Using Myers-Briggs Personality Test to Make Better Characters

or

An Aspie Cheat Sheet Substitution for Cognitive Empathy

The Tragic Death and Half Life of Bob Bobberson

It is 2:07 a.m. The author has been writing for hours. Her eyes are blurry, her mind a fuzzy mess, but this is the last beat needed to make that sacrosanct nightly word quota and she has not missed it yet. Then catastrophe hits. She knows her A list main characters better than her own siblings but according to the outline a recurring C lister, Bob Bobberson, is finally up for his big moment. And she cannot remember who he is. A quick glance over Bob’s character sheet reveals he is a bald white guy in his mid thirties, but so what? That is what he is, not who he is.

She knows Bob will enter the scene via car wreck and that he will give his life to provide the clue necessary for the protagonist to bring the antagonist to justice, but that is not enough to keep a crisp manuscript rolling along. Bob has appeared a half dozen times so he would be recognizable to the reader at his climax but he never had the scenes to stand out as a person to the author. Now it is 2:39 a.m. and the author has wasted a half hour trying to figure out who this person is so she can kill him rightly.

Will Bob deal with the wreck from a position of rational detachment or emotional instability? Will he rush to the other driver’s assistance or hope for a karmically just broken neck? The specifics of his actions will add flavor to the clues left behind for the protagonist and the antagonist’s confession later. Writing mistakes about the nature of Bob’s personality at this point will result in massive rewrites later if she wants him to be a consistent living character, and of course she does. Worse yet, people will not cringe or cry if a half-formed Bob Bobberson dies. But it is closing on 3:00 a.m. and the day job fast approaches. She hopes for the best and a forgettable Bob Bobberson dies ugly in more ways than one.

Or it could have gone this way.

It is 2:07 a.m. The author notices on her outline that Bob Bobberson’s big moment is coming up so she keys up his character sheet and looks for the MBTI Personality Code: ENFP Extravert(91%) iNtuitive(22%) Feeling(44%) Perceiving(9%). A quick glance over the traits of ENFP people in her handbook tells her that Bob is an optimistic and people oriented guy who needs to be the life of the party. He will do all he can to help the injured antagonist until help arrives, and he will not notice the danger of his situation until he sees the tire iron swinging toward his face.

With the nightly word count deadline met the author goes to bed at a reasonable 2:37 a.m. thanks to having a solid grasp of the personality of a character she barely remembers creating.

ADHD Aside: If 2:37 a.m. isn’t a reasonable time for bed in preparation of the 8:00 a.m. day job then please let me know how you avoid this as a writer. Also, that unnamed author is as fictional as Bob Bobberson in case you were wondering.

Mindblindness and Aspie Writers

Using the MBTI personality code is a must for Aspie writers who want to bypass the mindblindness problem. Mindblindness is the inability for people with Asperger’s to accurately predict how another person will react to a given emotion and what emotion they will feel after a particular stimulus.

With this tool any writer, including those with Asperger’s, will know how their character will respond to a mugging, a come-on line, or winning the lottery. That makes this tool vital for the Aspie writer, and average writers too. Every story has its secondary and tertiary characters and they need consistent reactions more so than main characters due to how little exposure they get. An inconsistent half-formed support character will distract the reader away from the main character and plot every time due to how artificial they appear.

Make this a die hard rule: every character who is in more than two scenes gets an MBTI code. This step may be difficult for some as it requires the author to become that never-named waiter who always seems to attend the protagonist at the local dive. This rule has two benefits. If the character ever pops up outside of the restaurant, minor characters often wander around stories no matter where the outline tells them to wait, then the author will know how this nameless fictional server will react in this setting and moment better than their real life neighbor would.

Pick one of your characters now. Then take the MBTI test here. Once you have finished review the personality score given paying close attention to the percentages.

Is this who you intended your character to be or is the score off somehow? If the score did not come out as expected and the results are not workable that is okay and will be addressed in the next section. If this MBTI code works for you then copy the results including the percentages and save it on your character sheet under the heading MBTI. It should look like this one for Bob Bobberson, with different results of course.

MBTI: ENFP

Extravert(91%) iNtuitive(22%) Feeling(44%) Perceiving(9%)

Before starting the daily writing session review the character’s MBTI code. This will ensure the unnamed server or rarely used Bob Bobberson will have a consistent personality despite how mundane or thrilling the the scene may be.

myers-briggs-personality-chart-www-infographicality-com

Cheating the MBTI Test

I strongly suggest taking the test while role playing the character. It requires authors to ask “what if” questions for minor characters that they never would have otherwise considered. Not only does this add new depth to minor characters but it can inspire a much larger role for them in sequels or spin-off short stories. That being said, you can always skip the test and go straight to the answer key.

Instead of taking the test for the character an author may instead go through the 16 personalities and build the person in the reverse of my preferred method. There are thousands of breakdowns of the MBTI personalities on the Internet. Some give a generic explanation of the traits of each personality (see above image) while others use well known pop culture icons like the Avengers or Game of Thrones characters as more concrete examples. Search for the info graphic that best suits your style and the story at hand.

Drawbacks for this shortcut include not having a representative percentage score for each personality trait. Bob Bobberson has an extrovert score of 91%. Before taking the test the author never would have thought of him as being that outgoing. Had she started with the answer key she would have given him at most a 65%. If she skipped the percentage all together his outgoingness would never have been consistent.

For a minor character this cheaters form of forced brainwashing can work but for a main character shoehorned personalities will conflict with the character’s natural emotions and the reader will notice.

For your readers’ sake, please do not cheat on the test.

After Note

The MBTI can perform another important task. Are things going to smooth in the scene? Need to add conflict? Look over the character’s MBTI code. Does Bob need to be the center of attention? Not at this party. Is he compassionate? Let the readers know his good natured kindness is putting his life at risk. Does he always find a reason to smile no matter how dark things get in earlier scenes? Punctuate his death by stripping away that eternal cheerful optimism the moment before he dies alone in the snow. Or punctuate it by making his last thought a happy one of hope, maybe for his family or maybe that the antagonist will get whats coming to him because of the clue Bob leaves behind with his dying act. The MBTI spells out each character’s emotional equivalent to Superman’s Kryptonite and Popeye’s Spinach. Instant tension and relief at the flip of a page. Have fun with it.

 

 

Featured image courtesy of The Graphics Fairy at http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-clip-art-antique-phrenology-head/

© 2016 Glenn Hawkins. All Rights Reserved.

 

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I’ve Added a Glossary Page

My articles have two purposes, to help those like myself with Asperger’s to become better writers and to help people to better understand me as an Aspie writer. I’m hoping this glossary, especially my interpretation of many of the words, will do both. I’ve included a link for each term to provide a more formal interpretation.

Glossary

This is a list of words and phrases that will help those unfamiliar with the jargon associated with Asperger’s. It is presented in the order of a lesson on Asperger’s so it needs to be read in order the first time.

Neurotypicals (NT) a.k.a. Average People: People who do not meet the requirements for conditions listed as developmental disorders in the current edition of the DSM. Neurotypical does not necessarily mean mentally healthy. http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/neurotypical

Asperger’s Syndrome: A complex condition often characterized with extreme rationality, high intelligence, powerful creativity, radical truthfulness, uncompromising moral code, and an inability to understand the lack of these traits in average people. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/asperger/asperger.htm

Aspie: A term used by some with Asperger’s to describe themselves. Due to the occasional use of “Aspie” as a slur against people with Autism it is highly recommended that those without Asperger’s not use the word “Aspie” especially in a workplace setting. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/aspie

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A complex condition encompassing a diverse range of people who express themselves, experience emotions, display emotions, and learn differently than average people. Asperger’s falls under the ASD umbrella. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

Flockers: Those who go along with the majority even when they believe the majority is wrong and who condemn those who do otherwise.

Anti-Flockers: Those who do what they believe is right with little or no regard to popular opinion. Includes whistle blowers, writers, agitators, and most Aspies.

Special Interest: A topic of passionate focus often boarding with, and sometimes crossing the line into, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). http://autism.wikia.com/wiki/Special_Interests

Asperger’s Quotient (AQ) Test: A multiple choice exam used to determine the likelihood a person may have Asperger’s. An exam by a psychiatrist is also necessary for a formal diagnosis. http://aspergerstest.net/aq-test/

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM): The mental health handbook. It lists all mental health disorders recognized in the United States of America as well as the methods of diagnosing them. https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm

High Functioning: A person with a psychiatric condition who is able to hide it from the majority of average people well enough that it rarely disturbs them. Used to describe some with Autism, Alcoholism, as well as other conditions. Also, often meant to be a compliment by average people on par with “you are a credit to your race,” or “but you look normal enough to pass as a heterosexual.” https://www.verywell.com/what-is-high-functioning-autism-3896828

Feats: Special abilities people have due to training or innate ability (a Dungeons & Dragons metaphor). http://www.d20pfsrd.com/feats

Drawbacks: A disability or hindrance that is the side effect of a feat (a Dungeons & Dragons metaphor). http://www.d20pfsrd.com/traits/drawbacks

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): An inability to consistently maintain focus on a boring topic or person. Those suffering from this disorder often find themselves daydreaming about unique and original stories even when they do not wish to. https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/adhd

Apraxia of Speech: A common condition with Autism suffer from that includes, but is not limited to, the inability to verbally communicate when experiencing strong emotions. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/apraxia-speech

Coping Skills: Techniques for stress reduction and emotional management. https://www.semel.ucla.edu/dual-diagnosis-program/News_and_Resources/How_Do_You_Cope

Mind Blindness: The inability to naturally read body language and facial expressions. This leads to difficulty in those with Asperger’s ascertaining if average people actually mean the literal words they say, if they are using sarcasm, or if they are telling lies to lessen emotional impact in an attempt to be polite. This is the reason people with Autism have a constant problem talking to average people. http://www.kmarshack.com/_blog/Kathy_Marshack_News/post/Mind_Blindness_and_the_Disconnect_in_Asperger_Syndrome_Relationships/

The Three Emotional Empathies and Asperger’s: For years educational and other professionals have falsely taught those with Asperger’s lack the ability to feel and express empathy. People with Asperger’s very often express emotions differently than average people and this leads average people to believe that since they cannot see the emotional reactions that they expect then those with Asperger’s must not feel emotions, like the Vulcans on Star Trek.

Actually those with Asperger’s often experience emotions at heightened levels in comparison to average people, especially in regard to the emotional pain and joy of those around them (see Emotional Empathy below). The false narrative that those with Autism do not have empathy is rooted in the fact that most people with Autism lack the innate ability for Cognitive Empathy however when this concept is taught the word “cognitive” is often omitted which alters the entire meaning.

Emotional Empathy: The ability to feel emotional pain due to another’s emotional pain. People with Asperger’s often have a heightened sense of Emotional Empathy, sometimes feeling physical pain themselves due to another’s emotional pain, similar to how average people sometimes feel sympathy pains if they are emotionally close to a pregnant woman.

Compassionate Empathy: The ability to actively attempt to relieve another’s emotional pain solely for the sake of making a person in emotional pain feel better.

Cognitive Empathy: The ability to intuitively interpret and predict the emotions of others by observing body language and facial expressions. People with Asperger’s frequently cannot interpret or predict emotions of those they do not know very well based on non-verbal clues.

https://www.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/en/research/concluded-areas/mprg-neurocognition-of-decision-making/decision-making-in-social-contexts/individuals-with-asperger

 

 

© 2016 Glenn Hawkins. All Rights Reserved.

How to Write an Asperger’s Character Right

or

Lessons Learned from an Aspie Penguin Hero

I’m doing something controversial

Blue car syndrome is when a person buys a new blue car and then notices just how many blue cars are zooming around. Those cars were always there but now there is a point of commonality. It’s as if all those cornflower, royal, and cobalt automobiles now glow with the words “one of us.” Instead of buying a car my new point of commonality is my Asperger’s diagnosis. It’s like finding out I always had a blue car but for some reason never bothered to look at the outside paint job. But enough with this metaphor for now.

While researching everything Asperger’s I fell down the Internet rabbit hole of the lists of people known and suspected of having Asperger’s. In the midst of this special interest plunge I learned this type of speculation is taboo in almost all circles. It is the equivalent of being in the 1950s and publicly asking if a person is gay. I found that surprising but it did make a kind of sense. Average people often mistakenly believe that if something is labeled a mental health problem then it is automatically a bad thing.

This is how I look at it. Asperger’s, as with all mental “disabilities,” are diagnosed by continued behavior over a specified period of time. With real people this is a difficult guessing game because only so much is publicly known, and most of it is third party gossip. Fictional characters however are easier to study.

ADHD aside: Having worked as a teacher in a lockdown children’s psychiatric hospital I can’t pretend everything listed as a mental health disease is a disability. Not too long ago a sexually adventurous woman and a gay man were considered psychotic as the killer in the Tell Tell Heart (click here to read the short story or listen to it expertly performed in 15 minutes by Sir Christopher Lee here). And then all of a sudden those consensual adult sex acts weren’t psychiatric diseases anymore. Anxiety, ADHD, OCD and the like can be disabling. But they can also be super-powered fuel for great achievements.

Aspie, Penguin, Hero

I’m using Kowalski from the Madagascar film and TV cartoon series as my character case study. There will be spoilers ahead for Penguins of Madagascar but only a few of small ones.

The film starts with average penguins flocking in single file to an unknown destination. The flockers happily admit they don’t know or care where they are going. Fortunately the story focuses on the anti-flockers, which include a young Kowalski.

Now how can we tell if a penguin is an Aspie? By careful observation of course. Instead of the rest of his species, Kowalski doesn’t frolic or do the pointless but cute activities that I equate to human small talk. In a culture where the average penguin follows the flock without question Kowalski metaphorically and literally stands outside the norm with his friends at their introduction.

Kowalski’s relationship with his best friend Skipper is not one of relaxed camaraderie but a structured unit with a full military rank system. He is very comfortable with this clear definition of role expectations. When Skipper rejects society by rejecting nature and then dives headfirst into danger to save a tumbling egg, Kowalski abandons the safety of the large flock to help his friend. His sense of loyalty and honor to Skipper literally leads him to jump off a cliff.

Skipper is also by no means an average penguin. He does what he thinks is right even when it means rejecting all of polite flocker society. Kowalski’s other friend, Rico, has apraxia of speech and a case of pica so severe it’s his superpower. The dynamic of the trio is highly common for those with Asperger’s as we often group together with other atypical individuals as we have as hard a time relating to average people as they do us.

As with real life Aspies, even among friends Kowalski doesn’t understand what others think or what words might upset them. When Skipper calls a pod of leopard seals “natures snakes” Kowalski asks, “Aren’t snakes natures snakes?” This correction causes Skipper to yell at him in anger.

Not long after that the egg hatches as the three friends drift out to sea on top an iceberg. The hatchling asks, “Are you my family?” The three friends share a knowing look, smile, and nod to each other. Having silently agreed on what to tell the baby Kowalski beats Skipper to the punch.

You don’t have a family and we’re all going to die. Sorry.”

Skipper elbows him.

What?” Kowalski asks. “I thought that was what we were all nodding about.”

Skipper elbows him again. Harder.

Through the exchange Kowalski’s facial expressions show he is confused with Skipper and Rico’s anger. He has no idea why telling the truth, no matter how bad it is, could be a bad thing. But many years later an adult Kowalski makes an observation that leads Skipper to say, “Remember our talk about true but unhelpful comments?”

ADHD Aside: My wife and I shared a look during this scene. I have said very similar things countless times earning elbows to the gut, smacks to the back of the head, verbal warnings at work, and most recently a stomped foot from my wife while at a wedding. A woman told us how she was nervous because her eight-year-old’s grandfather lets him use power tools when he visits. Apparently “well, they do remarkable things now with prosthetics” is one of those true but unhelpful comments I should have kept to myself.

Kowalski is also the team’s idea man. While unable to read, all the birds are illiterate, he has an amazing head for engineering, mathematics, and forming complex plans at an astonishing speed. This, combined with his mind-blindness and choice of atypical friends leads me to conclude that this character is an Aspie.

What makes Kowalski a beautifully written Aspie character is how his eccentricities are his strengths and not the butt of jokes. His loyalty and sense of honor to his friends surpasses his fear of death which makes him a hero. He is unapologetically honest. While done for comedic effect the laughs are not directed toward Kowalski but at the situation he sums up with direct honesty. Best of all, methods of coping with average people are handed gift-wrapped to those in the audience with Asperger’s. For the rest of my life, when in doubt, I will ask myself or my wife “is this one of those true but unhelpful comments?” before proceeding. 

When done right, characters and stories have deeper levels of meaning for each individual in the audience. Unless the viewer is close to someone with Asperger’s they will not see this particular Sapphire Lexus of an Aspie character as anything other than a quirky bird. But for those of us who have our own sporty blue coupe in the driveway we can’t miss how Kowalski and Skipper role model vital friendship lessons showing how semi-average freethinkers can be good friends with Aspies, and how we can be better friends to them. 

 

After Note

It is never stated that Kowalski is an Aspie in the show’s continuity or that the character was intentionally written as one. At least not that I could find, so this is purely speculation on my part. It may be coincidence that he shares a name with Timothy Kowalski, M.A.,C.C.C.-SLP, a respected expert in Autism research and that the penguin’s nemesis King Julian, played by actor Sacha Baron Cohen in the films, is cousin and close friend of professor Simon Baron-Cohen who is a well known if somewhat controversial Asperger’s expert. It could be a coincidence, except I don’t believe in those things.

 

Photo Credit: Dreamworks, Madagascar

© 2016 Glenn Hawkins. All Rights Reserved.