11/17/2017 Character Traits and Personality Types
In my 90s Club series, the 90-year-olds sometimes use stereotypes of the elderly to mislead their quarries into thinking they are harmless. My characters are able, alert, and active—as many 90-year-old and 100-year-olds are nowadays. In my writers’ critique group, I was appalled to hear my fellow writers push for the stereotypes as more “believable.” Most of us today avoid and dismiss the stereotypes of African-American, gay, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, blonde, etc., I hope we’ve all gone beyond the use of eyeglasses to show an intellectual, studious, or nerdy person, a person who when she or he whips off the glasses, suddenly becomes sexy or strong. Think Superman. It still happens in the movies and television, though, where the elderly continue to be the victims of demeaning and sometimes vicious stereotypes.
Where I am most at fault for bias is when I see a man riding a motorcycle. I become wary. Brutal Hell’s Angel? Foolhardy kid? Whatever, definitely low end. Yet I know men and women who are avid motorcyclists, thoughtful people, sometimes a bit rebellious. A Libertarian might ride a motorcycle wearing a business suit. A student might ride one to cut down fuel costs. A couple of men might stop at a restaurant to discuss poetry. As a writer, I could describe a motorcyclist with a lot of surprising characteristics.
In developing characters that have some complexity, I hope, I have used enneagrams to put together personality traits, but I recently came across a book called Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. It provides a better and more extensive listing of personality traits that characterize various types of people, groups, careers, ages, among other factors, and she includes traits of children at various ages. Each one of these traits exists on a continuum. At one extreme, the trait can become dangerous or evil; on the other, benign or good. Where does your character belong?
I found especially interesting her discussions of the physical traits of emotions, clothes, and body language. There’s also a section on male and female traits of communication, and verbal and nonverbal traits associated with lying.
To make this book even more useful, Chapter Fourteen is called “The Big Index.” This index allows the reader to look up character traits in a number of ways to add layer upon layer to a character and his or her companions. The book has an extensive bibliography as well.
This is a useful book I would recommend for any writer’s library, but it’s still only a starting point. People don’t exhibit just one trait and they don’t conform perfectly to a particular set of traits. For anyone to assume they do makes him or her just as vulnerable to manipulation as those burdened with the old stereotypes.