Labels are Boxes

I have personal reasons to dislike labels on many levels. Perhaps this is why I did not take the Meyers-Briggs personality test until yesterday. I only did so at the urging of a friend. I do not like the type labels that it puts on a person, so I had resisted in the past. I only took the test for fun. The results didn’t surprise me, but I’m only going to share them with the friend who… urged me to take the test. Why?

I feel like putting labels on a person and sharing them with others can be detrimental. There are cases, most definitely, where it can be beneficial. However, I think that this is not one of them.

I think this comes not so much from the labels themselves, but society’s perception of them. Society often times does not see them as labels. Rather, they see them as boxes. They think that once they have a label, they can put a person inside a box and they know all about them. The box or label can often come to define a person, instead of being a description of certain aspects of them. I do not want to be put into a box.

The friend who urged me to take the test shared her results with me too. We fall into the same personality category, but we are different people. I’m a math nerd; she’s an artist. (Note even here there’s a risk of labeling. I say that I’m a math nerd. I hang out with other math nerds, and it’s lovely. I feel at home. But even there, there’s a wide range of people. I’m willing to bet that if you took the group of math nerds that I hang out with every week and gave us the test, you would get at least half of us having different personality types. The same for her being an artist.) There’s plenty about us that is the same, but we could easily come up with a list of differences as well. We may be in the same category as far as the results of the test go, but we are different people.

No single label is enough to describe a person; to fully understand them you would need dozens or even hundreds of labels, some describing larger aspects of life, some describing smaller.

I’m not just saying this to complain about my life. (Yes, I have had issues in the past with people trying to put me into boxes based on labels that were applied–sometimes incorrectly applied–to me. There is are some very specific incidences that have probably given me a large part of my dislike for labels.) Part of my goal is to get you to realize how this can apply to other people you know. If you find out that someone is “ADHD” or “an introvert” or “bubbly”, don’t put them into a box. Know that that word is a description that people have come up with to describe a range of people with one or a small set of specific personality traits. That’s fine. Get to know them as the person, not as the label.

But more importantly for us writers (And isn’t that a varied group…), this also applies to our characters. They are built from their experiences and the events that happen to them as much as their fundamental personality types. Do not label your character with a few labels and feel as if you know them fully. YOU DO NOT. Explore how they react to all types of situations. If you find yourself falling into the trap of thinking, “Oh, this person is X, so they must react like such and such to a situation,” try having them react differently, and figure out what made them do so without “breaking” the label you put on them. This will make them more diverse and complex.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is: don’t use the label as a cookie cutter for your characters. It can help you describe and understand how they will react in certain situations, but it is a basic building block. It is not comprehensive, and you should never make a decision on what your character will do based on that alone. I have a life beyond the labels that people put on me, and characters do to. Show that life, and you will have much better characters.

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