Something I’ve observed over the last two years or so is how different personalities react to uncertainty. Very little about life is certain, that’s always been true, but when the stakes are raised different personalities handle uncertainty in varied ways that can create all sorts of really compelling internal conflict. So how can you use this for your characters?
What Is Uncertainty?
Most of us can probably parse out what uncertainty means, many of us are word nerds after all. Uncertainty is a situation in which something is unknown or unknowable. Simple enough. But let me take you through a brief thought exercise that helped me wrap my head about this idea that on the surface appears simple but is astoundingly complex.
I googled a bunch of synonyms for uncertainty because I was curious about the true scope of what uncertainty includes. These are a few of the results I found: doubt, confusion, upheaval, unpredictable, unreliable, precarious, variable, ambiguous, concern, distrust, suspicion, skeptical, conjecture, indecision, hesitant, prolongation, wanderlust…
Now, as word nerds we can look at that list and understand how context, connotation, and nuance lends to meaning. Upheaval and indecision are very different, but inherent in both is this element of uncertainty. Do you see where I’m going with this? Uncertainty runs through almost every aspect of life and how your character deals with uncertainty can really increase the stakes for readers.
Let’s get more curious about this and see how this can add emotional depth to our fiction.
Personality Types And Uncertainty
There are several popular personality typing systems out there, and diving into each one with their multiple descriptions and labels is just a time-wasting rabbit hole in this context. Instead, I poured over three of the bigger ones to try and parse out five different ways that the various personality types are said to respond to uncertainty. These are just how I interpreted those personality descriptions, it’s completely generalized, but I wanted to focus in on the WHY behind each response to uncertainty, because that nuanced information is really helpful to writers.
The WHY helps us understand the character’s priority, their goals with certain behaviours or thinking patterns, predispositions to react in specific ways — but then you force them to find another way through the problem, you remove the crutches, the familiarity, and BOOM! Instant tension.
Order And Predictability
These types find uncertainty extremely difficult and the way to a sense of safety is through a step-by-step process, a rigid structure (either self-created or imported from other sources). They may doggedly follow (or break) rules to fit into their chosen structure. Their focus is on safety (like many of the others below), but the WHY seems to be a need for a guarantee. There is very little or no tolerance for uncertainty of any kind.
From their trust in the process, they can find ways to help or offer pragmatic solutions. Helping is used as a distraction from the uncertainty, the helping isn’t the WHY behind their actions or thinking. When those processes don’t work as promised or predicted, anger and resentment follows and they shift the blame because the process can’t be the problem or weak point.
Intellectuals Who Question Everything
I’ve observed two general types of intellectuals and they’re both excited or energized by uncertainty and change. They see opportunity instead of calamity and it fires up their out-of-the-box thinking. These types can appear spontaneous, but every decision has been thought out, they just rarely bother to include others in the thought processes (think Sherlock Holmes).
Those more prone to analysis, their WHY is a solution. Iron Man comes to mind. “Things are gonna get weird.” They will turn to research and raw data and experimentation to find the solution. They are constantly looking to make things more efficient or streamlined or scaling things, creating uncertainty even where none appears to exist, but if solutions remain elusive, if overwhelmed or lacking agency, their focus gets very very narrow and depression can set in. Their solutions can drift to focus on “the greater good” without thought to consequence or costs.
Those intellectuals who lean more to towards philosophy than analysis (my own explanations) are collectors of knowledge so turn to research because their WHY is truth (more Dr. Banner than Iron Man). Once they know the truth, they can make a decision but no source of info is off the table – raw data, conspiracy theories, expert opinions, personal experience, historical records — they’re going to research and read all the things and then decide for themselves. But if the truth remains elusive, if they can’t parse out the truth from the varied sources available to them, they throw up their hands and can become fatalistic. What’s it all mean?
Both types may qualify their opinions by acknowledging that new information may present itself, or that things might change, or they can’t know everything, While these types are skeptical by nature, they aren’t cynics.
The Sky Is Falling Cynics
Cynics face uncertainty with negative-bias split decisions. There is no uncertainty. By expecting the worst, by assuming the world is against them, their focus is protection. They tend to eliminate uncertainty by creating a narrative, but that narrative brings tension rather than comfort. They tend to have a negative view overall, so they blame corruption, abuse of power, someone is untrustworthy, something is broken or unjust — things that are outside their perceived ability to control or change. The focus is protection, but their WHY seems to be avoiding guilt, shame, responsibility, etc.
Now, a caveat to this is trauma. Someone facing uncertainty who is viewing the world through a trauma lens, their focus is on preventing what happened before at all costs and their WHY is a perceived sense of control. They tend not to trust anyone. They doubt everything that’s said to them, because they’ve been lied to, gaslighted, etc. Often, they struggle to even trust themselves because they may have believed the lies or they learned to ignore emotional or physical pain. An almost universal sense of helplessness appears to others as fatalism. For childhood trauma, all kinds of things lend to a play-dead response because fighting back or running away wasn’t an option.
So, a trauma survivor may be predisposed to one of the other uncertainty personality responses, but this trauma response will either be overlaid or in conflict with that.
The Avoiders And Optimists
Uncertainty causes some profound discomfort so they isolate and insulate. The avoiders flatly deny the uncertainty exists even when it makes them look irrational. Some take a very laid-back approach and decide to keep their heads down and just wait things out and see where the dust settles. The optimists are the perpetual silver-linings types, meme-warriors and inspirational quote-collectors. All of these types focus on personal safety, but their WHY is internal peace and that’s an important distinction.
From within that place of safety and internal peace, some are able to engage their out-of-the-box thinking to create or find solutions – so they may appear to be intellectual analysts but their WHY is different so that would change their internal conflict and internal dialogue. Some divert energy into finding/offering hope to others (this could be a tangible help, but it doesn’t have to be). They are more prone to sympathize without empathy (because true empathy would threaten that inner peace), but mature individuals and/or those with strong support systems are able to empathize and offer powerful help to others. When overwhelmed, this type can lean towards cynicism.
So, those are my big picture classifications based on reading the way different personality-typing systems describe a tolerance for and approach to uncertainty. The focus and the WHY are the key take-aways here because that’s how you can make your character’s journey unique and individual. That’s how you can SHOW the reader why they’re making decisions, their priorities, etc. Your next steps would be to take these basic groupings, and decide what response best fits with your character and then how uncertainty creates internal conflict for them. You could go a step farther and take away the option of responding in the way that comes naturally — remove the option for the denier to deny, remove the option of the intellectual to find a solution or parse out the truth.
Is there one type, or a blending of types, that you’re using for your POV character?