I was recently in a course on situational leadership, and one of the things that I was told about was the DISC assessment for profiling people. I immediately wondered if this could be used to analyse fictional characters. Read on for my findings.
William Moulton Marston developed the DISC assessment. The same man who produced the first lie detector. The assessments rates people along two axes:
- An extroversion-introversion axis.
- An task-people axis.
This leads to four sectors in a diagram, as shown below:
People are usually not fully in one of these four sectors. Rather, they will lean in one direction or other. Some will be equally dominant and conscientious, but not very influential or steady. Others will be very steady and conscientious, but not dominant or influential. Some people are squarely in the centre – which is apparently where I’m at.
Can we apply this to fictional characters? I think we can. Characters in book are often extremes, meaning characters might fit better in one of these four squares than actual people.
Since I like fantasy, let’s look at the Fellowship of the Ring for an example.
First up: Frodo. What is Frodo’s DISC profile? Frodo is not a very extroverted person. He doesn’t step into the spotlight unless he has to. Although he does boss around Sam and takes the lead on matters. He’s not that good with people either, misjudging Aragorn upon first meeting him, and preferring to go at it alone at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring. The entire book is about his one task, that he must perform. So, Frodo is a pretty conscientious person, with some dominant tendencies.
What about his sidekick Sam? Sam’s in it for his master Frodo. He doesn’t care very much about the task, but he does care a lot about the people around him. He’s not an extrovert either, preferring to stand in the shadows by his master. In other words, Sam is a steady person.
Aragorn then. He spends a lot of time in the wilderness, but he’s actually quite the people person. He’s not very good with crowds, but he is a leader of men. I would place him somewhere in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. That places him somewhere between a typical Influence person and a steady person.
And finally, Sean bean – er – Boromir. Boromir is very extrovert, a leader of Gondor. He finds a task and gets it done, whatever it takes. He’s a full-on dominant person, which is why he feels he should lead the fellowship. It’s also why he wants to take the ring from Frodo: he feels he can handle it better. When the chops are down, he is also at the front of the battle though, fighting off Orcs until he is riddled with arrows.
Okay, so we’ve been able to determine some personality characteristics of a character. Does that help with writing them? It does, actually. The thing with these four types of personalities, is that they can lead to communication problems. And those lead to conflict, which is what we want in stories.
If you’re stuck with a story, maybe you can look at the character’s profiles. If they’re all the same, mix it up. Add a dominant person alongside your influence one. Or a conscientious one to round things out. If you look at ensemble casts in books and television shows, you will notice this balance of types as well.
The DISC profile is meant to be used in assessing employees in an organisation. However, it also allows you to make the differences between your characters more pronounced, and to increase conflict.
So, yeah, I think it’s also a useful tool in writing.