The Psychology of Fictional Characters: Why You Should Give Your Protagonist a Personality Test

As I sit here today, grading the fabulous work of my first year students from the one-credit Honors Seminar I’ve been teaching this semester, I can’t help but think of the origins of the unique activity that I have assigned them and that they have indeed excelled in the highest degree.

It all started two summers ago as I traveled through highways lined with enough soybeans to fill a hundred Silk cartons, and rows and rows of corn. No, I was not on a quest to find the best farmland in America. I was making a pilgrimage to University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival. Hundreds of writers, old and young, filed into classrooms, notebooks and pens in hand, to unleash the thoughts that were somewhere in their brains, buried underneath deadlines, to-do lists, phone calls, and meetings.

Pick Me

Photo Credit: “Pick Me” by Phil Roeder, 

The class I had signed up for was called “Six Characters In Search of A Plot,” a play-on-words of Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of An Author. On the first day, we were presented with six pages of black and white eBay pictures, circa 1920. Based on intuition and how a picture ‘spoke to us’ (as pictures are wont to do to us writers), our homework involved choosing a protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters, a love interest, a busy body, and a wise owl. Focusing on the main character for the first night, we were set free to be in ‘daydream mode,’ cogitating on the desires of the character, his/her background and childhood. It’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, because suddenly, an entire plot-line full of scandal, revenge, love and loneliness, disaster and reunion came together.

                We arrived the next day in class to share our unique results of our individual journeys to the Dreamlands. Many of us had chosen the same pictures to represent a different character in each story. The studious man with the curly hair and the fitted vest was the proud, vain protagonist of one classmate’s story, while he happened to be the neighbor’s stuttering cousin who comes to visit one summer and falls in love with my main character. No two stories were alike, even when we used the same pictures!

Next, it was time to add depth to our characters. As my instructor, Carolyn Lieberg, put it, think of an iceberg. Floating on top of the water is the amount of information about your character that will be present in the specific story you are telling. But under the surface exists the rest of the character. Millions of scenarios and behaviors lurk in the depths of the character’s ocean, a place that only the author herself has dared to travel. But how do you go about learning about your character?

Enter: the personality test.


Long used by psychologists to understand their patients’ mental composition, the personality test can also be an invaluable tool for a writer to delve into the minds of their made-up characters and develop them into well-rounded people.

There are hundreds of tests online that I am sure are all varieties of the same ideas. WARNING: These tests are addictive!  Take this quiz or this one or this one and you will see why. In my class, we were asked to take these once as if the main character was taking it him/herself. This was particularly interesting, because even if you (the author) know that your character is a very untrustworthy sort, the character might see himself as honest, or lie to cover up his smarminess. The second time we took the test, we took it as a supporting character, commenting on the personality of the main character. Again, the results were quite different, because other characters may see the main character differently than the main character sees himself.

If you are a writer struggling to create believable and realistic characters, try the personality test! There are no wrong answers. You will be surprised how the character will come through and pick the correct answer for you!

*For an extra challenge, try to journal entry in your main character’s voice about taking the personality test. Devise a reason for his or her having to take it, and write about their reactions to the questions. Happy writing!