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!

The Footsteps That Came Before Me

So this summer I had the amazing pleasure of leaving the country for the first time and going to England, where I got to study for five weeks at Oxford University, one of the oldest universities in the world. I haven’t gotten to talk much about my experiences there, since I made a blog but never kept up with it (oops), but I’d like to share something that I started thinking about when I came back to the University of Michigan.

It’s weird, because when I got to Oxford, I knew the history behind it, that there were thousands upon thousands of people that had walked the exact same pathways I did, that lived and breathed Oxford. It seemed like every day I learned something new; President Clinton once smoked weed at the Turf, Lewis Carroll taught here. There’s obviously something magical about walking in the footsteps of those who came before you (although, no, I didn’t smoke weed at the Turf – I just got a pint of cider, as per usual).

I’ve thought about this more, too, as the semester has gone on and I’ve been studying the works of James Joyce, who will forever be imprinted in Irish literary history. I had the chance to go to Dublin – there were some other people that wanted to go too – but I instead chose Paris. And even there, I found the quintessential tourist stop for an English major: Shakespeare and Company, the amazing bookstore that you just have to see to believe.

I found out in my Joyce class that Ulysses, his famous epic, was actually first published through Shakespeare and Company, and I had walked those halls, and I had taken a picture of the mural they have on the wall with James Joyce, proud on the wall. Joyce had gone to Paris and written in Paris a number of times – you could say I made that same pilgrimage.

But as I think about these things, about how these great writers have come before me, how I merely spent not even half my summer at this famed university whereas they devoted themselves to it – I don’t necessarily feel special. Sure, I loved it beyond all measure; this year marks the 100 year anniversary of the publishing of Alice in Wonderland. And it’s astounding that I even got accepted, much less had the money to go over there and spend five weeks essentially frolicking across Europe.

But I didn’t feel particularly magical. I know there are people who spend their time trekking across Dublin to find the spots Joyce mentions in Ulysses, or they go overseas to write because that’s what T.S. Eliot did. But nothing’s going to change if I write my novel here or if I write my novel in Paris, emulating some famous author. He’s not going to come back to life and help me revise those 300 pages, or give me inspiration for my next book.

I don’t mean to be too didactic, but I realized that following art isn’t what makes you any better – it’s doing your own art. By having my own experiences in Europe, I define who I am as me, not as someone else. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t go back to Paris and perhaps write there (because I loved Paris. I loved it). But I’ll do it because it’s what I want to do – not because Joyce did it a century earlier.

And if there’s any true moral of the story it’s this: travel, get outside your box, go somewhere. It’s totally worth it.

To NaNoWriMo or Not To NaNoWriMo

The season of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is almost upon us. What is NaNoWriMo? It’s a non-profit organization that sets up an annual challenge where starting November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. And sadly, I will not be throwing my gauntlet into the ring.

I took part last year and looked forward to it every night – to get back to the story that was coming to life, film-like, on the computer screen in front of me. I explored the life of three children, growing up in post-Hiroshima Japan, one of the most realist stories I’ve written in quite a while. I found myself caring about these characters more and more, found myself wanting to hear their voices, their fears, to take part in their adventures rather then venture out into the greater world of Ann Arbor and classes and homework.

As senior year in the English and Creative Writing departments draws its cloak over me, I find myself writing so much already that I couldn’t possibly work on a 50,000-word novel right now. I admire all college-age Nano-ers who can find the balance between classes and this writing challenge. But, if Nano-ing is not in your near future, do not fret. It can often be a very brave thing to know your limits and know when to say ‘no.’ The good thing about Nano is that it’s like an annual holiday. It comes every year. If you’re not participating this year, then next year perhaps! No one even has to know if you participate or not. It’s like a secret with yourself. (Though, there is an incredible online community of Nano-ers who are available for support, for ideas, for writing gatherings, etc, for those who enjoy that kind of groupie-ness.)

There has been recent backlash from ignoramuses who think that NaNoWriMo is meant for people to write 50,000 word first-drafts and send it to agents on Dec. 1. This is by no means the purpose of NaNoWriMo. It’s a challenge, a chance to push yourself to write the story that has been cooped in your head, no matter how bad or hyperbolic or boring or flouncy or cheesy or cliche or wonderful the writing. It’s a chance for you to get in touch with your creativity stores, to think through your own beliefs and opinions about society, and project them onto characters who are forced to make decisions and heck, maybe even fight a few ninjas or two. I can’t imagine criticizing anything that encourages storytelling. No matter if you have written a Pulitzer or if you write car manuals, everyone deserves the chance to participate in this challenge.

If you’re lucky, you’ll walk away from NaNo with a “The End” as your words numbered 49,999 and 50,000. But, don’t think of this as “your end.” This is just a draft. The real writing, the revision, hasn’t even begun. And if you want, it doesn’t have to begin. You can write it and on December 1, come out from your writing cave and return to normal life. But, if you believe in your novel, you can make it stronger and keep working on it. To quote Da Vinci, “art is never finished, only abandoned.” But, something abandoned, doesn’t have to stay abandoned. Nor does it only have to be worked on during the month of November. That means that my story, about the three Japanese children, need not fear! I plan to pick it up again and continue the adventuring…just maybe after college settles down.

From one Nano-er to the next, I give this bit of advice to all of you brave writers who I will be living vicariously through this November:

Don’t delete anything. Even if you can’t stand to look at it, just highlight it in black and keep writing. (It creates this cool “blackout poetry” feel to your piece.)

If possible, log in the words while you have the time.  Try and get ahead in the first few days, which will give you flexibility as life and reality catches up to you later on in November.

-Make sure to give yourself breaks. Get up, take a walk, go to a museum, do yoga, paint your toenails, learn how to do headstands. Shake up your brainwaves so the ideas have room to breathe.

-Back up your work. Press Save a lot, become best friends with flash drives. Also, you can save to that whimsical of all things, the all-hailed Cloud.

Take risks. No one else has to see this writing if you don’t want them to. Be daring. Be silly. Add a dragon or two. Write scandalously. Mix the two and include the most scandalous of dragons.

Let yourself be surprised. 

To all my friends who are Nano-ing this year, I wave flags of encouragement and wish you happy writing and delicious snacks that don’t sticky up your fingers so much that prevent you from typing and I hope that you find yourself on the other side of the month, pleasantly surprised with the strength and courage and productivity that you achieved in just 30 autumnal days.

Write on, folks, write on!

Thoughts From Places: Passions, January Edition

So lately I’ve been thinking.

Now, I know as well as anyone how dangerous that can be, so just stay with me here.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my future (like, with jetpacks), and what I want that to look like. Now, I haven’t come up with any definite conclusions, but I do have a few basic requirements:

  1. I have a job. It sucks, but I can’t do anything in this world (like, say, live in an apartment) without money, so I have to have a job.

  2. This job has to be something I enjoy. I can’t be waking up every day, hating my own guts because I have to drag myself to the same old crummy job every week.

That’s it. Since practically my kindergarten days, these two things are all I’ve wanted for my life. But the funny thing about life is that it changes…like, a lot.

I used to think that if I ended up working in an office it would be the death of me and all I consider fun and exciting, but now I’m (slowly) acclimating to the idea of working in an office…as long as it’s an office working on something I enjoy as well.

I also used to think that I’d become an actress, but that dream is almost all but gone. Would I go back to the stage if offered? In a heartbeat. But am I at college just waiting for my big break on Broadway? Not so much.

But recently, I’ve been coming to a different conclusion. I love to write, in case you haven’t noticed the weeks and weeks and weeks of columns I’ve written, and I decided to become an English major so that I can get a degree in something I love so I can get a job in something I love. That fulfills both of my above requirements. I thought becoming an author would make me just as happy as if I were acting on stage.

But I love writing for this blog too. I love writing about art, something that I’m really passionate about (see above potential jobs), and I love getting to have deep, meaningful conversations with other people who love art just as much as I do. And although they don’t make much, being a cultural/pop culture journalist is sounding really, really cool to me as a junior looking at a job market I’ll soon be entering.

I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to get at, and I know this only loosely coincides with my task of writing about art once a week, but I guess I’d say that finding passions is not something that automatically happens. I didn’t wake up one day knowing I was going to get a job at arts, ink and love it more than any other job I’ve ever had. Passion is a process, which is something I think most people don’t understand. Art is a passion, but it’s also a process.

So I guess I’m saying find your passion. But don’t give up if it takes longer than you expect it to, because all passions are different. And don’t reject something when you haven’t tried it. Did I want this job when I applied for it? Yes. Did I think I was going to like it so much that I’d want to turn it into a career goal? Not a chance. But am I glad I did it?

I think you can answer that for yourself.

A List of Writing Mediums

Some scientific research concluded that writing in cursive better encodes information into your brain. This is due to the number of neurons that are fired with pen-strokes, as a wide variety of hand movements are required. Cursory writing accomplishes this goal more effectively than other forms of writing. Printing by hand is the next most optimal means to encoding thoughts. Typing fires the least neurons, so this is the least effective for memory. It is, however, the fastest, and also rather unavoidable in today’s world. After spending so much time in front of a screen, we get caught in a rut of typing and information cascades.

In the age of information overload, reductionism is a coping mechanism. Lists are a means of reductionism. So to combat the bulk of information you are overloaded with on daily basis, I’m going to present a list. This list will be a compilation of different writing mediums you could explore–both on and off the screen. Experimenting with new mediums may change the way we remember and relate information. And that’s important. We could generate new thoughts, just be placing them on a different surface.

So here are 35 new mediums to try:

1. Plastic milk jugs

2. Dried leaves

3. Whiteboards

4. Blackboards

5. Corkboards

6. Rocks of varying shapes and sizes

7. Wax paper

8. Your body

9. Somebody else’s body, with verbal consent

10. Napkins

11. Money, but you didn’t get the idea from me

12. Apples

13. Cardboard

14. Glass panels

15. Rubber erasers, for the irony

16. Paper plates

17. Tin foil

18. Candy wrappers

19. Bricks

20. Brick walls

21. Drywall

22. Tabletops

23. Table bottoms; watch out for gum

24. Table legs

25. Seashells

26. Turtle shells

27. On computer screens

28. On the sides of pencils

29. Watermelons

30. 2×4 boards

31. Dead skin

32. Chicken bones

33. Jeans

34. Toilet paper

35. Your bed sheets

This list is not conclusive. Feel free to add more for yourself. The process of writing on different mediums, even if the words/ideas do not change, may make you think about the writing in a different way. This divergent thinking may help you overcome mental road blocks. It is a worthwhile activity, I think. So explore. Let your pen roam wild. Bleed ink on inappropriate places. You’ll never know what you may find.

That Time of the Year

There is something about the sun going down so early – around this time of the year – that makes all the pressures of unfinished assignments all the more feverish. This eventuality of shorter days never crosses my mind until I finally notice that I have already fallen into a tired and somber attitude.
How easy it is to be ignorantly believing that everything is together and then quickly disintegrating into blah blah attitudes that bear no weight to anything, and in that absence of anything concrete, how disparate everything can be should you not tie each task, emotion, or thought with something that has weight and a semblance of togetherness.
By no means am I saying I sit with hopeless emptiness on my couch in my apartment as I write this blog post. No, this isn’t meant to sound depressing at all. The only reason why I remain happy is because I have to be. Also, listening to Feist’s Mushaboom helps a lot, but not really at the same time. Sometimes, if the moment is just not right, a song as happy as that makes me more tired and sad than I was before.
Another thing that helps, is writing, as much as I can. And when I am not typing or writing longhand on sheets of paper that I find strewn across my desk or in my little black notebook, I am thinking about writing. However, more broadly speaking, I keep thinking about English as an art form.
I guess what I am trying to say, is that keeping my mind occupied is a greater force to fend off the lulls of energy during this time of the year in comparison to delusional fantasies of happiness that are brought on by listening to Mushaboom.
In fear of this article becoming needlessly and annoyingly pretentious, because I am sincerely lacking material today for this blog post, I will cut this article short. I would rather not blab on about nonsense. For God’s sake, parts of this post are already nonsense.
Maybe I should just switch up my song choice, because I can’t be thinking about writing all the time, I got other stuff on my mind too.
Maybe I will listen to the It Ain’t Me Baby or some song by Haim or maybe…oh oh! I got it! Changes by Bowie.