-up (sensing).
T vs. F: Thinking vs. Feeling … This is about whether people make decisions more according to impersonal facts or according to how the decisions will affect people.
J vs. P: Judging vs. Perceiving … This is about whether people like to plan things in advance. Judgers like to have everything planned out. Perceivers like to go with the flow, keep their options open, and can even feel stressed out about nailing down a decision.
Four pairs of traits times two options each results in sixteen basic types. If you meet an MBTI nerd like myself, we love to describe ourselves with letters: “I’m an INTJ,” etc. This is delightfully easy to parody: for example, I am a G-E-E-K and sometimes an S-L-O-B.
Limits of the MBTI
Obviously, the MBTI doesn’t and can’t describe every aspect of a person’s personality. It doesn’t cover energy levels, for example, or sensory processing problems. (E.g. you could be an Extravert who is nonetheless also drained by social situations because you’re so sensitive to physical stimuli.)
It’s possible to have a social style that masks your MBTI type.
You could have values that don’t match your type preferences. (For example, you could be a Feeler who greatly values logical thought.)
Also, some people don’t have a clear preference between one or more pairs of traits. If you read descriptions of the types, sometimes a type description will jump out at you and you’ll say, “I know that person!” But you will also meet people who aren’t easily described by any of the types.
In my opinion, the most easily misunderstood pair of traits is Thinking vs. Feeling. I have never heard a good explanation of this axis that doesn’t misrepresent it. Any attempts at description always end up making it sound as though “thinkers” don’t feel or care about people, and as if “feelers” just emote and are incapable of logic. Neither of those is true. Obviously, every person both thinks and feels.
I’ve concluded there is no point in trying to explain this one. It is seen most clearly in action. For example, an ENFP child will tend to comply with any orders you give him because he wants to please you. An ENTP kid will likely not follow an order unless he can see a good reason for it.
MBTI Types in Literature
My own type is INFP. This is a quiet, reserved type that is also sensitive and dreamy. In one analysis I saw (“The Types in the Apocalypse”), the INFP was “the first guy to get killed.” That sounds about right! In the Lord of the Rings, the INFP is Frodo.
Introverted types might be over-represented among the Lord of the Rings main characters (compared to their distribution in real life) because there is an understandable tendency for authors to create characters who resemble themselves. In looking at my own work, I notice with relief that I do have some extraverted types in main-character roles. Nimri, for example. He starts the story as an SOB (oops, that’s one letter short!), but ends as, maybe, an ESTP.
What about you? What
is your type? Favorite type to read
about? Are you ever annoyed by
encountering too many dreamy, sensitive types in literature?
Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence by David Keirsey, Prometheus Nemesis Book Company, 1998