Here’s my confession: I’m a complete people nerd. I highly enjoy studying and learning about individuals, groups, mindsets, worldviews, cultures, and everything else that makes up the human race. One of the main reasons I got into writing was the opportunity to make more friends (literally, haha) and try out different scenarios to see how people can get along with each other (or not. Often not. Conflict is story, after all).
As part of this, one of my favorite methods for characterization is the Meyers-Briggs Typology Indicator (MBTI). This personality test divides people into one of sixteen possible types according to cognitive processing types. In other words, it categorizes people according to how they take in and process about the world around them, rather than just “introverted” or “extroverted.”
The actual MBTI theory can get complicated, and like most personality tests, there are naysayers. It also gets problematic when you try to categorize real life people, because shockingly we’re all the sum of our life experiences, beliefs, upbringing, physical limitations, and so much more than just the way we think. Using one single personality test to try and categorize the complexity of humanity is naturally going to have a few problem spots.
All that being said? MBTI profiles can be mighty handy for sorting out fictional characters. Unlike people in real life, fictional characters have to make logical, cohesive sense and characters within a story need to be sufficiently distinct from each other, while still having understandable reasons for their relationships (whether positive, negative, or apathetic). Using MBTI can give you a framework as a writer for basic “boxes” to put your characters in, which allows for consistency in characterization and gives you helpful ideas for weaknesses where they can grow (aka, character arcs).
Using MBTI as one aspect of your character creation process can also encourage you to be more complex in your character portrayals. Going back to the “extrovert vs. introvert” issue, here’s an example:
Extrovert: “this character likes to go out and is talkative around people. They don’t like to be alone.”
Introvert: “this other character generally doesn’t like to go out and very quiet around people. They need to be alone.”
Writer: I’ll have Character A and Character B contrast by having Character A go out and be social and Character B want to be alone. This way, I’ll have an extroverted character and an introverted character and tada! You’ve got a conflict.
Problem: I’ve known plenty of extroverts who get really tired around people and need to be alone to recharge. This isn’t necessarily an extrovert-issue. If you’re around people you don’t get along with or have a hard time understanding, you can get tired. Conversely, I’ve known introverts who light up the room around their friends or trusted colleagues. Going for this blunt introvert vs. extrovert division is pretty limiting in terms of your characterization and isn’t fair to the complexity of people.
Solution: one category of cognitive functions in MBTI is HOW you think and process. Introversion and extroversion aren’t just two categories; they can define multiple ways that people view the world. For instance, people who are Introverted Thinkers (Ti) go inside their own minds to figure out things, whereas people who are Extroverted Thinkers (Te) need to process externally (usually verbally). If someone uses Ti, even if they’re classified as an extrovert, they could appear more introverted because they have to go inside their heads to sort out life. If someone uses Te, even though they’re classified as an introvert, they could appear more extroverted because they have to get their thoughts out of their heads to understand them.
Writer: I’ll have Character A and Character B conflict by making both of them extroverts, but Character A has Ti and Character B has Te. So even though they should get along because they’re both extroverts, there will be friction over Character B (Te) wanting to talk out their thoughts after a party when Character A (Ti) just wants left alone to process. And I’ll have Character A (Ti) unintentionally keep something from Character B (Te), because Character A already sorted the issue out in their head and so considers conversation about it redundant.
Yes, this makes things a little more complicated to deal with. But great characters are complicated AND by going a little deeper, I was able to introduce a new kind of character dynamic that has unique contrasts, even with two extroverts (by the way, the Ti vs. Te? That’s me and my husband and yes, I do forget to tell him things sometimes 😉 ).
For more thoughts on cognitive typing, check out these websites:
8 Cognitive Processes
Simple Terms (Kinda–Depends on Definition of “Simple”)
Okay, mini-lecture over. Let’s move onto:
Three Easy Ways the MBTI Enhances Characters
1.) DO try to take the MBTI test as your characters. Do a little acting to get into the heads of your characters! Go to an MBTI online personality test and try to answer the questions as your characters. Even if the resulting profile isn’t one you agree with, the act of having to get into your characters’ heads is a worthwhile character development exercise.
DON’T merely accept the result that you get as your character. Remember, it’s still ultimately you at the helm (hopefully), so there will be some biases. Read through your profile test result, and if it doesn’t seem to match with your gut or your character notes, check out some of the other profiles to see if you can find a better match. Remember, the goal of this is to help you–don’t feel like you have to go for something that doesn’t fit.
2.) DO make a list of your characters’ MBTI types. Add it to your character profiles, right alongside physical appearance, skills, any special abilities, favorite color, etc. Your characters’ MBTI personality type is another potential facet to explore (and feel free to add other personality test results as well).
DON’T use this list to limit how your characters interact. With a little Google searching, you’ll find all kinds of “recommended” friendship pairings and relationship pairings through the MBTI system. Those can be helpful starting points, but allow your characters to develop their own natural affinities as well–and don’t be deterred if a pairing or friendship isn’t “recommended.” It’s your story and even MBTI creator Isabel Myers wasn’t married to her “ideal type”–and they had a great relationship.
3.) DO use MBTI as part of a starting place for your characterization. Often, a character will just show up in my head and start talking. After a while of getting to know them, I’ll start trying to figure out their type as a natural part of character development. Other times, I might deliberately go into a story aiming to try out a certain pairing or type, sometimes based off of a perceived challenge (it’s dangerous to tell me something can’t work). So if it works for you, go ahead and add MBTI type to your character growth process.
DON’T only define characters by their MBTI type. Like actual people, characters are more than their personality and processing style. Societal roles, gender roles (or lack thereof), upbringing, race (Fae, dragon, unicorn, Vulcan, cyborg, tentacled snow beast), culture, and a number of other factors can affect how a personality manifests. For instance, I’m currently doing a character study of a Fae royal who classifies as ENTJ: intelligent, commanding, protective, natural leader, total alpha male. BUT, he was raised in a pacifistic, simple life type of Fae commune which emphasized cooperation and group think over competition–and there is no way of getting promoted. This not only creates natural conflict, but it also affects his personality, since he’s telepathically linked to the group whole and is affected by them.
Bethany Jennings at The Simmering Mind has another great post on the benefits and pitfalls of the MBTI from a personal perspective.