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Personality Tests: “Birkman” for Writers (Part 2)

July 29, 2010

So, yesterday (link goes to Part 1, yesterday; there is also an addendum here) I began by talking about this personality test I learned about during my MBA called the “Birkman”.  I think from that post it’s pretty clear that I’m generally dubious of personality tests, in general, but I’ve discovered in the Birkman a tool with a lot of flexibility and a little more honesty about the complex creatures that we are.  And I said I’d go into more detail about how this tool can be used by a writer.

I’ve been excited to write this post for weeks now, but I knew it would be a big topic, and one that would require a lot of background and explanation.  With as busy as I’ve been these past few weeks, I just hadn’t had the opportunity to do this topic justice.  But here it is, at last!  Warning… this is a massive post… with a lot of detail.  Good luck reading it!

Personality Test as Writer’s Tool

How, you ask, can this “personality test” be useful to a writer?  Well, my friend, you’ve come to the right blog post, because I intend to answer that very question.  Yesterday I described the Birkman’s “Needs Graph” and how it describes three behavior types each for a group of eleven characteristics.  Separating people’s “Usual Behavior”, their “Needs”, and their “Stress Behavior” acknowledges a fact that many writers struggle to realistically portray in their work: that people are complex and often contradictory creatures. 

I don’t go out of my way to engage in group interaction and social dynamics, but I have a high need for acceptance from the group, or I’ll turn into a withdrawn and spiteful troll.  Likewise, I’m a highly organized and sequential planner who works things through in a systematic, step-by-step manner.  But I need only the most basic of instructions and the freedom to build my own structure, or I’ll buck that structure and fail to follow through with it.

The characters in our story should be the same way: they can act in ways that are seemingly contradictory but which should be internally consistent.  The challenge is how to inject a believable element of contrariness into our characters and maintain that internal consistency.  The Birkman provides a light for that particular tunnel.  Because this test has been experimented on to death, there’s a lot of rigor and believability to its results.  It may not peg each person exactly 100% right, but it’s right more often than its wrong thanks to a lot of statistical analysis.  So, what if we had a Birkman report for each of our characters?

For most of us, of course, we can’t produce an actual Birkman report for our characters – it costs almost $500 just to take the test as an individual, and a “Birkman for Writers” test doesn’t exist in the real world.  But as writers, we’re in the business of making stuff up, anyway.  So what’s to say we can’t just manufacture our Birkman reports for our characters?

Why would you want to do this?  As I mentioned last time (and elaborated on above), I’m a “High Structure” kind of person.  That means that I’m very systematic in the way that I approach what I do, and that includes writing.  Some of you writers are “Low Structure”: you prefer a more flexible style and fly by the “seat of your pants”.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But for those of you looking for a little structure in the way you write, for those of you who are “Planners” or who aspire to be planners, what this tool can do is give you a detailed look at your characters.  How would your character react in a certain situation?  Well, look at his or her Birkman.  Is she getting what she needs?  If so, then she’ll react with her “Usual” style.  If not, then her stress behavior – her dark side – will take over. 

A Closer Look at the Birkman

A “Birkman Report” for your characters won’t cover every possible, conceivable situation.  But there’s a lot of flexibility to the categories.  So, next, I’m going to dive deeper into the eleven “Needs Graph” categories and what’s at each end of the “Usual”, “Needs”, and “Stress” continua, and occasionally opine on how we might see this manifest in characters in our stories.  Remember, each of these characteristics can be rated on a scale from 1 to 99.

  1. “Esteem” – A “Low Usual Esteem” is someone who is direct and straightforward, who doesn’t beat around the bush.  They’ll tell you the truth, even if they know it will hurt your feelings.  A “High Usual Esteem” is more tactful, more “insightful and intuitive”.  They’ll prefer not to tell you things directly, but infer it in more subtle ways, and are more conscious of your feelings when doing so.  In the middle are those who will try to be honest and open, but who will try to do so with a little more tact.  The “Needs” are fairly straightforward.  “Low Esteem Needs” need for other people to be direct and forthright in their communication.  “High Esteem Needs” need for others to be respectful and tactful.  The “Low Esteem Stress” behavior is to become too blunt, while the “High Esteem Stress” behavior is to feel underappreciated.  In the middle will be some mix of these extreme reactions.
  2. “Acceptance” – A “Low Usual Acceptance” is best able to work alone or in very small groups.  They don’t make an effort to be sociable and friendly.  A “High Usual Acceptance” is gregarious and friendly.  Being friendly comes naturally.  A “Low Acceptance Need” will need to spend time in small groups or alone from time to time, whereas a “High Acceptance Need” will need acceptance from and interaction with the group.  They want to feel part of the group.  A “Low Acceptance Stress” behavior is to become impatient with group interaction, to become withdrawn and reticent.  A “High Acceptance Stress” behavior will be to “over-value” group opinion and dynamics, to ingratiate oneself to the group, or to become fawning.
  3. “Structure” – A “Low Structure Usual” is someone who is flexible and open to new approaches, who shoots from the hip and flies by the seat of the pants.  They “make it up as they go along”, and they do it well.  A “High Structure Usual” is an organized and sequential planner who does things in order step-by-step, and rarely “draws outside the lines”.  A “Low Structure Need” will need as much freedom and flexibility as possible.  They need for the structure imposed upon them by others to be lightweight and flexible.  A “High Structure Need” will need a definite and specific plan to work from.  A “Low Structure Stress” is an inability to follow-through with plans to completion.  A “High Structure Stress” is a fanatical insistence on following proscribed procedures, even when situations may call for a modification of that plan.
  4. “Authority” – A “Low Authority Usual” is someone who is “low-key” in exercising their own authority.  They don’t lord it over others, and may actively solicit feedback and ideas.  A “High Authority Usual” is someone with a commanding presence, someone we might call a “Natural Leader” who is comfortable with authority and wields it directly.  A “Low Authority Need” needs to be in an environment that is “non-directive” and more open and democratic, where all participants have the opportunity to have their say.  A “High Authority Need” is someone who is uncomfortable with informal authority structures.  These people need a clear chain of command – they need to know who’s in charge.  A “Low Authority Stress” reaction is to “fail to address issues of control”, which basically means to give up all personal control and responsibility.  A “High Authority Stress” reaction is to become authoritative, domineering, and controlling.  Basically, they become autocrats and dictators.
  5. “Advantage” – A “Low Advantage Usual” is someone who is oriented toward – meaning they work for – the general benefit and welfare.  These are people who like to feel that they have contributed to the well-being of others.  A “High Advantage Usual” is someone who is oriented toward individual advantage – they work to make sure they get their own fair share.  A “Low Advantage Need” is someone who needs to work in an environment characterized by mutual trust and generalized benefits, in which people are treated equally and the group is praised or condemned as a whole.  A “High Advantage Need” is someone who needs a “means of measuring personal performance” – these people need to know how they can get better and improve themselves and their situations.  A “Low Advantage Stress” reaction is becoming to idealistic, becoming altruistic to a fault.  They’ll let others run rough-shod over them to “serve the greater good”, even when it really doesn’t.  A “High Advantage Stress” is to become too focussed on personal gain, at the exclusion of others.  This is the narcissist.
  6. “Activity” – A “Low Activity Usual” is someone who like to reflect before acting.  They are calm and deliberate.  A “High Activity Usual” is someone who prefers to take quick, direct, decisive action.  A “Low Activity Need” is someone who control over personal scheduling and time, and the ability to free up or fill up time.  A “High Activity Need” is someone who needs a constantly busy schedule.  A “Low Activity Stress” reaction will be to put things off or to eschew action of any kind, while a “High Activity Stress” reaction will manifest as a failure to delegate or to ask for help when necessary.
  7. “Challenge” – A “Low Challenge Usual” is someone who is self-confident and focused on success.   If I understand it right, these are people who “think” of themselves as successful, or as though success is a foregone conclusion.  They focus on their own personal strengths and abilities.  A “High Challenge Usual” is someone who has high demands and expectations of himself and of others.  Success is not a foregone conclusion: a High Challenge expects everyone to work hard to achieve.  They focus on the obstacles that must be overcome.  A “Low Challenge Need” is someone who needs an environment where success and achievement are acknowledged and praised. A “High Challenge Need” is someone who needs an environment that constantly presents new challenges for personal growth and development.  A “Low Challenge Stress” reaction is to deny or reject personal responsibility for errors and weaknesses.  A “High Challenge Stress” is to become overly demanding of both self and others.
  8. “Empathy” – A “Low Empathy Usual” is someone who strives to be objective and concrete and may come off as a cautiously detached.  These are people who are “cool-headed”.  A “High Empathy Usual” is someone who seems sympathetic and warm, and who values the feelings of others.  A “Low Empathy Need” is someone who needs to work in an environment that is unemotional and objective, where people are treated according to objective merits.  A “High Empathy Need” is someone who needs an outlet for subjective issues in their environment: someplace where they can express their feelings in a safe and uncritical way.  A “Low Empathy Stress” reaction will make someone appear cold and uncaring.  These people may discount the value of other people’s feelings.  A “High Empathy Stress” reaction manifests as unnecessary worrying and anxiety. 
  9. “Change” – A “Low Change Usual” is someone who concentrates well, and can focus on the task at hand.  A “High Change Usual” is someone who likes a variety of simultaneous tasks, someone who likes to rapidly shift back and forth between tasks.  A “Low Change Need” is someone who adequate notice of change in order to prepare for it mentally and physically.  A “High Change Need” is someone who regular change and new tasks that require their attention.  A “Low Change Stress” reaction is a failure to accept and adapt to necessary change.  These people cling to the old way of doing things, even when the old way is clearly obsolete, or even dangerous.  A “High Change Stress” reaction manifests as someone who is easily distracted and flighty.
  10. “Freedom” – A “Low Freedom Usual” is someone who “understands how most people think” and respects cooperative effort.  These are people who are conservative and reserved and conventional.  A “High Freedom Usual” is someone who is individualistic.  They value individual contributions and a  high level of freedom.  A “Low Freedom Need” is someone who needs a stable and predictable environment.  They need to know how to act and what is expected of them.  A “High Freedom Need” is someone who needs opportunities for individuality and personal expression.  A “Low Freedom Stress” manifests as a strong discomfort with unusual ideas and individual expression.  A “High Freedom Stress” manifests as “being different for its own sake” or acting out in inappropriate ways to draw attention to oneself. 
  11. “Thought” – A “Low Thought Usual” is someone who sees issues as clear-cut and “black-and-white”.  For these people, complex problems are easily reduced to their simple and easily handled components.  A “High Thought Usual” is someone who handles complexity and ambiguity well.  These people see issues in terms of “shades-of-gray”.  A “Low Thought Need” is someone who needs problems and issues boiled down to their simplest form, without the complexities and ambiguities, so they can make quick decisions.  A “High Thought Need” is someone who needs plenty of time to digest complex decisions.  A “Low Thought Stress” can be characterized as impulsive behavior, while a “High Thought Stress” manifests as indecision when under pressure.  (I’ll point out that the difference between “Thought” and “Action” is a subtle one, and I’m not sure I perfectly grasp the fine line between them, which may be a clue as to why I feel like my Birkman “Action” score is off.)

It’s also worth pointing out that any of the scores may also be in the middle range.  Middle Usual scores are usually exhibited as a balance.  Middle Needs scores need an environment that avoids the extremes of each side.  Middle Stress scores will have stress reactions that can go to either extreme of dysfunctional stress behavior.  Generally, the stress reaction of those with middle Stress scores will be opposite of the extreme condition that is causing the stress. 

How To Use the Tool

So, now you’ve got a better handle on the components of the Birkman that we’re most interested in.  Now you can begin to use the tool.  For each character, start at the top of the list of characteristics, and answer the question: what is my character like on this dimension, normally?  How does he or she act when things are going well?  Give your character a rank on the continuum between 1 and 99 to describe the strength of that tendency.  Is your character normally energetic?  Does he enjoy activity and being busy?  Then he might have a high “Activity” score.  Is she someone who always does her own thing, and who appreciates the unique things that other people do?  Then she might have a high “Freedom” score. 

Next, make a left turn, and think laterally.  This is how your character normally acts… but what does he or she need from others, or from his environment, in order to feel “normal”?  What conditions will bring about your character’s usual self?  Here’s where things get interesting.  What makes people hard to pin down, sometimes, is that the way that they act and what they need from the environment are often not equal.  Your free-spirited “High Freedom Usual” character, for instance, may actually need a predictable, stable, and conservative environment in order to feel safe in expressing herself.  Myself, I’m the exact opposite: I’m a “Low Freedom Usual”.  I’m generally conservative and I value working well with others.  But I have a very “High Freedom Need”: I need plenty of opportunities for personal expression and I need to see that in my environment, to see other people being expressive and unique.  If everyone around me is being conformist and conservative, I’ll start to feel stifled. 

Finally, you’ll need to consider each character’s Stress Reactions.  Typically, your “Stress” score for each characteristic is equal to your “Need” score.  For instance, I’m a “High Freedom Need” and have a corresponding “High Freedom Stress”.  If everyone around me is acting like a conformist zombie, I’ll start to act weird and different just because I can.  occasionally, someone may have a few Stress behaviors that are opposing their Needs.  I’ve got two on my Birkman: I have a High Acceptance Need but a reversed Low Acceptance Stress (I’ve talked about that one last time).  I also have a Low Authority Need (I need a democraticly-styled environment that accepts everyone’s inputs) and a reversed High Authority Stress.  If I don’t think the environment I’m in values the input of all members fairly, I may become confrontational, bossy, and even domineering.  I’ve seen other people’s Birkmans where none of the Stress reactions were reversed from the needs, and I’ve seen others where up to three or four are reversed.  Generally, the majority of Stress scores will equal the Needs scores, but it seems normal for a person to have one or two that are reversed. 

Once you’ve got this framework in place, it might be helpful for you to write a short narrative description of your character’s personality, keeping the insights provided by the Birkman in mind. 

Additionally, I think this is useful not only for protagonist characters, but also for the “bad guys”.  Villains are typically characters who are exhibiting dysfunctional behaviors, and the Birkman accounts for many specific dysfunctional behaviors.  Is your villain a warlord on a rampage, conquering neighboring lands and extending his rule?  He probably has a very high Authority Stress score (like me).  But why do you think that is?  What need does he have that’s not being met?  What if that need had been satisfied?  In this way, you can also build your Birkman in reverse by considering the Stress behavior first.

Either way, try to avoid the urge to make your protagonist a straight-line of moderate scores.  For one, there’s nothing “normal” about moderate scores – any moreso than very high or very low scores.  “Normal” people are all over the map.  Worse, though, a strong tendency for moderate scores will be just a little boring.  The point of this is to create characters who are nuanced and interesting and sometimes contradictory but always internally self-consistent. 

One final point: in a good, compelling story, characters almost never get what they want or need without a little conflict.  With the Birkman as a tool, now you know how your character will react when those needs aren’t being met.  But you also know which needs to deny your character in order to stir up the most drama, the most conflict, and the most compelling action and plot.  Deny your characters their needs, induce their dysfunctional stress behaviors, and watch them squirm and swing dangerously close to the extremes your villain has already been pushed to.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this primer on the Birkman, and that you find some use for this tool in your writer’s toolbox.

Happy writing!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2010 12:42 pm

    That’s a lot of information to process! Unfortunately for me, character creating doesn’t fall under my ‘structured’ part of the writing process. I’ve tried making up lists but never end up looking at them once I’m done writing them (other than for physical traits & history). I can see how this would be really useful to some people though!

    • July 29, 2010 6:18 pm

      That’s the idea. I know it’s not a tool that will be usefull to many writers, because there are many who are not as structured in their approach to writing as I. However, I imagine that there are some writers who are, and so I’m putting this tool out there in case others find it as useful as I.

      • July 29, 2010 6:39 pm

        What kind of structures do you use to create your characters? Something like this?

      • July 29, 2010 8:09 pm

        In my younger years, not much at all. A name and a basic idea of a character based more on archetypes than anything else. More recently, I started writing character histories (often from first-person perspective). It was only in the past several weeks that I came up with this mechanism using a facimile of the Birkman test. I’ll definitely be using this tool in the future. However, it’s a bit of a complex tool, though, so I don’t think I’ll be using it for short stories. It hits too heavy for that. But for novel-length work, I think it’ll be a really valuable tool for getting inside my characters.


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