Hello hello Word Nerds! Welcome back to DIY MFA Radio.
OMG, you guys! It’s episode 100! How awesome is that? I can’t even believe how amazing it is that we’ve come this far.
Today’s show is super-special for a number of reasons. Not only is it episode 100, but this is also the first solo show I’ve done in quite a while, and given how many interview requests I’ve been getting lately, it will likely be the only solo show in the next several months. But more importantly, today I’m going to introduce a concept that I’ve been playing with for a long time. It’s a direction that will inspire going to inspire DIY MFA going forward and guess what! You get a sneak peek.
As you’ve probably already noticed–if you follow the website or this show–a few months ago I released the Storytelling Superpower quiz. This fun personality quiz is similar to the ones you find on Buzzfeed or that people link to on Facebook, but instead of telling you which Hunger Games you’re from are or which Hogwarts house you’d be sorted into, our quiz reveals your storytelling personality.
Head on over and take the quiz if you haven’t already. When you finish the quiz, you’ll be prompted to sign up a video series. This video series is a mini master class that I put together to celebrate the launch of the DIY MFA book! It’s also connected to the subject of today’s podcast episode.
In this episode I’m going to give you an overview of where the Storytelling Superpower concept came from, what it is, and where it might be going in the next few months.
The Birth of an Idea
The Storytelling Superpower concept came to me over the winter holidays and I started sketching out some ideas in my brainstorming notebook. If you’re familiar with DIY MFA, you know that I like to break things into categories and put order to very complex concepts. For a while I had been asking myself how you really know what you’re good at as a writer. There are a lot of people who spout writing advice on the web, so how do you know who to listen to?
This is a fundamental question that I’ve been grappling with in DIY MFA for a long time. After all, I don’t believe you can copy-past someone else’s success plan onto your own life. You never know if that thing that worked for someone else will work for you and you need to test things yourself to find what fits. This is where that iteration concept comes from. It’s important that you figure out what you’re already good at as a writer and how you behave under natural circumstances. Then–and only then–can you improve on the things that are working. It does you no good to overhaul your whole process over and over. Instead, it’s much smarter and more efficient to play to your own strengths.
With that in mind, I started wondering how can a writer figure out what they’re good at? Wouldn’t it be great if we had a writer’s personality test that would help you figure out how you operate on the page and what your writing strengths are? I’m also a huge fan of personality tests. In a past life, I earned a masters in psychology from Cornell University, and one of the things I loved studying was personality. So while I was brainstorming, I put on my “psychology research hat” and started thinking about what a writing personality assessment might look like.
The Myers-Briggs test (you know the E/I N/S F/T J/P–I’m an INTJ) is basically a bunch of binary spectrums. People answer yes or no questions based those four parameters and those answers determine whether you’re introverted or extroverted, a thinker or a feeler, etc. Once the test gets your score on all four spectrums, you get your personality composite, or personality type.
The Heart and Soul of Your Story
Inspired by the Myers-Briggs format, I wanted to adapt that concept for writers, to take the framework and apply it to a writer’s brain. What I came up with were the different factors, two of which now make up the Storytelling Superpower quiz.
At first, I had easily six or seven different parameters in my quiz but to keep things streamlined, I decided to focus only on the character component. After all, characters are the heart and soul of your story. You plot can be a mess, your world-building mundane and your dialogue and description a disaster, but if you have a solid character, at least you have a place to start. But even if everything else is perfect, without a solid central character you’re not going get that book past square one.
So we start with character.
As I began to mull over the character component of the quiz, I realized that there are two fundamental aspects to every character in all of literature: (1) the type of character or how “big” that character feels on the page, and (2) what the character wants.
Type of Character: Everyman vs. Larger-Than-Life
I’ve mentioned the everyman versus larger-than-life heroic character. In Episode 5, I talked about the Opposite-is-Possible Theory, the idea that you need to show that the everyman character can do something grand, and that the heroic character can be vulnerable. To learn more about this aspect of character development, listen to Episode 5 linked above.
This first parameter was easy to identify because I’ve talked about it at DIY MFA countless times before. Still felt like I was only seeing part of the picture. I knew there had to be something more, so I turned my attention to the characters’ want.
The Character’s Want: Change vs. Preserve
I realized that the other thing driving character development is knowing what the the character wants. That can be kind of hard to boil down to a binary thing. The character could want to go out on an adventure and see the world, or to find the love of their life, or to not be beat up by the bully at school. So I started looking at books that I loved to see if I could discover anything in common between different characters and what they wanted. At first it looked like they were all over the place. And then it hit me, characters want one of two things in their life. They either want to change something or they want to preserve something.
This might seem really basic, but if you think about it, every single motivation at the crux of a book boils down to either change or preserve. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants to go home, to go back to the way things were. In The Hunger Games, Katniss wants to get her family out of the horrible situation they are in and she wants to survive the games. At the beginning of the series, Katniss wants to preserve her own life, but by the end she wants to change the system that has been holding her family back.
In the video series, I talk about how the character’s want can change over the course of a book (or series) and how you can use that shift to modulate a character from one archetype to another. Even if you find that one archetype speaks to you more than the others, you can shift things around and adapt characters by shifting their wants.
Four Character Archetypes
So now we have two parameters: character type and the want. In terms of the type, you can have a “regular joe” everyman character, or a larger-than-life heroic character. Within either of these types the character wants one of two things. Either the character wants to change in themselves or the world around them, or they want preserve something. This gives us four archetypes.
Why are these archetypes important? The key isn’t to box characters into a specific type and shackle them to a formula. You don’t have to shove your character into a particular category and then stick to that category come hell or high water. Instead, use these frameworks to understand what your characters are about at their most basic level. Then you can break the rules and shake things up. But if you don’t know what the rules are in the first place, then you can’t break them.
Here’s a rundown of the four archetypes.
The underdog is an ordinary Joe or Jane who wants to change something. This character doesn’t have a whole lot of amazing superpowers, skills, or assets, but they want to change their life and shake up the status-quo. You can play this dynamic out in any number of circumstances, like the classic “rags-to-riches” makeover story or a comeback story where a powerful character has a major setback and has to pick themselves back up. Even though all underdog characters have a common thread (regular people who wants to change themselves or the world around them), that story can play out in many different ways depending on the situation you put that character in.
The disruptor is my favorite of the archetypes. It’s a larger-than-life character who wants to change something, whether that’s something small in their own life or something large in the world around them. Usually the disruptor is the revolutionary, the character that wants to change the world. What I find interesting is that, when I look at the data for of all the archetypes in the quiz, the disruptor is the smallest slice of the pie. My hunch is that while disruptors might be entertaining, they’re also very hard to like. So if you’re writing a disruptor character, help the reader find something in that character that they can relate to.
The survivor is the same everyman character as the underdog, except that instead of wanting to change something, they want things to stay the same. The classic survivor stories are battles against nature, where some big disaster happens and the character has to struggle to survive. What makes this archetype so relatable is the everyman-ness of the survivor. If the character can get through this horrible situation, then so can we. Survivors are characters that have hope woven into them. No matter how bad things get, survivors believe that they can get back to a time when things were good. They don’t just give up, and that makes them compelling.
The protector is your typical superhero, larger-than-life and using their superpowers to protect the world and the people in it. What’s so great about these characters is that they’re noble and heroic. They don’t have to be superheroes, either. It could be a doctor or a lawyer, someone who wants to save those that can’t save themselves. The thing you have to watch out for with this archetype is that, because they are protective, they can sometimes overstep their bounds. Like the disruptor, the protector is larger-than-life, so the key is to show some vulnerability. With the protector it’s a little easier to do, though, because their goal (i.e. protect others) seems more selfless than that of a disruptor.
Putting it all together
The storytelling superpower goes well beyond just the character piece we’ve looked at here. When I had originally sketched out this idea, I had so many parameters, at one point there were 64 possible archetypes. These other parameters included: type of story structure, world-building elements, or the way the character’s want plays out at the conclusion of a story. In the future I hope to dig into these other elements, as well.
At some point my dream is to create a full assessment to see how writers perceive themselves based on these factors. Even more fun would be to compare that to how writers identify themselves on the personality test and how their stories actually play out on the page. There are researchers doing similar research by feeding novels into a computer computer program. In fact, later this summer I interview a professor who ran a study showing that there is no noticeable difference between literary novels written by MFA grads than by non-MFAs. (So basically, a computer program proves what I’ve been saying at DIY MFA all along!)
I could get really geeky with all the stats and we could really get down in the weeds about this concept. But then I remind myself what the purpose is behind the Storytelling Superpower. It’s not about data mining and it’s not about a cool personality test.
Rather, the Storytelling Superpower is about helping writers find their focus. It’s a tool to help you figure out what you are uniquely good at, what characters speak to you, and how you can implement and adjust these characters on the page so you can make your story even better. Knowing your storytelling superpower can also help you choose which project to work on, and which ones to set aside, at least for now.
The only way to improve as a writer is to dig into your own process
and understand the way you operate as a writer. Then improve on that.
So go, take the quiz. Then sign up for the video series. Or if you’ve already taken the quiz, you can sign up for the video series here. The course will be available until the big book launch event in NYC this August.
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