How to Use Character Flaws to Develop a Plot
Last time, we talked about using our characters’ strengths to develop their flaws. But I didn’t get a chance to talk about how we could figure out the matching flaw for a character strength.
Many of you are probably familiar with the Myers Briggs test, a well-known test that labels people with a four-letter abbreviation for their personality traits. You might have seen the INTJ and ESFP type labels or taken the test yourself.
A similar personality analysis is called the Enneagram system. The Enneagram focuses on nine basic personality types. (I like this test the best if you’d like to try it yourself.)
Obviously, we can take these tests from the perspective of our characters and gain insight in their personality. But even if we don’t go through the tests for our characters, we can look up their personality traits and learn more about their strengths—and their flaws.
A Look at the Myers Briggs Types for Character Flaws
This high-level description of the sixteen Myers Briggs personality types gives a short summary of each four-letter label. We can glance through these summaries to find a description that sounds like our character.
Each label then has a link to a more detailed description. The detailed description explains what drives the character, what they value, and what they need, as well as how their personality will express itself in their life. Keep reading and you’ll start to see their flaws.
For example, the ESFJ type is “The Caregiver.” Their summary makes them sound like a saint: “Warm-hearted, popular, and conscientious. Tend to put the needs of others over their own needs. Feel strong sense of responsibility and duty. … Interested in serving others…”
But read further into the details and flaws emerge. “ESFJs…may develop very questionable values. … They’re usually quite popular and good with people, and good at manipulating them. … An ESFJ…may be prone to being quite insecure… He or she might also be very controlling or overly sensitive, imagining bad intentions when there weren’t any.”
A Look at the Enneagram Types for Character Flaws
Similarly, this high-level description of the nine Enneagram types provides a few keywords for each style. On this Enneagram summary page, we even see the start of some flaws.
For example, Type 2 is “The Helper.” This type is somewhat similar to the ESFJ Caregiver described above, so I’ll pick on them again to give us a direct comparison between these two personality type systems.
Their summary: “The Caring, Interpersonal Type: Demonstrative, Generous, People-Pleasing, and Possessive.” Ooo, possessive. That’s a sneak peek at a potential flaw.
Their detail page reveals what a Type 2 Helper would be like at their best, their basic desire, their key motivations, and the biggest obstacles hindering their inner development. The basic fear of the Type 2 Helper is “being unwanted, unworthy of being loved.”
Going back to our exercise last time of turning character strengths into flaws (or vice versa), the best part of these pages is at the bottom of each detail description. The description gives us three examples of how each personality would normally be, three examples of a good expression, and three examples of a bad expression of their traits.
For example, Type 2 Helpers at Average Levels can be people-pleasing, control in the name of love, or can become a “martyr” for others. Those at Unhealthy Levels manipulate, feel entitled, or are bitterly resentful. Those at Healthy Levels are deeply unselfish, compassionate, or able to see the good in others.
How to Apply These Flaws to Our Story
Every personality trait is a continuum, with a good and healthy expression of the trait on one side and a bad and unhealthy expression on the other. Our characters (just like ourselves) might fall on different places along that line depending on the situation, who else is involved (does the other character push the main character’s buttons?), stress level, etc. Maybe we give readers insight into how stressed the characters are by showing them reacting more unhealthily than usual.
As we discussed last time, a character’s arc could start with their personality leaning more toward the negative and they grow toward the positive by the end of the story. If we go back to our earlier examples, our Caregiver/Helper character might turn their “people-pleasing out of neediness for approval” into “genuine caring for others.”
Or we can echo the hero and villain by showing the differences in their extremes. The hero’s flaw can be on the Average Level (overbearing or patronizing) while the villain’s flaw is on the Unhealthy Level (domineering and coercive).
The One-Two Plot Development Punch: Use Personality Traits with Michael Hauge’s Teachings
Whether the personality descriptions in these systems work for us as individuals is less important than how they can help us understand characters who might be very different from ourselves. Insight into what motivates them and what they fear is invaluable.
Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure can help us tie this information into the plot. Michael Hauge focuses on understanding a character’s longing/need, wound, belief, fear, the identity they hide behind due to their fear, and the essence of who they can become. All of these elements are touched on in the details of each personality type.
We can take characters’ fears and think about what backstory wound might have triggered its importance in their lives. Their Identity might encompass how they’re living in the Average Levels of expressing their trait. Their Essence is how they could live in the Healthy Levels of their personality type.
Together with Michael Hauge’s teachings, these personality analyses can play together with our plot quite beautifully. I encourage you to explore the Myers Briggs types and the Enneagram types along with my Michael Hauge posts and Janice Hardy’s post. Maybe while we’re analyzing our characters, we’ll learn something about ourselves too. *smile*
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Have you used the Myers Briggs test in relation to your characters, and if so, how? Have you heard of the Enneagram system before? Have you used it for your characters? Can you think of other ways to use Myers Briggs or Enneagram with our characters? What about other ways to integrate those personality insights with Michael Hauge’s teachings?Pin It
ooooh! Enneagram! I love using it for character development and have gotten quite obsessed with it in the past. I like to figure out which mine are and put them at just the top of the Average health, and move them to healthy at the end. I’ve not looked into Hauge’s techniques (will scurry over there) but what I like to do is apply it to Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering and see the Average Health as how their third dimension reacts to their second dimension backstory in the beginning of the story. And then at the end of their arc is how their third dimension now manifests itself by moving into the healthy stage.
LOL! Yes, I can understand getting obsessed with the Enneagram stuff. There’s a fantastic amount of information we can dive into–desires, fears, motivations, etc.
Great point about using Larry Brooks’s three dimensions of character with this too. So you have their third dimension (action, behavior, worldview) react to the second dimension (backstory and inner demons) at the Average Level, and then that third dimension moves into the Healthy Level by the end. Yes! Their actions and behavior reflect a healthier reaction to their fears and wounds. Very cool. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Been meaning to do a post about that connection for a while now, so this has spurred me to maybe doing it tomorrow…
Oh cool! I’ll keep an eye out for it. 🙂
Edited to add: Here’s the link to Angela’s complementary post!
Every so often, I start fiddling with one of these test things. Then I look at the clock and realize how much time I just wasted.
For me, personally, I don’t find them worth the time investment. I’m sure they’re well worth using for some writers, though.
LOL! Yep, I can understand that. Personally, I wouldn’t go through the test itself for my characters (too time consuming), but I can see the couple line summaries being useful for pinpointing a character if we want to dig deeper into the details. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Out of curiosity, are you an INTJ? (I was fiddling with it again, and evidently I’m so mild on the J that I’m essentially a INTJ/INTP hybrid.)
I can’t remember, but I think I’ve received results for both of those before, so I might be a hybrid too. 🙂
For some reason, I’m not surprised. 🙂
LOL! Ditto. 🙂
Hmm, I’ve heard of the Meyers Briggs test (and Michael Hauge is a God) I’ve used MB off an on, but the Enneagram test is totally new to me. Thanks so much for the link. I’m definitely going to try it for my characters.
I’ve been working so hard on the new edits for my current novel that this post is incredibly helpful. Your posts are like mini classes. I always learn so much from you, Jami!!
Thank you for your wisdom!!!
Have a great evening,
I’m not an Enneagram expert by any means, but I’ve seen enough from the links I shared to know the system could be helpful for our characters. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Great article Jami. Interesting and packed with genuine, usable information. The caliber of this essay is a perfect example of why I subscribe to your blog.
Thank you Jami,
Aww, thank you! I hope it all helps. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Good idea! I had never thought of using those tests for characters. I agree I’d have to be careful, or I’d spend all my time on the tests. I just took one! It will be a little strange, though, applying these labels to characters in the 10th century. I guess people have always been people.
Perhaps we could even use the Dungeons and Dragons characterizations of Lawful Good/Neutral Good/Chaotic Good, etc. That would be fun! 🙂
Ooo, interesting observation about how we don’t think of people from history having these same issues. 🙂
I actually touched on using D&D alignment for characters in a post long ago. Great minds! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
The Enneagrams! You are one of the very few people I know that knows about them, so thank you! I was really so surprised that nobody in my university social circle has heard of them 🙁 It’s not even mentioned in my Intro to Personality psych class for some strange reason! (And they only just touched on the Myers-Briggs.) Yes, I’ve used the Enneagrams to type my characters before too. I have this sci fi story with 6 main characters along with 2 of their friends. Each of them represents a type. This boy is Type 7 (Enthusiast), that boy Type 6 (Loyalist), that boy Type 5 (Thinker), that girl Type 8 (Leader), that girl Type 3 (Achiever), and finally that boy Type 2 (Helper.) Their friends were this girl Type 4 (Tragic Romantic) and this other girl Type 1 (Perfectionist.) (There are many alternate names for each of the types, I believe.) This helped me get clear in my head each of their “central personalities” and helped me distinguish between them. However, I later decided to stop using the typing because I realized I was reducing my characters to mere types and not letting them develop into the full people that they are. I’m now more interested in seeing the sides of them that contradict their type descriptions. E.g. my Type 6 character is actually not a chronic worrier or procrastinator as the type description suggests. ^^ Thus, I most like to find out their individual different sides, and… — Read More »
Hi Serena, “I later decided to stop using the typing because I realized I was reducing my characters to mere types and not letting them develop into the full people that they are. I’m now more interested in seeing the sides of them that contradict their type descriptions.” Excellent point! Yes, we don’t want to use these types as the end-all-be-all. Rather, they’re just the starting point to get insight into our characters. If we learn “just enough” about them to have them become real in our mind, we can then better hear their unique voice. 🙂 Ooo, interesting idea about concentrating on what makes your characters different from their types. Yes, most people don’t know these types very well, so they wouldn’t have the problem of locking their character into a box. But for those who know the types well enough to have those definitions shape their worldview, it’s more important to let the characters be unique. That’s a great way to encourage that “beyond the definitions” perception. As, you said any of these type approaches are just starting points for understanding our character, not the end point. Also, real people (and realistic characters) will be made up of more than one type. My scores on the Enneagram were 7’s on the stronger types and 3’s on the weaker, but I didn’t have any 0’s. 🙂 I think the fact that your scores might have changed over the years proves that you’re an incremental theorist, so I think you’re… — Read More »
“Also, real people (and realistic characters) will be made up of more than one type. My scores on the Enneagram were 7′s on the stronger types and 3′s on the weaker, but I didn’t have any 0′s. :)”
Yes, indeed. My lowest was Type 6, which was still non-zero, I think. (I’m always low on 6, so that much about me hasn’t changed, lol.)
“But for those who know the types well enough to have those definitions shape their worldview, it’s more important to let the characters be unique. ”
Yup. I’m one of those who spent tons and tons of time reading up on the Enneagrams, so I don’t want my knowledge about them to confine how my characters will be like. Or rather, I don’t want my Enneagram knowledge to make me miss all the other interesting things my characters can do.
“I think the fact that your scores might have changed over the years proves that you’re an incremental theorist, so I think you’re safe. ”
😀 Yay! It also shows that I’ve reduced/ gotten rid of my prejudices against some of the types. 🙂
Exactly! So if we use our scores as a guide to what’s realistic, we’ll know that our characters won’t fit into simplistic boxes either. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for this useful information. I’ve been looking at trying to create crises and disasters in my wip based on my character’s flaws, and although I’m familiar with these tests from graduate school in education, I’d forgotten about them.
I’m happy to help. 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions (or other suggestions!). Thanks for the comment!
[…] been meaning to pen this post for a while, and Jami Gold’s post from yesterday, How to Use Character Flaws to Develop a Plot, spurred me on. In her post, she talks about using either the Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram to help […]
Another tool I find very useful (because it affords plot and setting information as well as character) is tarot. Being basically pictorial in nature, it further taps into other parts of the brain that strictly word-based systems don’t. It would be easy to use with Michael Hauge’s (or any other) plot structure as well.
Ooo, yes, I’ve never used tarot for character development, but I know other writers who have. Interesting! If you have a blog post about that technique, feel free to share a link here in the comments. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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[…] Gold: How to Use Character Flaws to Develop a Plot. Excerpt: “Every personality trait is a continuum, with a good and healthy expression of the […]
No –I never have! But I definitely will now. Thanks for all the awesome writing tips, Jami! 🙂
LOL! I’m happy to help. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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