28 September 2010

The Johari Window and Character Development

One of the more tangible things I have done as a student (not that the rest of it isn’t useful, but you know – it tends to get very theoretical) was my one semester with “work related, project centered, intern-ish” studies. Escaping the abstract academia one semester, I had the opportunity to do out-in-the-field research with a group of other students, and in the process we got a taste of what life working in a large government agency would be like (glorious! At least compared to our student standards… Did you know they serve hot dogs in the cafeteria on Fridays?!). The semester also included lessons on topics such as how to write a job application; or communication within work teams. All very useful things to bring with me for whenever I finally finish my master’s degree (which should be soon. Just keep swimming…).

One of the things that I didn’t see the immediate value of learning, though, was a little something called a Johari Window. It is a cognitive psychological tool created by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955 (Joseph + Harry = Johari. Cute, huh? They named their brainchild after themselves). I think the purpose in my class was to teach us how to improve communication within our teams, since the Johari Window traditionally has been used as a means of understanding interpersonal communication and relationships.

The window is a simple grid with four main “rooms”: arena; blind spot; façade; and unknown:


What I see
What I don’t see
What others see
Arena
Blind Spot
What others don’t see
Façade
Unknown

When used as intended you are supposed to choose a given number of adjectives from a list that can be found here (or a darker version with negative words – the Nohari window [I can’t help but wonder – who is N? Did Harry cheat?]) that you feel describe you. Then, someone else (your peers) choose the same number of adjectives from the same list. The words overlapping will go into the room “Arena”, because these are qualities that both your peers and you are aware of. If your peers have mentioned traits that you have not, these go into the “Blind Spot”. If you have chosen traits that your peers have not, these go into “Façade”, which describes things you are aware of that your peers don't see. Finally, the remainder of adjectives, whether they remain unused because they don’t apply to you or because you or your peers are not aware that they do, go into the “Unknown” category.

To me it was never all that clear why this should help our in-team communication (in theory I get it, but in reality it only made for some raised eyebrows and unvoiced “so you don’t think I am dignified?”-accusations). What I immediately recognized this as useful for, though, was character development in fiction writing.

In fiction it is essential to create interesting characters. One way of adding extra dimensions to your characters is to allow layers. Perhaps they aren’t everything they pretend to be. Perhaps they are more? Imagine a whodunit with the following character:

Tom Killer (TK)
What TK sees
What TK doesn’t see
What others see
Calm
Able
Organised
Trustworthy
Needy

What others don’t see
Ingenious
Violent
Intolerant
?

By the way, I cheated a little. Since I’m using this as a fictional character development tool rather than an analysis of a real person, I figured it would be more interesting if I used traits from both the Johari and the Nohari variety.

The traits that Tom recognizes in himself, and the ones he chooses to display outwards, are radically different from those he does not see (falsely or correctly perceived by others), and from those so deeply hidden that no one can see them.

One benefit of doing this exercise in a fictional environment as opposed to a real-life one is that the “Unknown” category doesn’t have to be unknown. The character or any of his peers might not see these traits, but the author/narrator/reader might:

Tom Killer (TK)
What TK sees
What TK doesn’t see
What others see
Calm
Able
Organised
Trustworthy
Needy

What others don’t see
Ingenious
Violent
Intolerant
Cynical
Self-conscious
Insecure

If you look at the first room separately, Tom isn't necessarily such an interesting character. He presents himself as a calm, able and organized man. If you add the traits he is hiding behind his façade, however, you are immediately triggered. What sort of man is this who appears to be calm, but underneath he is violent? If you further add that he can appear both trustworthy and needy, but that he is not aware of either of these traits, he begins to look like a complex type. The final room in this case gives an indication of why he is like this.

Further – what others see isn’t one thing – different people see different things. In Tom’s life there are a number of people. Perhaps he has a brother, Noel Killer. Noel knows his brother better than most people, so the Arena and Blind Spot areas of the Tom/Noel window will be radically different than that of Tom/Barry the Milkman:

TK/NK
What TK sees
What TK doesn’t see

TK/BtM
What TK sees
What TK doesn’t see
What NK sees
Calm
Able
Organised
Needy
Insecure

What BtM sees
Calm
Trustworthy
What NK doesn’t see
Ingenious
Violent
Intolerant
Cynical
Self-conscious

What BtM doesn’t see
Ingenious
Violent
Intolerant Able
Organised
Cynical
Self-conscious
Insecure
Needy

To make this a little easier I reused the same traits for all the grids. But there is no rule saying that you have to. Barry the Milkman might be absolutely convinced that Tom is idealistic or shy or even witty even if no one else (including Tom himself) sees this. This way, the Johari Window not only can be used to make complex characters, but also character relationships (which, incidentally, is another important aspect in making your characters more interesting).

Creating a fascinating fictional character doesn't have to be more difficult than this!
Who says my six years as a student at the university hasn't paid off?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Speaking of the university... I am (as many of you will already know) in the process of finishing my master's degree. In an attempt to avoid blood pressure levels of a BP executive, I have asked my fellow Burrowers to excuse me from blog duties the next two months. Thus, this will be my last post here for a while. I will still post at my regular blog, The Giraffability of Digressions, and I will return here as soon as my offline life allows it. In the meantime I know that this blog will be filled with clever, witty, useful, entertaining and resourceful posts.

Aaand speaking of clever, witty, useful, entertaining and resourceful posts... If you want more tips on character development, I suggest you check out last week's initiative hosted by Alex, Elana and Jennifer. They carried out an experiment where they invited people from all around the blogosphere to give their insight on one common theme: how to create a compelling character? The response was overwhelming - close to 200 bloggers offered their thoughts on this matter. The list of all the participants can be found here, and I highly recommend you check it out!

With that note I'll have to say goodbye for now - looking forward to coming back (as a free woman, at last).



10 comments:

M.J. Nicholls said...

A very useful and clever resource. Will be using.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

We did Johari windows in our Organisational Behaviour Course. One of the several grids that I never really understood the purpose of.
But applying it to characters is a new one- at least for me.

Bye bye from BB&B, Mari. You will be missed. And looking forward to welcoming you back SOOOOOOOON!

Cruella Collett said...

Mark - I will hold you to it. The next character of yours who is not layered accordingly will be murdered by Tom Killer!

Natasha - thank you :) I am already looking forward to returning.

Deb and Barbara said...

I've never seen this diagram before - it's very handy for creating character. Or at least re-considering your choices once you're in. to strengthen those choices and make them more complex. Love it!
B

Cruella Collett said...

Barbara - I think it is handy, though perhaps a little too analytical for practical use for most characters. But I agree - if you already have a character that needs some flesh, this can be a great way of coming up with some (if nothing else, to sort out thoughts that are already there).

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's an interesting exercise. I'll try that with my current characters and see what happens.
And I've seen another form of the Johari Window where the unknown was called "What God sees."

Hart Johnson said...

Mari-this is a FABULOUS mystery tool! I love the idea of setting up 'traits that are obvious' 'traits the characters keep to themselves (and possibly motivation for that) and traits others see that they don't know about! I love it!

Hart Johnson said...

And I should have clarified... Nohari is what you get when Joseph wears a dress, and we will miss you!

Cruella Collett said...

Alex - that is a good point - assuming there is a God (which, in fiction, often can be likened to the narrator) he would see that last square. It is the single thing that bothered me the most about the Johari thing in school - the lack of distinction between what no one can see and what doesn't exist. I do think that a tree makes a sound even if there are no one to hear it fall...

Tami - haha, I love that Joseph gets dark when he cross-dress ;) Emo transvestite?
And yes, I think mysteries might be the genre most appropriate for this tool. At least that is a genre where the characters keep secrets all the time.

Katy said...

I think this will really work for one of the characters in my WiP because he is not at all what he seems to be and different people know different things about him, he really has more than one façade, there is the person he is, he person he pretends to be, and the person that person pretends to be.

I’m going to miss your contributions to the Burrow Blog, good luck with your last two months of school.