Many characterization guides will tell you to base a character on something like the 49 Personality Archetypes, Jung’s 12 Archetypes, or the 16 Personality Types. (All worth saving for reference, by the way.)

These lists have led many budding writers astray, because, unless you majored in psychology, the odds of you working out how to turn an archetype into a lifelike character are slim to none. Archetypes aren’t the same as real people; they lack goals, desires, and an inner drive. Besides, which writer knows, from the top of their head, how ENTP personality type acts under duress, for example?

A better starting point for characterization is what I call habitual behavior. Every person you know, every memorable person you know, has one. It’s something people do under stress, when faced with a problem, or simply because it’s the way they are wired. Habitual behavior is what people default to most of the time.

Take Snape. Snape vexes. That’s the way he is. He vexes his allies as much as his enemies. It is his way of keeping emotional distance.

Or Samwise Gamgee. Sam looks after Frodo. He feels he couldn’t carry the ring, but understands the importance of the quest, so he does everything he can to help Frodo.

Or Han Solo, for contrast. Han acts selfishly. (At the beginning, at least. Learning to care for a bigger cause is his whole character arc.) You can guess from his behavior that he has probably lost a lot and doesn’t want to get attached.

What about your characters? What habitual behavior do they default to? Pick a short phrase that describes them perfectly. Strong verbs are a great place to start.

Got it? Great. Now do the thing that every writer seems to dread and ask yourself a bunch of why-why-whys to get at the core of your character.

Example: Dumbledore

Dumbledore orchestrates. He orchestrated the downfall of Voldemort after all.

So, why does he orchestrate? He sees problems long before anyone else does. Unfortunately, he never had much luck convincing people to do the right thing. So instead, he has learned to arrange for things to happen. Why? Greater good sometimes comes at a terrible price. Not everyone has the courage the make the right choice. But he, Dumbledore, has. Why? Because he knows better. He was seduced by grandiose dreams in his youth, and he’d let people down. A lifetime later, he wants to prove that he knows. He wants to redeem himself from the errors of his past and do some good.

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