Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pretending to be Myers-Briggs, Part 1

A while ago on Facebook, a few friends of mine posted a helpful informational picture-thingie (there is probably a trendy name for this that I’m too uncool to know). Its title was “How to Care For Introverts,” and despite the fact that it made introverts sound like houseplants, I found it very interesting.

Some of the tips were “Never embarrass them in public,” “Don’t interrupt them,” and “Enable them to find one best friend who has similar interests and abilities.” (Although heaven knows how you enable that…set them up with an online best-friend-finding service that tests their compatibility?) The last one, of course, was “Don’t try to remake them into extroverts.”

Fact of life: extroverts often don’t understand introverts…and, possibly to a lesser degree, introverts often don’t understand extroverts. Being only 10% extroverted on the official Myers Briggs scale, I am going to pretend that I am in some strange middle group that is either super conflicted or mysteriously above petty personality preference distinctions. Therefore, I will dispense wise advice from my position of authority on this subject.

For everyone rolling your eyes, I grant that I’m not an expert on pretty much anything. However, after doing some thinking on this subject after I took a Myers-Briggs test for one of my classes, I’m going to start a series on how the different distinctions of that test can apply to writing and life.

One of the comments on the “How to Care for Introverts” chart asked if there was a version for extroverts. There didn’t seem to be, probably because introverts are more widely misunderstood. We extroverts have the tendency to think everyone is like us, something that probably isn’t as common the other way around.

But, wanting to contribute to the public good and the vast storehouse of information on the Internet, here are my suggestions for a list. Obviously, this won’t be true for every extrovert, since we’re not all clones of each other. But it’s a good place to start.

How To Care For Extroverts
  1. Keep them in partial shade, water daily, and trim off dead leaves. (Just kidding. Okay, I’ll be serious now.)
  2. Call them by name.
  3. Don’t assume they don’t think deeply about things.
  4. Help them by letting them vent or talk through a problem.
  5. Compliments and encouragement are always welcome, as long as they’re genuine.
  6. Resolve problems or misunderstandings with them directly…and soon.
  7. Be willing to do something spontaneous with them occasionally.
  8. Know that even though they have many friends, they genuinely care about you.
  9. Acknowledge them when you pass them, even if it’s just a wave or smile.
  10. Ask “How are you?” When they say, “Good” and don’t look like they mean it, ask again.
  11. Be forgiving when they blurt out stupid things that they don’t mean. It’ll happen.
  12. Don’t look down on their extroversion or imply that introversion is somehow superior.

Since it’s been a blog post of lists, might as well keep going. As a writer, introversion and extroversion can be powerful tools when thinking about the personality of your characters. Here are a few thoughts on both types of people and tips for how to use that when writing fiction.

How To Write Introverts
  1. Keep them consistent. Let’s face it: we sometimes turn introverts into extroverts when we need to reveal key plot information through dialogue. If your character is more internal, he’s not going to say everything you might want him to. This actually forces you to use the old rule of show, don’t tell. Let us guess what the person is thinking or feeling based on body language, posture, facial expressions, actions, and so on.
  2. Don’t make all of the fun secondary characters extroverts. Sure, we’re all familiar with the wacky sidekick who gets all the good lines or the quirky teacher/boss, but sometimes that becomes cliché. Funny introverted characters are harder to write, because they don’t often blurt out whatever pops into their head. Still, some of the most hilarious people I know are introverts, especially in the areas of wit and sarcasm.
  3. Give them time alone. Introverts are not shy, as most people assume. They are people who are energized by being by themselves, instead of receiving energy from others. Especially if your plot is high-action, your introverted characters will crash and burn if they have to keep going from chase scene to crowded bus ride to interrogation. What might be exhilarating to an extrovert will be draining to an introvert. You don’t have to describe the more boring recharge process, but mention that your character needed time to think about a decision or snuck off to eat dinner alone or whatever would make sense for your character.

How To Write Extroverts
  1. Tell us what they’re thinking. This is very important, because often what extroverts say and what they really mean are two different things (many are people-pleasers or impulsively say things they don’t mean). Don’t neglect thoughts from you point of view character just because an extrovert’s dialogue is easier to write.
  2. Avoid clichés. This is true for all characters, of course, but for some reason, extrovert clichés seem to be most common (i.e., class clown, dumb blonde cheerleader, popular crowd people). Sometimes it’s harder to have a nuanced, relatable extrovert character because of this. Or maybe this is because a lot of writers tend to be introverts, and sometimes main characters share a lot of traits with the person writing them.
  3. Get a sidekick. Since extroverts need other people, it might not work for your extrovert protagonist to be an independent lone wolf. Having a secondary character around will allow the extrovert to brainstorm with someone else, vent their emotions, and get another person’s reactions and opinions, all things that extroverts need.

So, there are my thoughts from my extensive experience with life as a deeply committed extrovert, as well as years of research on the complex workings of psychology and sociology. Take it for what it’s worth.

Next Wednesday: Sensing vs. Intuition.

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