Using personality tests to explore yourself can help you improve your writing
“Any writing exposes writers to judgment about the quality of their work and their thought. The closer they get to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts — not just about what they might reveal but about what they might discover should they venture too deeply inside. To write well, however, that’s exactly where we must venture.”
― Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear
How well do you know yourself? Is there something everyone is saying about you? Is there a reason they are giving you those funny looks?
Recently I woke in the night with a frightening thought about myself in a former life.
So I decided to take a personality test to explore my dark side.
Personality has both “light” and “dark” traits. This 8-15 minute assessment is designed to measure both the light side…
My results are here, and I’m glad to say I recognised myself.
I’m introverted, fairly agreeable, highly conscientious, emotionally unstable, and very open to experience.
On the Dark Triad, I’m not machiavellian, average on narcissism and low in psychopathy.
But how can this help me with my writing?
1. Nuanced Characters
By exploring the darker aspects of your own personality, you can better understand the motivations and desires of your characters, which can help you create more realistic and relatable characters.
These personality tests give a sense of who we are in general, but not who we are in particular circumstances.
When have I used other people to try and get my own way?
I encouraged a colleague to stand up for herself. She was being asked to sign a contract that she wasn’t comfortable with. I persuaded myself that my advice to not sign was for her benefit, but at least partially it was because I wanted to stick it to the boss.
Her contract was not renewed. I felt terrible. So much so that I scraped the car against a pole getting it out of the car park.
When have I said, ‘Do you know who I am?’
A new project manager was brought onto a project that I had been working on for a while. He had new ideas about how the project should be run that I was resistant to. I resorted to telling him that I’d been working on similar projects for ten years and I knew what I was doing, so back off.
Even as I said it I could hear myself and how ridiculous I sounded. It was not a great moment.
When have I ignored the feelings of others because of my own aims?
I love to play devil’s advocate. When someone has a strong opinion on something then I tend to find all the arguments against it and then batter them with them.
I’ve done it with friends to the point where they have become upset and not wanted to talk to me any more. In response I’ve said I’m just exploring the argument, but it has been at the expense of their feelings.
Unless I can recognise the darker side of my own personality then it will be hard to write convincing characters that go down darker paths.
2. Engaging Storylines
By tapping into your own darkness, you can create more intense and suspenseful plots that keep your readers on the edge of their seats.
What circumstances would bring out my darker traits?
I know that the worst in me can be brought out by putting me under certain pressure. Given the right circumstances, maybe I could be pushed into behaviour that is uncharacteristic.
Paranoia is a big one for me. Put me in a situation where I think there is a group, and I am on the outer of that group, and I’ll push back in any way I can find.
Or a high stress situation. Something where action has to be taken immediately or something bad will happen. When fight or flight kicks in, do I know which way I would go?
Or an opportunity to get an advantage by doing something dodgy. If a colleague leaves their screen unattended with some classified information on it, would I turn away or read the info?
Putting your characters in situations that test their weaknesses will make them real. All of us have trigger situations that would bring out the worst in us. Find those for your characters, and exploit them.
3. Using Your Fears and Insecurities
By writing about your own fears and insecurities, you can gain a greater understanding of them, which can help you overcome them in your own life.
It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader
— Paul Gallico
Ideas for stories you want to write have the most potency when they connect to your own fears and insecurities.
For me, that might be a character who is an outsider, or who has a secret to hide. Growing up I hid my sexuality.
Or it might be a character who is unable to deal with difficult emotions. I know that I don’t handle death well, and am likely to say the wrong thing at a funeral.
4. Connect With Your Readers
By sharing your own struggles and experiences, you can create a stronger emotional connection with your readers, which can make your writing more impactful and memorable.
You often feel vulnerable as a writer. When you write something that connects with readers then it comes from having experienced it yourself, or from having delved deep into the emotion.
Even if what you are writing is fiction, it must come from a place of truth.
We’re using memorable lies. We are taking people who do not exist and things that did not happen to those people, in places that aren’t, and we are using those things to communicate true things.
— Neil Gaiman
If we pretend that we are perfect humans then what we write will be unreal and untrue. When we expose our darker thoughts, our fears and insecurities, then what we write may connect with readers.
If you’re going to write… you have to be willing to do the equivalent of walking down a street naked. You have to be able to show too much of yourself. You have to be just a little bit more honest than you’re comfortable with…
— Neil Gaiman
5. Help Develop Voice
By exploring your own darkness, you can gain a greater understanding of your own unique perspective and experiences, which can help you develop a more distinct and powerful voice in your writing.
I have been reading recently about how personality and voice are connected in the wonderful book The Science of Writing Characters by Kira-Anne Pelican.
People exerting their power tend to say we, us and our more frequently than I, me and my.
People asserting their status tend to interrupt more frequently and speak more loudly.
Insensitive and disagreeable people will be terse and uncooperative. They are often rude. They will talk about negative emotions, anger, money/finance, death and why something happened. They are more likely to swear.
She suggests a couple of exercises in the book to develop a character’s voice. One is hot-seating where you sit in a chair and ask people to question you, trying to answer as the character.
Another is to write a monologue, as the character.
In using your own darkness, you can start from yourself in your worst moments. How did you respond? What did you say?
Now take it to the extreme. What would your character say if that was a fundamental part of their personality?
Are you ready to explore your own dark side?
This post includes an affiliate link