On Characters: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Remember the kids in elementary school who were always the last ones picked in gym glass? The ones who were constantly bullied? The slow learners? Then 30 years later, you find them on Facebook and they are well adjusted adults with successful careers and families?

One of my duties at work is to coordinate and art direct photo shoots. Last week, a photographer and I captured photos of a classroom of adult students on their way to earning their master of arts in school counseling. I was there to capture photos, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from the class. As a writer, I have become much more sensitive to new experiences that can help me improve my writing and deepen my characters. This new awareness is an unexpected bonus of the writing life—I’m living life more observantly and thus, more fully.

Each adult student in the class gave a presentation about their growth from childhood to the present in the context of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences (see Wikipedia for a more thorough explanation of each):

  • Spatial – ability to visualize with the mind’s eye
  • Linguistic – words, spoken and written
  • Logical-mathematical – logic, reasoning, numbers
  • Bodily-kinesthetic – control of one’s body and ability to handle objects skillfully
  • Musical – sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, tones and music
  • Interpersonal – relationships with others, social skills
  • Intrapersonal – relationship with self, self awareness
  • Naturalistic – relating to natural surroundings
  • Existential – spiritual or religious intelligence

School counselors can use the concept of multiple intelligences to help kids who are outliers to discover areas in which they excel. They may be terrible at sports (bodily-kinesthetic) or speech (linguistic), and suffer socially and emotionally as a result, but they may have amazing musical abilities.

One of the adult students, a man in his late forties, almost lost his composure during his presentation. He shared about a lifetime of developing his musical talent to compensate for his lack of athletic skills, social skills, and a crippling speech impediment (stuttering) as child.  He was on an upward track to the big leagues of the music world until his late twenties, when he learned he would never make it into a highly regarded symphony orchestra. He was devastated. It was all about politics and who you know, not talent, skill or hard work. Today he is a music teacher at a middle school and happily married with three kids. He found his way in life, but only after much pain. He was weak in the more common intelligences, but found a way to succeed with others.

The word “intrapersonal” stood out to me as the man explained how he grew in his intrapersonal intelligence during his twenties and thirties. “I’m like that,” I thought to myself. I went home to look it up on Wikipedia. Aha! Several of these characteristics sound just like me:

Intrapersonal: This area has to do with introspective and self-reflective capacities. People with intrapersonal intelligence are intuitive and typically introverted. They are skillful at deciphering their own feelings and motivations. This refers to having a deep understanding of the self; what your strengths/weaknesses are, what makes you unique, you can predict your own reactions/emotions. Careers which suit those with this intelligence include philosophers, psychologists, theologians, lawyers, writers. People with intrapersonal intelligence also prefer to work alone.

I don’t want to put myself or anyone else in a box, but labels sometimes help clarify traits in myself and other people.  That said, of the multiple intelligences, I would peg myself as strong in these areas: spatial, linguistic, intrapersonal and existential.

For one of the main characters in my novel—the victim in the story, a ten-year-old girl—I would ascribe to her these intelligences: linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and naturalistic. As I dig deeper into her pain and subsequent healing, these “labels” may help me as I develop her character.

How about you?  In which of the multiple intelligences do you see yourself?  And your characters?

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1 Comment

  1. That’s very interesting. I never thought of those qualities as being forms of intelligence. I think I’ve given my main characters those which I more closely relate to myself since I better understand the motivations behind them. I guess the real challenge will be delving into characters with those “intelligenes” I do NOT share, at least not in meaningful way. Thanks for the info. One to add to my list of great writing advice.


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