5 Ways to Use Myers-Briggs for Characters

5 Ways to Use Myers-Briggs for Characters

5 Ways to Use Myers-Briggs for CharactersI must now put my foot in my mouth. Once upon a time, I rather publicly said a big fat “NO” to the idea of personality-typing, particularly when it came to using Myers-Briggs for characters.

Some of you may even remember this gem from my book Outlining Your Novel:

In general, I’m not a fan of using personality tests (such as the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) to flesh out characters. Trying to force a character to fit a personality framework, rather than allowing him to evolve organically, can leave you with a cardboard cutout, instead of a unique and compelling character.

The irony today is that I have two great passions: writing and . . . Myers-Briggs.

Some of you are now cheering wildly, since you share these intermingled passions. Others of you are crinkling your noses and going: “Huh?” And still others might be ready to hang up the phone, insisting Myers-Briggs is a pseudo-science, little better than zodiac descriptions.

So . . .

What Is Myers-Briggs and How Can It Help You Write Better?

In its simplest iteration, Myers-Briggs is a system of sixteen personality types, based on formative analytical psychologist Carl Jung’s idea of cognitive functions. The system assigns each personality type a label of four letters based on eight possible choices (which I was very excited to get to include in our new Outlining Your Novel Workbook software).

Myers-Briggs Character Personalities Outlining Your Novel Workbook software

Introvert (I) or Extrovert (E)

Sensor (S) or Intuitive (N)

Feeler (F) or Thinker (T)

Judger (J) or Perceiver (P)

From these choices, a “type” emerges (for example, my type is INTJ). Each of the resultant sixteen types can be given a general label or personality description which is basically true. Take any MBTI test online (even the one on the official MBTI site), and that’s what you’re likely to get.

That’s all fun and good, but if that’s as far as you’re taking the possibilities of Myers-Briggs for characters, then it really is kinda like the zodiac. Hence, my initial rejection of the system’s usefulness for typing my characters

But Myers-Briggs is so much more than just descriptions of sixteen different “types” of people. The true beauty of Myers-Briggs arises from its analysis of the cognitive functions–Sensing, Intuition, Feeling, and Thinking—which can then be expanded yet again into introverted and extroverted versions of each function.

For example—and not to totally blow your minds or anything—but all types include both introverted and extroverted functions, as well as judging and perceiving functions. The Introvert/Extrovert and Judging/Perceiving labels merely exist to tell us which functions a specific type extroverts (for example, as Judgers, INTJs like me extrovert our Judging function of Thinking) and which function is dominant (for example, as Introverts, INTJs like me lead with our dominant introverted function of Intuition).

If you’re new to these ideas, then your eyes are probably crossing right now, and that’s okay, because a full-on discussion of cognitive functions is far beyond the scope of this blog. Indeed, it took me several years to really get my head around the underlying psychology.

Suffice it that Myers-Briggs is far more than the simple fill-in-the-blanks personality quiz I initially assumed when I wrote that misguided passage in Outlining Your Novel. If you’re interested in learning more about Myers-Briggs for characters, I recommend:

1. This amazing Tumblr account, which types popular characters and offers insightful discussions on the functions.

2. The book Was That Really Me? by Naomi Quenk, which specifically addresses our weaker functions (i.e., the ones not visible in your type’s name, which, for me, as an INTJ, would be Introverted Feeling and Extroverted Sensing).

3. Play very carefully with online Myers-Briggs tests. They’re a good place to start to help you figure out the basics, but they’re only accurate perhaps 50% of the time. Most of them do not take into account the introverted/extroverted cognitive functions and often skew results toward Intuitives over Sensors.

5 Ways to Use Myers-Briggs for Characters

Interestingly, Myers-Briggs was created by author Katherine Cook Briggs, who was searching for a way to better explore and understand her characters. Writing good fiction must always arise out of a quest for meaning and understanding in life. We cannot write comprehensive and complex people until we first are able to recognize and understand the complexities we find in ourselves and those around us. Indeed, the key to writing great characters is psychology itself.

Here are five ways I now use my understanding of Myers-Briggs for characters that are bigger, better, and more realistic.

1. Keeping Characters in Character

Perhaps the most obvious advantage of any personality-typing system—but especially one as intricate as Myers-Briggs—is that it gives us a basis against which to test our characters’ consistency. An understanding of the personality types, and especially the cognitive functions, will give you a litmus test for your character’s actions.

What would someone like this do in a situation like this? How will his brain work to provide him options and solutions? It’s not just about saying “oh, yes, this personality type would be impulsive, while this type would be more calculated.” It’s about understanding the actual thought patterns that create these visible actions.

2. Creating a Variety of Personalities

My entry point into using Myers-Briggs for characters was a curiosity about whether my characters might all share the same personality (please, no), or perhaps even whether they might all share my personality. So I started doing basic typings on all my characters, just to see what I’d find.

I did find some patterns (I tend to favor SP characters, and I hardly ever write characters of my own type), but what was most fascinating was the realization that I was instinctively creating varied casts. Now that I consciously understand what I’m doing, I’m able to use Myers-Briggs to help me write even more diverse personalities, which in turn creates more colorful and complex story possibilities.

3. Creating Inter-Personality Conflict

Once you’ve peopled your story with a cast of varied personality types, you can then take advantage of the inherent conflict that arises between types who share no or few cognitive functions—and who therefore often struggle to understand one another’s motives and choices.

This is a fabulous way to create interpersonal conflict even between characters who are allies. In fact, this is one of the reasons Marvel’s The Avengers and Civil War ended up working so well.

Tony Stark (ESFP) and Steve Rogers (ISFJ) share zero cognitive functions and consistently clash with each other’s values and methods as a result. Even better, it sets up their stories with the ability to explore more personal issues of relationships and contrasting character arcs—born not arbitrarily, but of consistently realized personalities.

captain-america-civil-war-robert-downey-jr-chris-evans

4. Brainstorming Character Motives and Actions

Ever get yourself and your character stuck in a plot corner, in which you’re uncertain how your character will get himself out? You can use an understanding of the cognitive functions to figure out how your character’s brain works. And, unless he’s the same type as you, his brain probably wouldn’t come up with the same first option as you would.

For example, in writing my ISTP protagonist in my historical-superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer, I repeatedly returned to his dominant functions (Introverted Thinking, Extroverted Sensing) to help me determine his actions and mindset, as well as the way in which he interacted with characters around him. This was particularly useful when playing him against the main relationship character, a nine-year-old girl, who was an ENTJ (whose dominant functions are Extroverted Thinking and Introverted Intuition).

Their contrasting views of life (the protagonist’s ability to live and react in the moment; the girl’s skills for thinking about long-term consequences) not only created fun opportunities for some of that interpersonal conflict, it also allowed their skill sets to nicely complement each other’s.

5. Learning More About Your Characters

Our characters provide neverending depths for us to explore. Just as with any complex human being, there is always more to discover about them. Myers-Briggs can provide a framework for helping us dig ever deeper.

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

Currently, I’m working on the sequel to my portal fantasy Dreamlander. I’ve already written an entire book about these characters, so I know them very well. And yet, I’m still discovering new things. In considering how best to keep the characters consistent with their cognitive functions, I’ve opened up new areas of understanding and possibility.

For example, just yesterday as I worked on a scene in the POV of my female lead Allara (one of my few INTJ characters), my growing understanding of my own Introverted Intuition led me to a deeper and more realized understanding of how her brain must work and how this would have influenced her entire backstory—and thus her future story as well. The new possibilities for making this character better, more realistic, and more thematically potent are incredibly exciting. And I would never have found them without the insights Myers-Briggs has provided me into my own life.

***

Myers-Briggs offers a theoretical framework through which we can interpret our own lives and the world around us. Seeking a greater understanding of life is worthwhile whether you want to use it in your writing or not. Be warned, it is a deep rabbit hole, every bit as complex as (more than?) story theory itself. But the deeper you delve into both personality-typing and story theory, the more insight they’re able to bring to one another.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How would you describe your protagonist’s personality? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Joe Nathan Scott says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I had read in one of your other posts that you are an INTJ. I had typed you in my head as an INFJ because you often have warm responses in your replies and because it’s much more common for females to be INFJ than INTJ, but I was happy to learn we share the same personality and I feel that’s part of the reason why I can understand your posts so easily. As for my characters, I do use the Myers-Briggs indicator to try to keep their personalities consistent. My main protagonist is an INFJ and his partner is an INTJ which makes for great conflict because their actions are dictated by opposing functions – Extroverted Thinking vs Extrovert Feeling. My third character is an ESFJ who grounds the two and helps alleviate some of the tension. The antagonist is an ENTJ with several complexes who takes an interest in the protagonist. I must admit I have a bias towards intuitive personalities and “Judging” personalities. I just feel that “J”s are more proactive and more likely to do something instead of just react to their environment. What are your thoughts about this? (I have a feeling you’re going to tell me having a “P” main character makes it even more worthwhile in the end because he/she has to fight his/her own tendency to be passive.)
    You mentioned writing an ISTP protagonist. What is that like? And oh my, an ENTJ 9 year old girl? She must be a handful! That does sound like an interest pair though.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think most types have a certain prejudice toward their own “kind.” But all the functions/types are necessary. We end by balancing each other out–kinda like my ISTP/ENTJ characters. 😉

  2. Daniel Rhymes says:

    I’m a bit late, but once I’ve figured out my character’s MBTI/Jungian type and their Enneagram (this is a little more wishy-washy, but since it delves into desires and fears, it’s useful from a writer’s perspective), I can basically throw them into any situation and know how they’d react and why.

    My protagonist is an ESTP and a Type 8 (Enneagram). Because of this, I know she’ll always act in a way that preserves her freedom. She fears being trapped and controlled. And because of her cognitive functions, I know she’ll examine her surroundings and then use her past experiences to make a choice. She’s independent and doesn’t like to be tied down, sometimes very bossy, but she’s the best tactician on the team because she reacts to her environment so quickly.

    Meanwhile, my main character is, conversely, an ENFJ and a Type 4. People are important to her and she wants to make an impact on their lives. She fears insignificance – (the whole first novel of the series is propelled forward by her desire to mean something to the world) – and her cognitive functions mean she’s very good at feeling out other people and knowing how to make the best impression, but not always the best planner on the team.

    Really, throwing in a (slightly altered) version of the moral alignment system from D&D (I LOVE the “real” alignment system from EasyDamus, which does away with good and evil in favor of a more nuanced system), and I’ve never been stuck on ‘what does my character do next’? If they won’t tell me, I have a solid system for figuring it out.

    But maybe that’s all because I’m an INTP and logical systems are our type’s jam ?

  3. I’m a bit late to the party!

    I use MBTI all the time to make sure my characters aren’t always coming from the same viewpoint. Protagonists I let evolve naturally, but MBTI helps me find foils and supporting characters.

    I’ve blogged about MBTI a couple times, giving examples of fictional characters to help illustrate how they might see the world differently. The main post that gets into them is here: https://larawillard.com/2012/06/09/characters-mbti-continued/

    The one that came before that was a bit like what you have in the new software, but has 12 questions—three for each dichotomy—to aid in tie-breaking 🙂 https://larawillard.com/2012/05/31/characters-intro/

    I definitely raised my eyebrows when you said you didn’t like MBTI in Outlining Your Characters, but I agreed then and still do that it can create caricatures!

  4. Sabrina says:

    THIS is the missing puzzle piece. I thought I had to muscle my characters through their actions and motivations! Now writing characters (hence, plot) should flow organically.

    My MC is like me, thank God, because I doubt if we could ever truly write from another type’s POV.

    Thanks Katie!

  5. K.M. and every person who commented on the article should watch this video about the Myers-Briggs test. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NQqSnkI32A

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yeah, totally disagree with this, especially the second video (which actually does a great job exemplifying why most MBTI tests are largely worthless, in that it, too, completely simplifies and disregards an understanding of the cognitive functions underlying the categories imposed by the system). Is Myers-Briggs a definitive personality-typing system? No. But are there obvious personality types and does Myers-Briggs offer demonstrable insights into the the different ways different brains function? Yes.

  6. Elisabeth says:

    This is a great post! (I wish I had found it sooner)

    I don’t really have anything to add so i’m just here to share a blog for MBTI nerds (like me) which has some great insights on types/cognitive functions that I think are worth reading.
    => http://fictionalcharactermbti.tumblr.com/
    I’m also sharing it because I think “funkymbtiinfiction” is, at times, too stereotypical in typings and functions’ description. (that’s why I had to post a comment)

    So that’s all for me. Love your blog, and even more now that I know you are an MBTI lover!

    Oh and sorry for any non-understandable sentence! (I’m french be merciful :D)

    (I always thought you were an INTP based on your articles by the way.)

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