Four ways to use Myers-Briggs personality types in your novels
If you’re at all like me, somewhere in high school or college you and your peers discovered the Myers-Briggs personality type matrix. You all had fun taking the little test and finding out who was an “INTJ” or an “ESFP” or whatever. You may even have been somewhat surprised at how well the capsule description of your personality type seemed to fit you. But, chances are, it didn’t take terribly long for the shine to fade and for you and your friends to realize that people are actually a bit more complicated than a matrix of 16 cleanly defined personality types.
But that doesn’t mean Myers-Briggs isn’t good for anything. It may not be the perfect tool for understanding all the people in your life, but it’s still a useful framework for understanding some broad truths about the human condition. And for writers, it can be quite a useful tool for bringing life to your characters.
Use it to know who your characters are
When you imagine a character in one of your novels, chances are you have a rather holistic picture of them in your mind. For yourself, you have a sense of who that character is. It may be a very strong sense. You may feel like you really know who this person is. But do you? Do you know the person well enough to cast him or her as the central protagonist in your book? Or as the villain? Or even as a sidekick?
Before beginning the novel, a lot of writers undertake various exercises in order to get to know their characters better. Some write long backstories for them. Some conduct interviews of their characters. Some draw sketches. Taking the Myers-Briggs test on behalf of your characters is another exercise you can do to solidify your own impression of who the character is.
I like it for this purpose because it gives you actual data you can work with later. Sure, it can be fun to write a backstory and learn that your character grew up in Topeka and had a dog named Bo that he loved more than anyone else in the world. Or it can be fun to interview a character and have her reveal that her first kiss was, on a dare from her friends, with a cute boy re-folding shirts in the clothing section at a department store, and she didn’t even know him. Fun stuff, even if it never finds a home in the story.
But if you take the time to sort out your character’s Myers-Briggs scores, that’s data I guarantee you will come in handy while you’re writing the story. Hint, though: take the test for yourself, first. Make sure your character isn’t just a clone of you (unless you’re doing that intentionally, of course)
Use it to create more believable behavior
This is why I guarantee you that sorting out your character’s personality type will come in handy, because the broad strokes of the Myers-Briggs system—introvert-vs-extrovert, thinking-vs-feeling, and so forth— affect how people behave in various situations. Your characters are no different. They should behave in ways that are true to their personalities too.
People who are strongly introverted don’t generally like loud, crowded, overtly social settings. Someone who scores high on the “feeling” attribute will usually go with their gut in making decisions. You don’t have to go back to college to get a degree in psychology to work with this stuff, but having a basic understanding of how the eight core qualities of the Myers-Briggs system play out in people’s reactions will help you do a better job of making sure that your characters are acting in ways that are both realistic and true to themselves.
Make sure you don’t have a cast of clones
Books where all the characters seem to be the same are kind of boring. Myers-Briggs can help you make sure that’s not the case in your book. If you’re going to figure out the personality types of your protagonist and antagonist anyway, why not do it for all the significant characters in the book?
If you find that you’ve got twelve “ESTJ” characters in your book, then you’ve got a problem, and chances are that problem is expressing itself as an overall lackluster feeling to the book. Mix it up. Re-think some of these people. Flip some of their scores. Ask yourself “what if the love interest was a Feeler instead of a Thinker?” What would change? Do that to everybody in the book, make them all distinctive, and I promise you the book will start to feel a lot more lively.
Create tension, friction, and conflict
This is perhaps my favorite use of the Myers-Briggs system. In real life, we don’t get to choose the personality types of those we encounter. But we do get to choose the personality type of everyone in our novels. That’s an opportunity. Choose the types strategically in order to create tension, friction, and conflict.
Let’s say you’re writing a crime drama with a pair of homicide detectives as the protagonists. You could, I suppose, make them polar opposites. Make one of them an “ESTJ” (extrovert/sensing/thinking/judging), and the other an “INFP” (introvert/intuitive/feeling/perceiving). Characters with such completely opposed personalities are going to have very different approaches to an investigation. One will want to get out there, collect a bunch of hard data and evidence, then stand back from it to make a thoughtful, rational decision. The other is more likely to want to learn about suspects’ backgrounds, figure them out from a more theoretical “profiler” model, and then attempting to empathize with the suspect in order to “get into their head” so as to figure out if the suspect is the sort of person who would have committed the crime. Now, how are those two characters going to work together? Chances are, they’re going to have kind of a hard time, especially if some of the physical evidence (held in high esteem by the Sensing character) doesn’t fit well with the psychological model (held in high esteem by the intuitive character) that seems to fit the suspect best.
Bam! Instant inter-personal conflict, as the two of them argue it out. Even better, because the characters’ other opposing traits are going to shape the way that argument goes. Introversion and extroversion most particularly. If the introvert is actually right, but the extrovert wins the argument simply because he’s the more garrulous personality—or maybe they appeal to the Chief, who sides with the easy-talking extrovert—then you’ve got the makings of a very dynamic inter-personal layer underneath the plot layer of the story.
You don’t have to go with polar opposites, though. They make for a nice example, but it can also be good to align two characters in some ways, but oppose them others. Sometimes, then, these two characters will be able to act and function as one. They’ll get along great. But when an issue comes up that plays to their opposing characteristics, suddenly they’ll be like cats and dogs.
Imperfect, but useful
Like I said, don’t take the Myers-Briggs type indicator system as infallible. Myers-Briggs is most often criticized on the grounds that real people are usually somewhere in the middle on most of the attributes. It’s a fair criticism.
But we’re talking about fiction, not real life. In many ways, successful fiction doesn’t present real life the way life really is. It presents a distillation of the elements of real life, in their stark, archetypal forms. It is exactly because Myers-Briggs explains personalities through opposing archetypes that it is a powerful tool in the arsenal of the novelist.
March 29, 2011 18:54 UTC
The joys of a perfectly boring character
The other day I did an article about creating a loveable jerk as your protagonist. Let me be clear: I am not now going to suggest that you also set about creating a protagonist who is an utter bore.
A boring supporting character, on the other hand, can be a delight for readers.
It’s not that boring characters are, in and of themselves, interesting or delightful. That would be something of an oxymoron. What boring characters can do is create interesting and delightful situations for your readers to enjoy.
Why boring is fun
Ok, it’s not fun. In real life, boring people aren’t fun at all. Nor are they fun for our protagonists to deal with. But they can be fun for readers, because bores can be a great source of laughs. In particular, they can serve as hilarious obstacles between your protagonists and their goals.
Humor comes when the boring person—often un-knowingly—skewers the protagonist on the horns of an uncomfortable social dilemma: how can she get the bore out of her way without being rude? Obviously, most protagonists are socially adept enough that they can empathize with other people. This empathy is the basis for a strong form of social inhibition, in which the protagonist doesn’t want to be rude to the bore because she doesn’t want to hurt the bore’s feelings.
Dr. House doesn’t have this problem. But then, he’s a jerk. He doesn’t care whose feelings he hurts. If your protagonist isn’t a jerk, it’s only natural she will try to deal with bores using the same, polite techniques that work for regular people. She’s trying not to bruise anybody’s ego. Except that bores, by their nature, don’t respond to those techniques like normal people do.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the many ways these mismatched interaction styles can lead to uncomfortable, frustrating, and potentially humorous situations. Is your protagonist rushing to get the kids out the door for school? Have a boring neighbor drop by to borrow a light bulb, but first spend 10 minutes explaining the backstory behind how her own bulb came to be burnt out. You get the idea: making your protagonist deal with a complete bore on top of what’s actually important to her in the scene can be a humorous way to follow that old writer’s adage, “when in doubt, make it worse.”
The central trait of boring people is social cluelessness. Whatever thoughts are bouncing around inside their boring little heads, those thoughts don’t intersect strongly enough with reality to give these people any insight into what other people think about them. The problem is, cluelessness is itself internal to the bore; it’s invisible from the outside. Yet, as a writer you know better than to jump inside the heads of all of our minor characters. And you do, right?
What you need is something external to show the reader. As a writer, put yourself into the bore’s shoes—it’s controlled schizophrenia again—and ask how you’d reveal yourself without knowing it:
You would be into something nobody else cares about. Find something truly meaningless in the grander scheme of life, like perhaps the subtle differences between different brands of styling mousse. Then talk about that whenever you can, with great passion and enthusiasm. Talk about it in great detail, too, as though other people actually know what the hell you’re talking about, and as though they share your fascination with the subject.
You would interrupt people with random, barely tangential stuff. This is especially effective when the normal person is trying to explain something to you, such as why that clunking sound from your car’s engine compartment might be something you want to have looked at. By all means, interrupt with a five minute digression about seat belt design from a thing you saw on the Discovery Channel one time. Don’t forget to double your bore-o-meter rating by coupling this with the technique of assuming that having had even the slightest exposure to the subject—say, having once overheard some guys in the high school cafeteria talking about what they were doing in auto shop that day—makes you as much of an expert as the normal person who’s trying to help you understand something.
You would go in blind. Initiate social interactions with normal people without first checking to see whether such interaction is necessary, welcome, or even marginally appropriate for the normal person’s situation. Don’t sweat it! Just barge on in and start extolling the joys of the new imported French styling mousse you ordered from the internet. Whatever they were talking about can’t possibly be as important. Oh, and don’t forget to fill them in on all the details of the website’s order form and the problems you had even ordering the mousse because you refuse to upgrade to a modern browser. That’s key information!
You would be oblivious to anyone but yourself. This doesn’t mean to be a raging egomaniac (although bores sometimes are). It just means being blind to the subtle cues normal people drop in the context of normal social interactions. Be so inwardly focused on what you want in the moment, on what you personally hope to get from the conversation, that you entirely forget to consider that the normal person may, just barely, maybe, quite possibly, have some needs of her own.
The boring view of rudeness
Having decided how to show the bore’s total boring-ness, what’s your protagonist going to do about it? In seeking to avoid being rude, what she’s really doing is seeking to avoid being blunt. A regular person knows to drop subtle hints, because regular people pick up on those and respond appropriately. When you’re overly blunt towards a regular person, this comes across as rudeness because it implies that you don’t think the regular person is smart or socially savvy enough to pick up on those clues. That hurts their feelings, and there you go: social inhibitions kick in.
Here’s the kicker: The boring person doesn’t see it that way. The bore is in fact, not smart or socially savvy enough to pick up on those clues. That’s why they engage in boring behavior in the first place! They literally don’t know any better. Your subtle clues won’t register with them. How do you get the bore out of your way without being rude? Simple: You don’t. Boring people, by their nature, need to be dealt with more bluntly. It’s the only way.
Being blunt without being mean
Watching your protagonist squirm on the hook, struggling to escape without resorting to rude bluntness, can be comedy gold. But at the end of the scene, she’s going to have to get rude. There is no other escape. She will eventually have to force herself to let go of those social inhibitions, and do something that feels completely horrible. Still, your protagonist has options. She can be blunt in a neutral way or in a mean-spirited way.
She might say “I’m bored now. Goodbye.” Or hold up her hand and say “I need to stop you there. I don’t have time for this.” If she’s feeling mean, she might say “Shut up and don’t talk to me anymore. You have nothing interesting to say.” Or, perhaps, she might just walk away, leaving the bore in mid-sentence. To her, that’s such a breach of ordinary social protocol, she can hardly bring herself to do it. But then, she’s a normal person. For your readers, who are mostly going to be normal people too, they’ll get the humor in that moment.
Also remember, much of the fun of a lively novel is watching characters do and say all the things we can’t get away with in real life. So don’t be afraid to let loose! Whatever the protagonist does, she’s not going to get out of the situation without doing something that would seem rude to a normal person. The only differences are in kind and degree of rudeness.
Yet from the boring character’s perspective, the moment may well not feel blunt or rude at all. The bore may just nod and say “oh, ok,” then go off in search of another victim. The bore may even feel a certain affection for what just happened. What the bore just experienced was (at last!) someone speaking their language. It could be, in fact, that the protagonist’s bluntness, effective though it was in the moment, only makes the bore more eager to speak to her again later...
April 21, 2010 22:45 UTC
For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar