Friday, September 16, 2016
A Few Letters On Personality
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can't tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Ch. I)
I hope you don’t mind if I’m uncharacteristically serious for a moment.
I’m a person who’s quite interested in personality types. To me, the number and seeming accuracy of personalities and temperaments is fascinating as I look at myself and my friends as sort of case studies. Whenever I hear that data from another person, I’m either surprised (“I wouldn’t have guessed that about you!”) or rather pleased (“That does sound right!”). It’s also fun to look at the characters you’ve written and figure out their types. Me, as far as my own personality goes, I’m a proud INTJ. You can see it on my short bio. I like to study my own type in order to better understand myself and how I work. And I’m sure there are many more people out there (maybe even you) who also like to engage in this exercise of self-discovery.
However, with a little bit of self-reflection, I have come across a danger that comes when one identifies and studies his temperament. Allow me to demonstrate using my two examples: Eustace Scrubb in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and myself.
“But just as he reached the edge of the pool two things happened. First of all it came over him like a thunder-clap that he had been running on all fours—and why on earth had he been doing that? And secondly, as he bent towards the water, he thought for a second that yet another dragon was staring up at him out of the pool. But in an instant he realised the truth. That dragon face in the pool was his own reflection. There was no doubt of it. It moved as he moved: it opened and shut its mouth as he opened and shut his.
He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon's hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” (Dawn Treader Ch. VI)
Short of directly looking into a mirror, an honestly taken personality exam is the most accurate of self-portraits that you can observe. I’ve taken the test at 16Personalities.com, confirming that I am an INTJ. Upon getting this result, I felt not unlike Eustace looking into the pool at his transformation. (Well, Eustace had the bigger shock—I’d known my type for a while. Just double-checking.)
“In spite of the pain, his first feeling was one of relief. There was nothing to be afraid of any more. He was a terror himself now and nothing in the world but a knight (and not all of those) would dare to attack him. He could get even with Caspian and Edmund now…” (Dawn Treader Ch. VI)
Reading over the INTJ Profile on 16Personalities, I was pleased. It felt accurate. It felt interesting. But best of all, it felt cool. Only 0.8% of the population are in my class, and we seem a highly capable bunch. For me, being told that my kind is “one of the rarest and most strategically capable personality types” feels pretty good. According to the strengths department, INTJs are quick, imaginative, strategic, self-confident, independent, decisive, hard-working, open-minded, and quite capable. Huh! Am I just not paying attention to what I’m doing (or what I could be doing)?
“But the moment he thought this he realised that he didn't want to. He wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realised that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends at all. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed. He longed for their voices. He would have been grateful for a kind word even from Reepicheep.” (Dawn Treader Ch. VI)
Things get worse after reading all the way through the strengths list, since the next section pertained to INTJ weaknesses. Again, it was pretty accurate. My personality type comes with…let me see…me being arrogant, judgmental, too analytical, anti-structured-environments, and romantically clueless. In summary, we’re socially stunted. We may have the mind of Sherlock Holmes, but the sociopath comes standard too.
It’s monstrous. Personally, I do not socialize easily. A bar is dull. A club would be painful to enter. I have frequently been in crowded areas—of people I know, too—and have not engaged in the conversation. The net result: it often gets friggin’ LONELY up here. I’m not exactly approachable, either. Being 6’2” and ugly has its advantages, but PR is not one of them.
“‘Then the lion said—but I don't know if it spoke—You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away. […] Then he caught hold of me—I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again. You'd think me simply phoney if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they've no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian's, but I was so glad to see them. ’" (Dawn Treader Ch. VII)
The danger that I risk in the personality exams is simply this: I can start thinking that my traits are fixed. Eustace could have just succumbed to the reality that he was a monster. But that’s not how people work.
Lord knows we all hate a static character. If there’s no growth in the MC as the tale progresses, what’s the point? The best stories have the person/creature/thing/whatever develop and change, becoming better than they could have realized. Reynard Muldoon became a leader. Megamind became a hero, and so did Deadpool, in his own fashion. Eustace became a less irritating boy.
Look, if there’s one thing that I want you to take away from my semi-coherent introspection here, it’s that the best characters improve—including yours. Strengths need to be built on. Weaknesses? Those need to be worked on, repaired if possible. I’ll start, if that’s what it takes. It may hurt a bit, but in the end I might make some progress towards becoming more human. I’ll go out and walk around, maybe even talk to people. Get out of the ol’ comfort zone.
Oh wait…I’m currently studying abroad. I’ll need to learn a new language first.
This should get interesting.