The Mystery of Personality

Great white sharks don’t have personalities.

Let me rephrase that: great white sharks all have the same personality. As one fictional scientist put it:

Out there is a Perfect Engine, an Eating Machine that is a miracle of evolution. It swims and eats and makes little baby sharks. That’s all.


They hunt. They eat. They mate. End of story.

And it honestly isn’t strange. Most animals are like that. If you were to perform a Freaky Friday style body swap on a great white shark and, say, a butterfly, how would that play out?

Honestly, I doubt there would be a noticeable difference. The butterfly in the body of the shark would have to learn new skills, like swimming and breathing water, but once it figured out how being a shark works, it would just go on following the instincts of its body, much like it always does.

Most animals have the same goals and drives, and you can hardly tell one from the other. Which makes sense, since most animals are merely trying to survive.

It’s the exceptions that are weird.

Yes, I’m Sure

Your first objection is really easy to dismiss, so let’s get it out of the way right now.

Of course there is the possibility that all animals have personalities that are only visible to other animals of the same species. For all I know, great white sharks have moods and quirks that other great white sharks can detect.

Perhaps that species is home to a cast of colorful characters with fascinating backstories and individual preferences and personas. That could all very well be true.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because other animals exist whose personalities are human-recognizable. If, as a rule, personality can only be discerned by a member of one’s own species, why are there so many exceptions to the rule?

It’s safe to say that any “member’s only” personality traits—if they exist—are a different phenomenon than typical personality. These secret handshakes are so subtle that, for human purposes, they might as well not exist.

There is a difference, is what I’m trying to say. And it is in the animals that provably have personality that I take interest. Because there are commonalities among them.

Peer Pressure

In wild animals, certain flavors of sociology seem to accompany the development of individual personalities.

Of course, other forms of sociology do the opposite, stifling individualism. Take, for example, an ant colony.

An individual ant has less personality than perhaps any other animal. And maybe that has something to do with the crushing sociology of an ant colony. A rigid caste system decides an ant’s destiny. The peons have no personal goals or aspirations. They exist to serve the colony.

Thus we see that merely having a sociology is not enough to cultivate personalities. But consider cases where social animals develop individual characters. Animals like wolves or dolphins or crows. What common thread runs through their social structures?

Allow me to make the case that that the defining social force for creating personality is peerage.

In an ant colony, there are no peers. There are only those who command and those who obey. The workers have no relationships with each other.

Contrast that to a wolf pack, where peer circles are formed along generational lines. The geriatric wolves form one peer group, pups another, and young adults also have their peers.

It’s easy to see how any system that allows peer groups to form also requires members of that group to differentiate. Otherwise, individuals get lost in the crowd.

Solitary animals have no need for personalities because each one is the only member in its sphere.

Hive animals have no need for personalities because one individual is interchangeable with another, and individuals are sorted by caste rather than by peerage.

But animals whose sociology requires interaction between members of equal status require some other way (aside from status) to distinguish themselves. Thus, the need for individual personalities arises.

Humans Make It Worse

All of this, or course, gets complicated by domestication.

When humans tame and transform an animal species, it changes not only the forms of their bodies but the shapes of their personalities.

Don’t believe me? Just look at dogs.

Dogs certainly inherited some of their personality from wolf ancestors, but is there any denying that human intervention has led to an explosion of personality types in dogs, many of which cannot be found in wolves? We selectively breed dogs to be meaner or nicer, smarter or more faithful, better with children or better against intruders.

There are, simply put, more flavors of dog than there are of wolf. And when you look at other species humans have tamed, you can’t help but wonder how much of their personality is natural and how much is man made.

What Does any of This have to Do with Writing?

I used to think that creating lively characters was a blind spot in my own writing skill. Inventing new personalities is something that does not come naturally to me. Like many writers, I had to learn it through observation.

And I’m afraid that humans are no different from animals in this regard. We form our own personalities as a way of staking our claim within a peer group and serving human society in our domesticated roles.

There is much that we wish to do but can’t because we have, effectively, tamed ourselves. Likewise, there is much we don’t wish to do, but will, because we have a need for peerage.

I do not doubt that, given enough time, humans will domesticate all other species, and thus, invent new personalities for them. I’ve gotten much better at character creation in the meantime. And when I create them, I wonder if I’m simply inventing a personality for the character, or cultivating one through selective breeding.

Maybe there is no difference.

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