Characterization and Personality Tests

I’m having some trouble getting the characters to feel distinct in the pirate novel I’m cowriting with my sister.

This is hardly a new problem for me. I feel like this happens in every first draft I write. All the characters seem to have the same emotional reactions and vocal cadences, the same general life philosophy. Basically they all end up sounding like me. (Where’s my cringing smile emoji when I need it?)

Usually this problem sorts itself out in editing. I didn’t know who the characters were when I started the first draft, but I have a much better idea by the time I’m going back through the manuscript. I have a lot more clarity: Sabine wouldn’t say that—she sounds like Aksel here. And Anja wouldn’t react that way. She just wouldn’t care. By the time I’ve gone through the draft again for a sentence-by-sentence edit, I’m usually pretty happy with how all the characters are acting and talking.

Cowriting is trickier in some ways, because I spend less time with each character. On the plus side, I only have to write ~50,000 words instead of ~100,000, but that’s 50,000 words where I’m not trying to put myself in these characters’ shoes. Of course I read (and reread) everything my sister has written about the characters, but it doesn’t feel quite the same as wrestling through myself how a character might handle a stressful conversation or a moment they were really excited about. There are even characters I have never written; I’ve only written other characters remembering them or thinking about them.

I was discussing my characterization woes with one of my editor colleagues (who also writes fiction), and she told me that she has been using the enneagram of personality to help her differentiate her characters. She even sent me a carefully detailed spreadsheet someone had put together that describes the different strengths and weaknesses of each personality type, and their stages of disintegration and integration.

Obviously a serious text storm ensued with my sister. “Marin seems like a 3 to me.” “I can’t pin down Madalena. Is she an 8?” We independently took online enneagram tests for the three main characters, seeing if we got the same results. While we weren’t one-hundred-percent in agreement about each character, we had some helpful conversations about the characters’ main desires, fears, goals, blind spots, and coping strategies.

More recently, my sister described one of the side characters as “the root chakra development,” and a whole new conversation took off using the chakras to identify the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. “Dom DEFINITELY has a blocked truth chakra.” “Yeah, and he overcompensates with his heart.” Again, using chakras hasn’t “solved” the characters so we completely know and agree on how they work, but it’s another interesting lens to approach the characters.

The funny thing, though, is that we both still feel least confident about the protagonist’s character and personality. “It’s the everyman problem,” my sister concluded.

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