Metaprograms are filters–ways that a person’s brain sifts through its experiential data to determine the “meaning” of what a person has experienced. They determine how a person responds to communications from others as well as how they interact with their environment.

Consequently, asking yourself what your characters’ metaprograms are can add depth to your characterizations and guide how you portray your characters’ reactions to various incidents they’re involved in throughout your story.

Let’s take a look at the main metaprograms and how they might be applied to your characterization efforts. The Main Metaprograms are:

  • Moving Toward Something or Away from Something–If you asked them, would your character tell you what they want or what they don’t want in a relationship? What would their focus be–the positive or the negative? Whichever they’re predisposed to should be reflected in their dialogue and thoughts . . . and in their attitudes.
  • External vs. Internal Frames of Reference–If you asked them, how would your character know when they’ve done a good job? Would they tell you that they just know or that feedback from others tells them so? Whichever they’re predisposed to should be reflected in appropriately consistent actions, thoughts, and dialogue.
  • Sorting by Self or Sorting by Others–Some people look at human interactions in terms of what’s in it for them, others in terms of what they can do for others. How is your character motivated? Are they primarily motivated by concern for others or are they unresponsive to the needs of others? Portray their actions, thoughts, and dialogue accordingly.
  • Matching vs. Mismatching— Some people respond to the world always looking for similarities; others by always looking for differences. So too with your characters. Matchers are valuable when creativity is most important; mismatchers are valuable when it´s time to find the flaws in seemingly wonderful ideas or plans. Throw matchers and mismatchers into the same room at the wrong time and inevitably friction will occur. Matchers and mismatchers often find themselves at loggerheads. Decide whether your characters are matchers or mismatchers. Then appropriately portray them throughout your story.
  • Persuasion–What does it take to convince your characters of something? How would they know if Person A is good at a job? Would they have to watch Person A perform? Would it be sufficient to hear from some other credible source that Person A performs well at a job? Would they actually have to do the job with Person A? Would they believe written testimony about Person A’s abilities? What would it take to convince them that Person A is a good worker? Portray your characters accordingly. People who need hands-on authentication or who need to get personally involved will take longer to react to situations than those who can trust less direct sources of information–that can be good or bad. Those who trust less direct sources may react too hastily in the wrong circumstances, but appropriately fast in others.
  • Possibility vs. Necessity–Are your characters motivated by necessity rather than what they want? The person who’s motivated by necessity is interested in what’s known, what’s secure, and what they have to do. Those who are motivated by possibility are motivated less by what they have to do than by what they want to do. They seek options, experiences, choices, paths. They’re equally interested in what’s not known. They want to know what can evolve, what possibilities can develop. Determine which your characters are and portray them accordingly. For instance, if they’re motivated by possibility, they’re probably more optimistic than their “necessity” counterparts; if they’re motivated by “necessity”, they may be cynical or frustrated with the world as it is. If they’re motivated by possibility, they’ll work to ensure they always have options; they’ll be looking for opportunities that fit with their own goals and objectives.
  • Working Style–Some people aren’t happy unless they can work independently. Others function better as part of a group. Still others have a proximity strategy–they prefer to work with other people while maintaining sole responsibility for a task; they’re in charge but not alone. Figure out where your characters fit in and portray them accordingly. If they function better in a group, they may fail miserably when acting alone. If they like to work independently, they may be hamstrung in a group environment. And so forth.

A knowledge of metaprograms can help you to achieve consistency and realism in the portrayal of your characters. Metaprograms can be used as a quick way of getting a handle on who your characters are and how they’re motivated.

If you’d like to know more about metaprograms, the book these concepts are taken from is Tony Robbins’ Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement. New York: Fireside Books. 1997 .ISBN:0684845776.