Using Meyers-Briggs to Keep Your Characters in Character

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

I’ve seen several articles lately that claim experience with role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, can make one a better author — giving future writers experience with plot and exposition, and especially characterization. I have remarked more than once that my job as series editor for Western Fictioneers’ Wolf Creek series makes me feel like a dungeon master (in a good way.) As I have been thinking about the RPG connection, though, I have concluded that something else helped (and continues to help) me far more.

The Myers Briggs personality sorter.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with the concept, modeled in part on the theories of pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung. There are four basic personality “types,” each of them having four “subtypes,” for a total of sixteen. Each person is either E or I (extrovert or introvert), N or S (guided by intuition or senses), T or F (thinking or feeling), and J or P (judging or perceiving, which has a lot to do with how organized one is).

For over twenty years, I have used this basic guide to construct personalities for my principal characters. Following the formula (though not slavishly) helps me make sure my invented people “stay in character.” At some point you’ve probably read a book and encountered an action by the protagonist that left you saying “Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like something fill-in-the- blank would say/do!” The Myers-Briggs method is too complicated to explain at length in this space, yet is easily mastered and understood. I have found it remarkably helpful.

I have two Wolf Creek characters: Charley Blackfeather, the Black Seminole army scout, and Sam Gardner, the town marshal. They are very different from one another, not only in background but in temperament.

Charley is an INFP, sometimes called The Healer or The Questor. INFPs are spiritual seekers, on a never-ending mission to search for the meaning of life and their place in it. They have deep wellsprings of emotion, but have trouble expressing them, and can therefore seem quite reserved. They are generally very easy to get along with, but are implacable when someone challenges their deeply-held principles. Their intuition can be uncanny. One of my favorite characters of those I’ve created, Alfred Mann from Bound for the Promise-Land, was an INFP; that novel was ultimately about his search for meaning.

Sam is an ESTP, sometimes called The Promoter. An ESTP is a person of action, not introspection. They make decisions quickly, and hate to be bored. They live in the moment and love to take risks. They hate having rules imposed upon them from above, but have a powerful set of internal values that they rarely violate, and which might make little sense to someone else. They tend to be flashy, and poor managers of resources. They are often charming, and can talk people into anything. Another of my own favorite characters, Champ Ferguson of Good Rebel Soil, is a very similar type: ESFP. He differs from Sam in that, as an F instead of a T, he is more sentimental and also more prone to anger. That novel was the story of how his passions, and penchant for living in the moment, carried him down a path to tragedy.

There is plenty of information on the web about Myers-Briggs; I also highly recommend Please Understand Me by David Kiersey, who makes the whole thing very accessible to laypeople. I swear by it — it can make your characters come to life in whole new ways.

What personality is your current protagonist?

Finding Your Audience and Branching Out

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

Over at Western Fictioneers — a professional writers’ organization that has been making tentative steps toward becoming a small publisher as well — we hit on an idea that I think is pretty innovative. In addition to our other publishing projects, which so far have involved short story anthologies, this year we have introduced a series of westerns, under the umbrella title Wolf Creek. They are collaborative novels — each participating writer has created a unique character that he or she writes for. Any give volume features six of those characters interacting in the same story, with the authors writing their assigned chapters from their guy’s (or gal’s) point of view. I think we’ve done a good job getting the series off the ground, and come up with some pretty good yarns. The nineteen writers involved include some of the most talented, and honored, authors working in the genre today.

The question is, how do we get the word out?

We’ve made great use of “social media” — touting twittery tweets, posting Facebook links, talking the series up with western fans on Facebook groups. Several of our members have posted on their own blogs about the series, and quite a few sites that specialize in reviewing westerns have given us some positive attention.

But I have been (pleasantly) surprised by the venues that have proven the most helpful, the most successful, and the most fun. Several blogs devoted to western romance fiction have given us free rein, usually for a full week at a time. In each case, they have devoted space to several members of our group — and with other Wolf Creek writers jumping in via the comments sections, readers could really get a sense that we are, in fact, a team, and one that has cohered very well. We have been so honored at Sweethearts of the West, Petticoats & Pistols, Romancing the West, and others. I was especially intrigued by the format of our appearance at Nighthawk Talks — over there they interview, not the writers, but their characters. Clay More (a practicing physician) introduced his creation, Wolf Creek’s town doctor Logan Munro. Interacting with readers, Dr. Munro answered several questions about frontier medicine. My character, the Black Seminole army scout Charley Blackfeather, ended up explaining aspects of Seminole spirituality and philosophy. It was enormous fun.

I have become increasingly aware in recent years that there is great potential for audience crossover between the traditional western and romance genres — after all, as Waylon Jennings so aptly sang, “Ladies Love Outlaws” — so in retrospect I should not have been surprised that our series’ promotion efforts would be so successful with fans of that genre. Western Fictioneers is fortunate to have several members who write in both categories and thus had the necessary connections to get us a forum, for which I am quite grateful.

A few years ago I was teaching history at a high school in Illinois, and — out of curiosity — asked all my classes how many of them had actually watched a western movie. I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that only a handful of students had. I was shocked, however, to discover that almost all of that small number of kids were female. Each of the young ladies said that they watched westerns with their dads, and it was a bonding experience. A lot of women who have posted replies on my Facebook timeline about my various publications have said something similar — they don’t just like romance novels with western settings, they like traditional westerns in general. More than one has pointed to the classic Louis L’Amour novel Connagher, and the movie version with Sam Eliot and Katherine Ross, as a perfect example of a story that covers both genres.

So when you are thinking about ways to market your work, go outside the box. Look for connections with other genres and fields, and ways you can weave them together in the narrative you construct about your narrative — you will often find unexpected cases of your fiction being a perfect fit for audiences you never considered, with no advance planning. You could find a lot of new opportunities, and new readers.

Collaborative Novels: Like Herding Cats?

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

“This is a really cool concept you guys came up with — but it must be a nightmare with so many writers on the same projects. I bet it’s like herding cats!”

I have heard different iterations of that statement many times in the last six months, since Western Fictioneers announced our Wolf Creek series of collaborative novels (announced it at this very site, I might add). And to be honest, I feared it would be just that — a logistical nightmare. But as it turned out, the whole process has been remarkably smooth. This has surprised even me. As anyone who has worked with just one co-author knows, such a venture carries with it many unique challenges. And we have, at last count, nineteen co-authors on Wolf Creek (with at least a couple more coming onboard soon).

Right after Christmas of last year, Livia Washburn tossed out a suggestion on the WF email forum — to wit, she proposed a western short story anthology made up of supernatural Christmas tales, which many of us jumped on eagerly. She also brought up the prospect of a collaborative novel, and I had a bit of an epiphany: How about a whole ongoing series of them? And somehow we went from that conversation to three full novels in print less than twelve months later.

It would have been very difficult, and in fact virtually impossible, to achieve such a feat in the years before the Internet. As I tried to reconstruct how we got from Point A to Point B, I looked back over the email record that I kept (compulsive historian that I am). Nearly a hundred emails flew back and forth from everyone concerned, making suggestions and proposals for the type of character each writer would like to use. Within a week we had much of the overall plan nailed down. Then I took a few weeks to make some maps, write up a series bible, and outline the first four books — after which we had another round of email exchanges.

The process for each individual novel has been as smooth — which, again, is surprising. There is a stereotype that authors have big egos; I’m not so sure about that, necessarily, but authors do have control issues. A project like this involves bringing together nineteen people — each of whom is used to being the god of their own fictional universe, and is therefore extremely protective of his or her own vision and point of view. (That analogy tempts me to say that what we have in Wolf Creek is a veritable pantheon — but, um, that might indicate an ego problem).

Our teams, however, have all gelled pretty well. I think it helps that so many of the authors involved are veterans of the genre, and are used to both dealing with editorial input and working on series that a lot of other writers are also participating in, if not at the same time. So when I email the novel outline to the other co-authors of a particular volume, including what is specifically expected from their own chapters, they are all eager to meet the challenge. Throughout the process, individual writers coordinate with one another one-to-one to make sure they maintain consistency from chapter to chapter.

In all, this series has been a real joy to work on. I can’t remember when I’ve had more fun on a writing project. This will betray my geekiness, but I kind of feel like a dungeonmaster running an RPG campaign — except all the players are actually professional storytellers. I look forward to each new adventure, and hopefully we are developing a readership who feels the same way.