Drawing Profiles: Understanding Personality Tests

The silhouette of a woman's face on a background of greenery. Text: Something for Sunday; August 18, 2019; Drawing ProfilesI saw a suggestion recently about creating personality profiles for our characters, and this launched me into the world of personality tests. Here’s a quick sketch of the history and science behind those tests, and some suggestions for useful tests to take (and how to use them).

We humans are always trying to understand the world and our place in it. One of the most important parts of our world is other people, so it’s no surprise that we’re interested in understanding people. This is likely to be one important reason we developed self-awareness (a topic for another blog post someday), and it’s surely part of why we developed personality tests.

Hippocrates was a physician and philosopher in ancient Greece, probably best known today as the author of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take, including the famous injunction, “First, do no harm.” Hippocrates identified four basic personality types, each linked with one of the four classical elements: melancholic (earth), sanguine (air), choleric (fire), and phlegmatic (water). We still use these terms today to describe someone’s reactions to events. A couple of thousand years later, Carl Jung divided humanity into eight personality types, leading eventually to the most popular personality system today, the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, with 16 different types.

The problem with type theories of personality is that they focus on putting people into a fairly small number of boxes. No matter how complex and well-developed your system is, you can’t describe human variation very well with just a handful of different types. That’s like trying to render an image with just a dozen or so different colors:

A version of the famous Mona Lisa image rendered with just a dozen or so different colorsIf you want to capture the full range of human personality, you need a different approach. To continue the color analogy, with a JPG image one can capture the entire range of colors displayed on a computer screen with just three color scales (red-green-blue), where each scale has 256 possible values, giving many million color possibilities:

The famous Mona Lisa portrait by Leonardo da VinciThis is the approach used by trait theories of personality. Such systems identify a small number of traits, and each person gets a score indicating where they fall along a continuum for each trait. This allows for a much broader range of personality possibilities. It also gave rise to the term “personality profile.” The idea is that you can plot where each person is on each trait and connect the dots to produce a profile that describes that person.

There are a number of personality trait systems. Researchers develop them using a mathematical technique called factor analysis, and the specific traits this technique turns up vary depending on the exact questions asked and the sample of people who respond. However, there are five personality traits that turn up again and again, no matter who does the measuring or how. This has led to the current personality trait analysis that has the best scientific support, often known as the Big Five personality system. The five traits are sometimes listed using the acronym OCEAN:

  • O is for Openness to Experience. This is related to intellectual curiosity and creativity. People high on this trait love to learn new things and have new ideas. People lower on this trait are more comfortable when things are predictable and routine.
  • C is for Conscientiousness. This has to do with being detail oriented and reliable. People high on this trait complete tasks on time, paying attention and getting them right. People lower on this trait may tend to procrastinate or do a slapdash job, or just forget about tasks all together.
  • E is for Extroversion. This has to do with how much energy one gets from or pays for interacting with others. People high on this trait often have lots of friends and draw energy from social interactions, becoming restless with too much time alone. People lower on this trait find that social interactions demand energy from them, and need time alone to recharge their mental batteries.
  • A is for Agreeableness. This is basically niceness and friendliness. People high on this trait tend to trust others, assuming that people are good unless proven otherwise. People lower on this trait are generally suspicious and sometimes hostile, and withhold trust until someone has earned it.
  • N is for Negative Emotionality (sometimes called Neuroticism). This is how unstable and volatile someone’s emotions are. People high on this trait tend to overreact to situations, take things personally, and jump rapidly from one emotion to another. People lower on this trait are likely to be emotionally stable, taking problems in stride and letting go of things that otherwise might trouble them.

There are lots of tests online you can take to see where you fall on these five personality dimensions. Here’s a longer version, and here’s a shorter, quicker one. There is a fairly substantial body of scientific research that supports the validity of this personality measure, but it is not without its problems. One concern is that it seems to apply best to people from Western cultures. Another is that, because of the way the results can be normalized, it can perpetuate stereotypes such as the tendency for women to be more agreeable than men. Overall, you need to remember one very important fact: No 10-minute test can possibly know you better than you know yourself. If when you see your results you nod your head and think, “You know, that makes sense,” then that’s great. If your reaction is a resounding “NO!” then you are probably right. Use these tests for fun and possibly a prompt to your own thinking, nothing more.

A diagram showing the personality traits ascribed to the character KaySo, back to the idea I started with: What happens when I apply the Big Five analysis to my main character, Kay? She’s a drifter, bouncing from job to job and avoiding any long-term commitments, mostly because she doesn’t see herself as someone worthy of anyone’s trust. Here’s the profile I got when I took the test as Kay:

  • Openness to experience: Moderately low (she is wary of unfamiliar situations and has little intellectual curiosity)
  • Conscientiousness: Moderately high (she tends to complete tasks and is productive, but doesn’t think of herself as reliable)
  • Extraversion: Very low (she has few friends and tends to avoid social situations)
  • Agreeableness: Moderately low (she is respectful for others but has a hard time trusting people)
  • Negative emotionality: High (she is subject to anxiety and her moods can be volatile)

Did this help me understand my character? In a way. I don’t think the results themselves give me much useful insight. However, thinking things through as I answered the questions probably did help me understand her at a deeper level than before. All told, I could see the exercise of completing one of these tests being useful if I’m having trouble getting a handle on a character. Besides, they’re fun to do, and it’s good to know that there’s at least one personality system that is backed by some science.

Have you ever used a personality test to understand yourself or a character? What other techniques have you used to get to know a character better?


Doing You: Navigating the Sea of Writing Advice

A red tulip standing alone in a sea of daffodils. Text: Something for Sunday; August 4, 2019; Doing YouIf you’re a writer, you’ve no doubt been deluged with writing advice. Not all of it is helpful. Not long ago, Danielle Dutton wrote a column for LitHub describing advice she called “terrible,” even though it all came from famous published authors. Her list ranges from the picayune (“Don’t use semicolons” – Kurt Vonnegut) to the vague (“Write only when you have something to say” – David Hare) to the positively misanthropic (“Don’t have children” – Richard Ford.) More recently, Jonathan Franzen posted his list writing tips that annoyed so many people it triggered an avalanche of counter-lists on Twitter.

Can we find advice that’s actually useful? Jeff Somers, who wrote a book expressing his personal view of this issue (Writing Without Rules), addressed one specific example: Do you really need to write every day? Maybe that’s not the best way to think of it. Read his comments (and watch the 2-minute video of him discussing it, with his cat). I like how he gives us a different way to think about this piece of advice, instead of throwing it out all together. Jami Gold took up the same recommendation in her blog, and included the popular phrase “You do you” as part of her blog title. Like Jeff Somers, she concluded that each of us needs to find our own balance between writing and all the rest of life. More broadly, Joe Fassler wrote his own article for LitHub abstracting seven key principles from the conversations he had with 150 successful writers. I’m happy to say there’s nothing here about semicolons and no bans on having children. I find this list more useful than the others I’ve read. It’s interesting that it ends with the line, “Find the joy, and when you do, there are no rules.”

Here, then, is my list of sure-fire, guaranteed, solid gold tips for writers.

  • If reading writing advice makes you anxious or unsure of your ability to succeed, stop reading it. Yes, right now. Yes, that includes this list!
  • If you do read advice and something seems like it might work for you, give it a try. Remember, though, that it’s just a date, not a marriage. Give it a shot and see if it works. If not, kick it to the curb and don’t look back.
  • If you see a suggestion that sounds completely outlandish but doesn’t offer any actual harm, you can give that a try as well. Using Comic Sans for editing? Sure, why not? Talking out my scenes with a plush toy? What’s the worst that could happen? Go ahead and step out of your comfort zone, if you feel like it. It’s still not a commitment. You can keep it, ditch it, or modify it, depending on how it works for you.
  • Looking at the sea of advice, I notice one thing that shows up again and again: There are no rules. There are suggestions that can be adapted or discarded as needed, but no hard and fast rules. By all means, feel free to try something that works for others, but never assume the same thing will (or should) work for you. Play with the process until something clicks. How you write is not beholden to how anyone else in the universe writes.
  • When anyone tells you that a writer must do this or that, quote W. Somerset Maugham at them:"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." ~W. Somerset Maugham

The overall rule: You do you.

What techniques have you tried in your writing life? What works for you?

The Empty Mirror: Challenges in Describing First-Person Characters

A mirror reflecting some flowers but otherwise nothing but a blank wall. Text: Something for Sunday; July 28, 2019; The Empty MirrorThe book I’m writing has a first-person narrator. In other words, she describes what she is doing and thinking from inside: “I did this,” not “She did this.” To me, for this story, it’s a choice that works to draw the reader into the immediacy of her experience. There are lots of complex factors involved in making a decision about which point-of-view (POV) to use for a story (read about this choice in K. M. Weiland’s blog), but that’s not the topic of this post. I’m going to focus on one specific issue: How do I give the reader a sense of the character’s physical appearance, when all I have to work with is what’s going through her head at any given time?

A recent article (“Death to Character Descriptions,” P. S. Hoffman, in the February 2019 edition of Writer’s Digest magazine) suggests leaving out character descriptions entirely. The article describes other ways to give the reader a strong sense of a character’s individuality without a checklist of physical characteristics:

  • Habits and behaviors: A character who spends a lot of time looking down her nose at others, or one who can’t sit without tapping his feet nervously
  • Environments: A character whose voice is hoarse from shouting over the din at the forge, or one who outshines all the others at the Embassy ball
  • Professions: A character who stocks shelves overnight at a grocery store, or one who manages new accounts at a bank
  • Possessions: A character who has a room full of carefully catalogued Chinese artifacts, or one with a room full of moldy newspapers

These are excellent techniques for strengthening a character. Still, many readers need some sense of the individual’s physical appearance, and are uncomfortable when they can’t conjure up a mental picture. So how do you accomplish this without the mirror?

The obvious solution is to have the character look into a mirror and describe what they see. This is not a good choice. For one thing, it’s so obvious that it’s a cliché, but it’s problematic for other reasons as well. I don’t know about you, but when I look at myself in the mirror I’m not thinking about my general physical description. What’s in my mind is not my height or hair length or eye color. It’s whether I should talk to the doctor about that spot, or do I have something in my teeth, or did I get too much sun yesterday. In a first-person POV story, I have to stick with what the character would actually be thinking.

So, let’s rule out the idea of looking in the mirror. What does that leave us with?

This article from Janice Hardy’s Fiction University blog describes some good ways to deal with describing a first-person character. Some of the ideas:

  • Compare the character’s traits with another person (“He was even taller than me, which took some getting used to.”)
  • Use some self-deprecating humor on the narrator’s part (“I wonder if the world would look nicer through pretty blue eyes, instead of dark brown. I guess I’ll never know.”)
  • Have a trait affect some action as it happens (“I felt each jagged, broken nail catch on the towel.”)
  • Have someone else comment on the character’s appearance (“Mother said, ‘I’ll just move the chocolates over here. You’ll need to let that skirt out again soon, I see.’”)

One interesting take-away is that the description of a character shares some important characteristics with other descriptions, such as a place or an object. What matters is not the actual, objective appearance. What matters is how the character responds to the appearance, emotionally and physically. The reader doesn’t care if there’s a statue of a horse on the mantle. However, if a character is proud to see that the gift they gave is displayed so prominently, or if they’re annoyed at yet another sign of someone’s obsession with horses, it matters. In the same way, it’s more important to show how a character reacts to aspects of their appearance than just the appearance itself.

My book is still in the revision stage, but I’ve worked hard on this question of how to describe Kay, the first-person protagonist. Here’s how I’ve handled it so far. In the first few pages, Kay has been hired to clean up after a community party. She’s looking at a group of teenagers who were also working at the party and thinks, “They hardly noticed me, the old lady in the room, though I wasn’t much older than them. Maybe ten years.” Then, a little later: “Being around them made me feel like a fairy-tale witch: tall, pale, thin, with ragged dark hair down to my shoulders and a scowl. All that was missing was a wart on my nose.”

From these few lines we know Kay’s approximate age and a little of her physical description. We also get a sense of her voice and her attitude toward herself. Not bad for just 54 words! And it works because she’s not thinking about how she looks. Instead, she’s thinking about how she looks to others. She’s using the teens as a social mirror, reflecting her image in relationships and feelings, not just appearance. That’s a much more effective mirror.

As a reader, how important is it for you to get a sense of someone’s physical appearance?
As a writer, have you struggled with how to describe your characters?

Moon Shot: Thoughts on Space Exploration

Full moon on a black background. Text: Something for Sunday; July 21, 2019; Moon ShotFifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking around on the moon. Those of us old enough to remember know how it absorbed the imagination of the country and much of the world, and can tell you just where we were when Neil Armstrong took that “small step” off the lander to the surface of another world. My parents got me and my sister up out of bed to watch the grainy black-and-white images, knowing that this was something we should not miss. And they were right.

This week has been a frenzy of events looking back at that historic moment. We visited the Strasenberg Planetarium, part of the Rochester Museum and Science Center, where I took the image above; the large model moon is a fixture in their lobby. We attended a special presentation about the Apollo 11 landing. The highlight of the presentation was a replay of the entire 13-minute descent from lunar orbit to landing, including the view from the spacecraft windows and all the audio from the astronauts and within Mission Control. It was gripping, even though I knew how it ended! One of the things I had never known about before this week was the fact that the poor little onboard computer, trying to manage with a fraction of the power of my toothbrush, overloaded and shut down five times during this descent. Each time it was able to restart successfully, but nobody on the ground at the time knew why it was cutting out, and had to trust that it would come back. I’ve since learned more about what was going on and how one talented programmer basically saved the mission in this excellent article from Wired Magazine. This video is similar to the one I saw at the planetarium, and captures the tension of that moment well:

This story of the Little Computer That Couldn’t But Did Anyway leads me to a few larger points on Apollo, NASA, and space exploration in general.

  1. Space travel is dangerous. As with any other activity, we will be making a cost-benefit analysis, and the risks that go on the cost side of the equation are always going to be high. Nine American astronauts and six Russian cosmonauts died in the years leading up to the moon landings; 13 Americans and one Israeli died during space shuttle missions (details here). We’re a long, long way from the time when space travel will be as safe as automobile travel, and that’s not a very high bar.
  2. Space travel is expensive. NASA’s 2019 budget is $20.7 billion. That’s a big chunk of money, though still less than half a percent of the total $4.4 trillion budget. The money spent is another thing that goes into the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis we make when we decide whether space travel is worth it. It’s always going to cost a lot to build the machines and train the people needed to climb successfully out of Earth’s gravity well.
  3. Is money spent on space travel wasted? That’s a trickier question, because we have to ask what we get for that money and what we would do with it if we didn’t spend it on space travel. One thing that drives me crazy is when people talk about “throwing money away in space.” I picture astronauts opening their hatches and tossing out Benjamins, to float forever in the void. No, that’s not what happens. Money spent on space travel is spent right here on earth, paying the salaries of people who design and build all that complicated equipment. And what would we spend that money on if it didn’t go to space travel? There’s no guarantee that it would go to solve any of the world’s real problems. In 2018 the world spent twice as much at the movie box office than NASA’s entire budget. So perhaps the money spent on space (not in space) shouldn’t really go on the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis after all.
  4. People get excited about space. Not everyone, of course, but lots of us. The Apollo missions brought millions together across the world. There is excitement building now about future missions to Mars. Remember, not too long ago, how the world mourned the end of Opportunity, the last of the Martian rovers, after it extended its planned 90-day mission to nearly 15 years. You can get many different T-shirts commemorating Opportunity’s last words, “My battery is low and it’s getting dark” (though these were not literally its last words, since it didn’t communicate with us in words). That kind of excitement is what goes on the benefit side of the cost-benefit analysis, along with the benefits that accrue from the intensive research and development efforts that spin off into our daily lives.

Was the moon shot worth it? My vote is a big YES. Huddling around a pile of dollars won’t solve any of the problems we face, but the kind of excitement space can generate can pull us together like nothing else can. Besides, the science and the data we get about Earth can help us address some of our most dire problems with respect to climate change and ecological balance. There are definite costs, but for me the benefit side of that equation outweighs them by a lot. Let’s go back!

What are your thoughts on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11?
Where do you stand on issues relating to space exploration?


Getting Lost: Planning a Changeling Game

Books (Changeling: The Lost and World of Darkness) with a scattering of 10-sided dice. Text: Something for Sunday; July 14, 2019; Getting LostI’m a gamer: tabletop roll-playing games, to be precise. I’ve written before about my love of Dungeons and Dragons (see here and here and here). D&D is the game I mostly play at home with my family, and it’s wonderful. But I’m a promiscuous gamer, and with my Friday night group we generally play a different game.

Changeling: The Lost is one of the games in the World of Darkness system (New World of Darkness, in case you were wondering). It’s the same basic idea as D&D, with each player taking on the role of a character interacting with other characters as they overcome challenges in a world of magic. There are some overt differences, in that Changeling takes place in our current, contemporary world (plus the magic), and uses only 10-sided dice, as shown in the image. However, the biggest difference is less obvious. Changeling games tend to emphasize role-playing and character interactions over fighting. This is the reason why, as much as I love D&D, I think I love Changeling just a little bit more.

Now that I’m retired, I’ve decided to run a Changeling game at home with the family. Planning this game has completely obsessed me for weeks now. I’ve got to understand the system more deeply than I do as a player, and I’ve got to figure out all those challenges. The players will need certain information in order to overcome the challenges, and I have to find ways for them to get it in the context of the game, as they play their characters, so they know what they must know in time to prevent disaster. The solution must be something they can figure out and implement, but it can’t be too simple or obvious. This is complex and frustrating and enormously fun. Here are just a few of the wild and crazy ideas I get to play with:

  • Exploring the Chinese system of five seasons/elements to understand the major plot challenge
  • Designing stalls in the bazaar of the bizarre known as a Goblin Market, like the one where the old crone sells buttons that give you specific moods, charging you one song you will then forget
  • Creating a companion for the characters I call a sootling: a little snarl of black string with eyes that talks and has information they need

In many ways, planning a game is much like writing a story. This is no new insight on my part. In fact, the person who plans and runs a game in Changeling is referred to as the Storyteller. The story is the key to what makes playing these games so compelling, and so much fun.

I’m a writer, with a novel currently in revision. So writing the story for a game should be the same, right? Well, no. When I write a novel, my reader goes through my words in sequence as I’ve written them down. Suppose the reader needs to know Fact A before Event B happens. It might take some skill to work Fact A into the story where it needs to be, but once I’ve done that then I can rest assured that the reader will find it there. With a game, though, my best-laid plans are completely at the mercy of decisions made by the players. They may not go where I expect them to, do the things I’ve planned for, taking the story somewhere I never thought of. In fact, this is probably going to happen at some point. Here’s an image that expresses this idea beautifully.

A bottle of Coke labeled "My planning," and a hand holding Mentos labeled "My players"If you don’t get it, then you don’t know what happens when you add Mentos to Coke (especially Diet Coke): You get an explosion of foam all over the place. Gif showing a bottle of Coke erupting in foam after Mentos are addedSo what I need to do is not just storytelling, it’s nonlinear storytelling. I can’t, and shouldn’t, force my players to do certain things in a certain sequence. They need to be able to make choices and have those choices influence what happens. But it’s still my job to make sure they have a good time, which means they face challenges that are intriguing and worthwhile, and find the tools they need to overcome them. It’s like writing a book, only more so.

One interesting result of the overlap between planning a game and writing a book is that the game has been absorbing all my creative energies for weeks. I haven’t made any progress on my book! In part this saddens me. However, there’s a voice in my head saying, “You’re having fun, being creative, making something that others will enjoy. What’s wrong with that?” I have to agree with this voice.

So, for now, my WIP is this game. I know this obsession will pass, as we get to actually playing it and then we finish it. Until then, though, the book will just have to wait its turn.

Do you play games?
What absorbs your creative energies?

Stuff and Nonsense: How Our Possessions Possess Us

A pile of random stuff. Text: Something for Sunday; July 7, 2019; Stuff and NonsenseWe recently got new carpet installed in every room upstairs. We’re excited about getting rid of the 30-year-old stuff, but what we hadn’t been prepared for was the task of clearing out everything from all those rooms so the installers could work. We could leave the big stuff (the beds and dressers) but all the drawers had to go, and the chairs, and containers, and everything on top of all that furniture. We crammed stuff in the family room, in the basement, up on closet shelves, and most of all in the second upstairs bathroom nobody uses now that the kids are grown.
The image shows a very small part of that room. Until we went through this process, we hadn’t realized how much stuff we had. It took days to get it all cleared out, and it will be weeks before we get it all back where it belongs.

Though we kept a lot we don’t need, we are not hoarders. Compulsive hoarding is actually a serious, diagnosable mental disorder, which involves keeping things to the point where it causes significant problems with health and safety. It is closely associated with anxiety disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder, and sometimes with dementia or schizophrenia. Fortunately, that doesn’t describe us. When things are broken or no longer useful, we get rid of them. To take just one example, I recently donated two old cameras to the photography program at my school, even though I felt really attached to them. There are no rooms in our house too crammed to get into. Well, except that bathroom. As I write this we’re going through and discarding a lot of what’s there, including papers from my kids’ elementary school days, keeping much less than we’re getting rid of. By the time you read this, it will be once again empty and ready for guests to use.

That’s not to say we couldn’t still stand to get rid of more stuff. Like many fortunate people, we definitely have more belongings than we need. Researchers at the University of California have documented that middle-class Americans have more possessions than any other group in history, and that this can lead to high levels of stress. This short video describes the cluttering of America and the effects it has had.

Now that we are both retired, we’re going to start working through our belongings systematically. We expect we’ll want to downsize before too many more years, and that will be so much easier if we’ve cleaned things out a bit before then. Our future selves will be grateful for whatever we can do now. It’s time to take charge of our possessions.

Do you have too much stuff? How do you relate to your belongings?

In Praise of Boxes: Structure and Creativity

A pile of cardboard boxes. Text: Something for Sunday; June 30, 2019; In Praise of Boxes“Think outside the box.”

That’s a common piece of advice about creativity. Do the unexpected. Break through limits. Color outside the lines. Don’t be limited by those pesky boxes.

There’s certainly a lot of truth in that advice. However, I’m here today to defend the importance of boxes, and discuss how they can help our creativity.

Here’s a personal experience of my own. For years, I posted an image almost every week in response to a prompt provided by the WordPress Photo Challenge. (You can see some of my favorites here and here and here.) When they shut down the Photo Challenge just over a year ago, I was heartbroken. The structure of a weekly prompt was the box that inspired me to look at the world differently and more creatively. I missed it so much that for six months I ran my own personal photo challenge, posting an image every week based on a letter of the alphabet. It worked for me, but didn’t catch on and I dropped it after Z. Still, it got me thinking every week, looking for images relating to a particular letter, and that was good.

Here’s another example. I posted recently about how much I love writing haiku. In that post, you’ll notice that in every case the little poems are a response to a prompt: a letter in the A to Z Blog Challenge, a daily prompt in the #HaikuChallenge, or a weekly prompt for #ScifaikuSaturday. I can’t just sit down and come up with a haiku without some kind of structure. I need that box.

Structure helps creativity and productivity in many ways. Science fiction author Ferrett Steinmetz wrote a post on Chuck Wendig’s blog (“Five Things I Learned Writing the Sol Majestic”) in which he shared a number of suggestions for writers. One section is headed “Restrictions Breed Creativity.” He put rules on himself, limiting what he could do or how he could do it, and found this unleashed his thinking. Once again, the boxes helped.

There are any number of other examples. Why do people engage in NaNoWriMo or the more flexible Camp NaNoWriMo options? If you can write 1667 words a day in November, why couldn’t you do it in October? The key is the added structure. Daily productivity can be boosted with systems such as the Pomodoro Technique or a whole suite of suggestions from Elizabeth Spann Craig on “Setting Yourself Up for Success.” It’s nothing but boxes, and it works.

So remember: You can’t think outside the box without boxes. Thank you, boxes!

How does structure help you work?