The Four Tendencies: which one fits your character?

In her books about happiness and habits, writer Gretchen Rubin describes the Four Tendencies, the personality framework she created. I realized in studying them that these tendencies are not only a fabulous way to learn about ourselves and our friends, but to flesh out our fictional characters too. 

Brief description of the Four Tendencies:

Upholders are people who respond readily to both outer and inner expectations; that is, expectations from others as well as expectations they set for themselves.

Questioners are people who meet inner expectations, but question outer expectations; they’ll meet others’ expectations only if they think they make sense.

Obligers are people who meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

Rebels are people who resist all expectations, outer and inner alike, but can do nearly anything they truly want to.

Since this framework deals with people’s response to goals, it’s related closely to motivation—which, as every fiction writer knows, is crucial in understanding characters. What are we advised to decide right away for every main character in every scene? Their goal, their motivation. Thus knowing your character’s Tendency will help you know how well they will perform under various challenges.

Is your character’s goal imposed by another person, such as an assignment a teacher gives a student? A student who is an Obliger or an Upholder will dutifully do the assignment even if they don’t like it. A Questioner will ask herself if she has a good enough reason for doing it, and if so (for instance, if getting good grades is important to her), she’ll buckle down and complete it. A Rebel might have trouble getting around to it even if he means to—or, conversely, might have no trouble doing it if he decides that writing this essay is what he wants to do, but he’ll probably bend or break some of the instructions in the assignment.

Or is the goal an inner expectation, such as the resolution to find a new job by the end of the month? In a situation like this, Questioners and Upholders have no trouble sticking to their self-appointed task. Obligers, meanwhile, find it hard to follow through unless someone else is counting on them—for instance, if their family needs the money and it’s therefore important that they find work. As for Rebels, there’s no counting on them unless they’ve hit upon a job that calls out to them and they’re determined to do it, at which point nothing will stop them. Expecting a Rebel to meet someone else’s meticulously laid out job qualifications, however: don’t bet on it!

Once I decided, in my latest novel-in-progress, which Tendencies my main characters belonged to, it helped me see their strengths and flaws more clearly, and thereby made it more obvious what their overall character arc should be. An Obliger might have to learn to break free from the burdensome expectations laid on him by others and stand his own ground. A Rebel might have to learn to shoulder more responsibility for her actions and take fewer reckless risks. A Questioner might have to learn to trust someone else and take a leap of faith. An Upholder might need to learn to loosen up and let his plans change.

Rubin and the contributors commenting on her blog have come up with examples of the Four Tendencies among famous fictional characters. Hermione Granger is a textbook Upholder, turning in every bit of homework on time as well as doing extra assignments she chose for herself. Jane Eyre is a Questioner, not accepting the rules of others until she has thought things through to her own satisfaction—in fact, on the first page of the book, her disapproving aunt calls her a “questioner.” George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is an Obliger, always tending to everyone else’s needs, sometimes at the expense of his own goals. And Sherlock Holmes is a Rebel, doing exactly what he wants, when he wants, with brilliance and total disregard for other people’s rules and expectations.

How about your characters? Which Tendency do they follow, and how does this illuminate the actions they’re likely to take? 

You can take Rubin’s quiz here to find out your own Tendency or that of your characters. 

As for me, I’m a Questioner. My thought when that answer came up was, “Hmm, I don’t know, I really thought I was an Upholder. I question the…oh.”

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