How to Build Complex Characters Using the Theory of Multiple Intelligences
There are many ways to create characters. You could read tips on creating well-rounded characters or consult this infographic on how to achieve “epicness.” When it comes to defining intelligences and personality, some people like to use personality tests to find out more about the people who populate their fictional worlds.
The Theory of Multiple Intelligences is another tool writers can use to add depth and complexity to their characters, but chances are you’ve never even heard of it unless you work in education. Howard Gardner first put this idea forward in 1983, but this recognition of the many different types of “smarts” has continued to grow and evolve. No, I’m not talking about “book smarts” and “street smarts” here. Instead, Gardner and identified up to eight distinct ways for humans to show intelligence. And just like any strength, if taken too far or paired with other traits, these areas can also become obstacles. In this article, we will examine:
- The different types of “Intelligences” identified by Howard Gardner’s pedagogical theory
- The strengths and challenges for those possessing each form of intelligence
- Ways to use this theory to help your existing characters grow and change in believable ways
- Ideas for integrating these intelligences into your character creation process and using them to heighten tension within your narrative
How Can This Help You Create Characters?
Before I dive too deep into the specifics, let’s take a second to examine this categorization method as a tool. First, if you don’t have a character in mind at all, looking at this combination of strengths and challenges could help inspire you. If you need to find a quirk or strength to add depth and interest to somebody you’ve already got in mind, this can serve as a great jumping off point. And if you have a character you’ve worked with for a long time but feels stagnant, looking at the unique challenges faced by each category can help you figure out a new direction to take them in.
This method won’t replace other brainstorming tools, such as a list of character traits like “brave” or “stubborn.” There isn’t anything about the Theory of Multiples that precludes overlap with any particular character trait. At the end of the description of the different intelligences, I will provide some more information and exercises for combining this theory with other brainstorming and characterization tools.
Think of this categorizations as a means to highlight different ways for people to succeed or succumb to their own unique combination of things they are drawn to. Whether the people around your character or the society at large views each type of intelligence as a strength or weakness is up to you. All of these ways of exhibiting intelligence can be cultivated through outside forces or a concerted effort of an individual to improve in any area. Different times in a person’s life may carry different demands.
Howard Gardner originally identified seven types of intelligence. There is some overlap between some of them, and for a writer, some will prove to be a stronger base for a character than others. I start with the types of intelligence that will be easier to apply to characters as dominant traits and move toward the ones that will be more for adding depth rather than acting as a foundation.
People who get good grades or do well on standardized tests are often praised for being “smart.” The public school system in the United States is engineered to recognize and reward these behaviors because they are easy to quantify. Decision-makers (who rarely have any formal training in education) like numbers and percentages. Do not confuse high scores with “intelligence,” which deals with the inherent motivations and inclinations of a person.
Likewise, resist the temptation to lump together these forms of intelligence with “learning styles,” a concept that is being debunked by more and more studies every year. A person who reports a preference for taking in new information visually does not necessarily possess Visual/Spatial intelligence, but chances are a talented painter does.
Humans are beautiful, messy, unquantifiable entities that grow and change in unexpected ways. It’s important to remember when you are exploring these various types of intelligence that likely no one person expresses only one of these. The ways different strengths and weaknesses interact is what defines us, and as writers, we endeavor to make art that mimics life. Complex and realistically balanced characters draw in readers in ways that completely transcend genres. You will probably see yourself or people you know within these explanations, as well as ways your fictional friends can find solace or tension with their own inherent mix of intelligences.
As a writer, you’ll probably feel some affinity for this one, but it isn’t going to be true for every wordsmith. After all, it’s possible to master just about anything with enough determination. The theory of multiple intelligences hinges on what sorts of skills and tasks are inherent to an individual and the types of experiences they seek out in their free time; the things that give your brain a natural “buzz.” Let’s break it down.
- Ability to recall obscure words and sayings they have only heard once.
- Internalization of grammar and spelling rules, which often extends to ease with learning new languages as well as a deep grasp of their native language.
- An inclination to define feelings using specific language/word choices. This is a person who would never settle for saying they are “angry.” Instead, they may describe themselves as frustrated, irritated, annoyed, resentful, or provoked, and they don’t need to consult a thesaurus to hit on the exact word they want. The subtle differences seem both self-evident and necessary for clarity.
What do They Like?
- Verbal sparring
- Being technically correct
- Rhymes, puns, alliteration, and clever turns of phrase
- Telling others about things they have read and what they liked or disliked about them
- Reading or writing works that use complex language, whether or not the plot or characters are well-constructed or relatable
- Others don’t understand their sense of humor
- Others don’t understand what they are saying due to obscure word choice
- Being labeled as boring or being mistaken for reclusive because of their love of reading
- Being viewed as pretentious and/or uptight because of their word choices and precise diction, which can make others feel stupid and leads to resentment
Examples from literature
- Cyrano de Bergerac
- Hermione Granger
- Klaus Baudelaire
I’m pretty bad at doing mental math. Heaven forbid my life ever depends on my ability to multiply something without being able to write it down, and I am sure I mess up tipping my waiter on a regular basis. But paradoxically, this alone doesn’t mean that I don’t possess this type of intelligence. The deeper a person gets into theoretical mathematics, the less numbers actually matter. It all comes down to logic.
- Recognizing patterns of ideas
- Identifying cause and effect
- Long-term planning and strategy
- Anticipating the logistical needs of others
- Dividing items or ideas into groups based
- Thinking a situation through and seeing different possible conclusions
What Do They Like?
- The law and following rules
- Organizing and finding connections between things
- Games that allow them to plot out their moves in advance
- Trying to predict the end of movies or the way people will react to a situation
- Science experiments, computer programming, building models, and other activities that follow step-by-step protocols
- Games of chance
- Puzzles they can’t solve
- Rules that feel arbitrary
- Expectations or tasks that are poorly explained
- Situations that don’t relate to their prior experiences
- Erratic or impulsive behavior and irrational reasoning of others
Examples from Literature
- Violet Baudelaire
- Agatha Christie’s various detectives
A person who possesses this sort of intelligence sees what is, what can be, and what isn’t with equal measure. Just as a logical person will identify patterns of ideas, a visual person will notice patterns in line, shape, and color, and fill in the blanks. And this isn’t just when it comes to two-dimensional objects such as drawings or paintings. The relationship between three-dimensional objects, how they fill a space, and the distances between them also fall into this category.
- Visualizing something and being able to build it
- Arranging things so they are visually balanced
- Interior design, flower and furniture arrangement
- Looking at an outfit and knowing the “finishing touch”
- Graphic design and other types of visual media
- Gauging distances and travel time
- Seeing the potential in a raw material
What Do They Like?
- Jigsaw puzzles
- Optical illusions
- Games and sports that involve throwing and catching
- Interesting juxtapositions of textures, shapes, and colors
- Sudoku and games where cards or tiles are moved around
- Building things they imagine (rather than using a kit)
- Can get wrapped up in details that others don’t notice
- Distracted by things that are not in their “proper” place
- Distracted by colors and movement, such as a TV in a restaurant
- “Horror vacui” or the fear of a blank space or darkness
- Likely care a lot about their appearance, and have high expectations of grooming and fashion for loved ones as “reflections” of themselves. This can make them seem shallow.
Examples from Literature
- Sherlock Holmes (who combines his powers of observation with his Logical Intelligence to make a powerful deductive reasoner)
- Daisy Buchanan
- Robert Langdon
- Patrick Bateman
The beauty of having Interpersonal Intelligence is that it applies to many different situations. Humans, on a basic, evolutionary level, are social animals, and those people who are in tune with others are in a prime position to capitalize on that fact.
These people can diffuse tense situations with a few words, and their presence or absence at a meeting can make a huge difference to the proceedings. And because they find social interaction simple, they won’t avoid it and will oftentimes seek it out.
It may seem like a simple shortcut to label a person with Interpersonal Intelligence an extrovert, the same way that intrapersonally intelligent people seem to fall into the introvert camp (see below), but the two are different on a fundamental level. At its most basic, an extroverted person is someone who gains energy from social interactions, but that does not mean they are any good at them. They could want to be around people, but people don’t want to be around them. Extroverts are fairly common, but a person with a true propensity for interpersonal intelligence is far rarer.
- Putting others at ease
- Managing others and facilitating teamwork
- Empathy (can put themselves in someone else’s position)
- Adapting their communication style to the individual situation
- Reading the feelings and understanding motivations of others and acting accordingly, often unconsciously through body language
What Do They Like?
- Giving feedback and advice
- Getting to know new people
- Team sports and cooperative games
- Facilitating conversations and solving arguments
- Working alone and feelings of isolation
- Advice and insights may be unwelcome
- May be perceived as “slick” or “manipulative”
- Putting others before their own mental and physical health
- Sensitive to interpersonal conflict, which can consume their attention
Examples from Literature
- Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
- John Watson
- “Long John” Silver
These are the people who spend time thinking about and working on their inner worlds rather than getting caught up in gossip or other distractions from the outside. Due to this propensity for pondering, most self-identify as introverts. This is not to say that introverts are always intelligent about themselves, but when you prefer to spend your time and energy on your own development, it makes sense that there would be a correlation between the two. But, you can also have a person who is intelligent about themselves enjoy the company of others, so it is important not to over-simplify.
Thinking a lot about one’s self may sound narcissistic, but this is not necessarily the case when it comes to the intrapersonal intelligence. A narcissist thinks their needs come first, and that they are fabulous just the way they are. But someone who is intelligent about themselves concentrates on how to become the best version of themselves.
When it comes to character creation, your main character probably won’t be very good at this, at least not at first. Character development in the course of a story is about change, so if your hero starts out totally self-aware, there isn’t much room for growth. However, if someone thinks they know themselves but actually don’t have a clue, that gives you wiggle room.
- Working independently
- Knowing that they are good at and what they are bad at
- Recognizing their emotional state and examining the cause
What Do They Like?
- Meditation and yoga
- Honing their skills and inherent strengths
- Taking personality tests and learning about psychology
- Activities that give them time and space to think. This can include the Zen practice of repetitive tasks that engage the body and free the mind to wander
- Working in a group
- Getting lost in thought
- Trying new things, especially if they believe they fail at them
- Perceived as standoffish, selfish, lazy, boring, or a daydreamer
- Can take a long time to examine things from so many different angles
In real people, these next two types of intelligence can be incredibly important but are probably less so for characterization. It can be harder to work them in or can act as the bare minimum requirement for someone to do a specific job. Unlike the intelligences listed above, it is easier to cultivate these two types through physical repetition and practice.
It may seem strange to think of a person who is “intelligent” when it comes to her body, given that in many societies we regard the mind and the physical self to be separate. In fact, the relationship could even be regarded as combative, as shown by phrases such as “mind over matter” when combating those pesky donut cravings.
In truth, our bodies and our minds are inextricably tied, and as medical science becomes more sophisticated it is getting hard to deny it. Hormones and other neurochemicals can be tied to a variety of conditions that have specific and measurable effects on our mental health. Likewise, physical symptoms such as a loss of appetite or sympathetic pains for a loved one can be caused by our brain activity. People who possess the Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence are those who find their bodies much easier to understand and manipulate than their thoughts.
- Jedi-like reflexes
- Hard to sneak up on them
- Grace, balance, and poise
- Knowing their physical limits
- Ability to mask emotions by controlling body language
- Awareness of how their movements will create specific results
What Do They Like?
- When people respond favorably to their body
- Working with their hands (including cooking)
- Modeling, jogging, weight lifting, rowing, martial arts
- Adrenaline-inducing activities, such as roller coasters and skydiving
- Getting old or injured
- Being forced to sit still
- Self-esteem tied to physical prowess
- Letting others struggle to complete a task they could easily do
- Hypochondria or inability to pull focus away from physical discomfort
Examples from Literature
- Doctor Stephen Strange
- Esmeralda (Hunchback of Notre Dame)
As you probably guessed, this sort of person engages easily through music and rhythm. In terms of character creation, this intelligence will probably act as more of a secondary trait or interesting way to give a character more depth rather than being the basis for an entire character. Unless of course, you are writing about a musician, orchestra conductor, or other person involved in music for their occupation.
When combined with the intelligence above, you get fantastic dancers, but someone possessing an affinity for song won’t necessarily be able to move to the rhythms they hear with any assemblage of grace. There can also be overlap with the Logical/Mathematical Intelligence because music is math on the deepest level.
- Remembering song lyrics
- Strong sense of rhythm
- Creating mnemonic devices
- Remember and pick up melodies, even when they are overlapping and mixed together
What Do They Like?
- Attending concerts
- Singing (in private or in public)
- Complex forms of music and composition
- Playing an instrument, probably more than one
Applying the Theory to Character-Building
When Aspiration and Intelligence Don’t Mesh
One way to use these categories when thinking about characters is to give someone a goal that is at odds with their natural strengths. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to have goals that are perfectly aligned with what we are naturally good at. Chances are, there are going to be at least some things a character wants that is totally outside their purview. This is a natural gateway to conflict, which in turn leads to elements of the plot, world-building, or a character’s growth.
For instance, you could have a main character who wants to catch the eye of that special someone, but they don’t have the skills or personality traits they think that person desires. This basic premise can set up all sorts of different situations that can be played out in a story, whether or not it is a romance at its core.
Parents and mentors can put pressure on people to behave differently or achieve mastery of things that just don’t come easily. How a character reacts to these expectations will vary widely. It could lead to strengthening their resolve to succeed or completely undermine their confidence. It might make your character resentful or grateful, depending on who they are and the outcome of all their hard work.
If you zoom out even farther, the culture your character lives in can prioritize one sort of intelligence and cast others aside. A musician among warriors, a linguist in a society that elevates logical thought, or an independent thinker who is forced to work with others would all have to find ways to work around their natural inclinations to fit in. Or not; they could decide to strike out into the world to find people who value their talents.
Have you ever met someone who thought they were really good at something, but simply weren’t? Chances are you’ve got a friend who thinks they can sing but make you want to run for the hills when they ask you to karaoke. Or a sibling who tries to do daredevil stunts and misses the mark because they overestimate their ninja-ness? And it sure seems like there are a lot of people who think they always know what’s best in a social situation whether or not they actually possess interpersonal skills. In short, everybody has their blind spots when it comes to themselves, which can also give a writer plenty of opportunities for tension and character growth.
Find a list of character traits online. They can be positive, neutral, negative, or a combination. Choose a trait and one of the intelligences. Think about how this combination of elements could come together in a person and:
- What sort of environment would either encourage or discourage this person?
- What sort of goals would they have?
- Can you imagine the type of person who would make a good friend for them? A lover?
- What about an antagonist or situation that would get in their way?
From there, you could choose a different trait, add another trait to the mix, or move to another intelligence to repeat the exercise. If the list of traits isn’t getting your creativity flowing, try using the “seven deadly sins.”