Nailing Them Down Can Be Fatal

How to create a fictional character by focussing on the stuff that matters

Photo by Filipp Romanovski on Unsplash

Nailing Them Down

I have read lots of advice on creating fictional characters that suggests that I need to know everything about them. So I fill in a questionnaire of 20, 50, 100 or more questions that really nail them down.

You can never know enough about your characters.

W. Somerset Maugham

Then I try and write a story about them.

But most of the answers I have given don’t have any relevance to the story. Or worse, maybe they do. Then I need to remember what Henry’s favourite season is, because it might influence his response to Amanda talking about her holiday.

Before I know it I have to stop every few words to look up some aspect of my character that I have forgotten in case it has a bearing.

None of it matters

So I soon realise that the majority of those questions are at best irrelevant and at worst obstructing me telling the story.

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.

Ernest Hemingway

So what is the alternative?

Let’s move a little deeper from surface level traits to psychological profiles. That will mean that I can make sure that the characters are all different and have a perspective that will define their actions.


So instead I turn to a popular personality system. I have done the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) multiple times on myself and I am an INTJ. Is this useful to know? Maybe. It might show me why I respond as I do. It might be descriptive.

I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.

Stephen King

But does it help me to write a character?

How would an INTJ respond to this situation? How would an INTJ talk? I don’t find it helpful when it comes to writing the story. Again, it almost gets in the way.

Grasping at straws

There are other personality systems I have tried. Enneagram offers alternative types.

The Secret Language of Birthdays gives character descriptions depending on the birthday of the character.

Again I find myself in the same place, having descriptions of the character but not knowing how this will apply to the story.

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.

William Faulkner

The Science of Personality

I am reading The Science of Writing Characters by Kira-Anne Pelican and it feels like I am finally getting the answers I need.

It is based on psychological research into the dimensions of personality. The dimensions are Openness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, Agreeableness and Extroversion. Each of these is then broken down into six facets.

Strong characters have extremes within these facets, and examples are given of fictional characters that exemplify this.

The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.

Raymond Chandler

For example, Princess Anna in Frozen is very extroverted.

Ellen Ripley in the Alien films is very introverted.


Tables give you how the particular personality dimension might affect emotions, movement, look, interactions and dialogue.

For example, an extrovert will be more positive, have large and free movements, smile frequently, dress neatly and stylishly, talk to everyone, have good contacts, is playful and makes jokes, and is talkative and confident.

An introvert, by contrast, is more neutral, uses reserved and defensive gestures, is more serious, dresses more casually, prefers close friends and family, has poor eye contact, is more serious and is quieter and lacks confidence.

Relationship between the Big Five dimensions, facets of personality, political beliefs, mental health and the Light and Dark Triads.
Relationship between the Big Five dimensions, facets of personality, political beliefs, mental health and the Light and Dark Triads.
Source: Costa and McCrae, 1992 , Paulhus and Williams, 2002


There is a whole chapter on how personality type will affect dialogue.

I find this particularly interesting as it gives practical advice on how to develop a character’s voice in conjunction with their personality.

Good dialogue comes from character development. The better you know your character, the more specific the dialogue will feel.

Chris McCoy

It references different personality types and their conversational style, linguistic style, what they talk about and their vocabulary.

Further study

I haven’t finished the book yet. It goes on to look at character motivation, what makes characters transform, the emotional journey and how secondary characters influence that journey.

Even with what I have learnt so far, I believe this book is going to be a big step forward in my understanding of how to create believable, memorable characters for my fiction and give them a unique voice.

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