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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

Tags: character, personality, Myers-Briggs, conflict, interaction, introvert, extrovert, sensing, intuition, thinking, feeling, judging, perceiving

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Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?

We’ve all heard about how a novel’s plot should relate to the main character’s inner journey. About how our characters should grow and change and become wiser, better people by the end of the story. Heck, I’ve written about that plenty right here on this blog. Those are your garden variety inner character arcs.

Less well known is what I call an outer character arc, which doesn’t resort to changing the character’s inner self.

Sometimes this is just what you need. Maybe there’s something about the character that might cause conflict and drama in the novel, but which doesn’t need to change. It may even be that you shouldn’t change them. So how, with a character trait that you want to leave entirely alone, can you make an arc out of it?

Create conflict between her sense of self and how others see her

For example, let’s say my main character is an introvert. Maybe she’s so introverted that it causes her problems in her life. She can’t get much respect at work, because she’s so quiet in meetings. The guy she thinks is cute isn’t interested in her because he can’t see past her quiet exterior. At dinner parties, she has trouble participating in the conversation, because by the time she has worked out how to phrase her opinions and thoughts, the subject of the conversation has inevitably changed.

The problems her introversion causes are real, but I’m not about to change her. No way. Yeah, she has trouble in social situations, but there is nothing inherently wrong with being an introvert. About half the population is one, including me and a lot of my readers. Writing a book where the heroine reaches a better place in her life by changing something that isn’t wrong to begin with doesn’t strike me as emotionally truthful, and wouldn’t resonate well with readers either.

So what to do? The character arc here doesn’t involve a conflict between what kind of person she is and what kind of person she ought to be. Rather, it stems from those conflicting perceptions. Let’s look deeper.

Outer character arc

An “outer character arc” is different from the typical “inner character arc” in that it does not involve personal growth and change. Not in the same way, anyhow. To continue the example, the issue for this protagonist is that the other people mistake her quiet, reserved, thoughtful nature for something else: shyness, insecurity, stupidity, timidity, et cetera.

The central conflict in this outer character arc is this difference between the character’s true self and how others perceive her.

For an introverted character struggling with being heard and recognized in social situations, the obstacle arising from that conflict is changing people’s perceptions. She must help her boss understand that when she’s quiet in a meeting, it’s because she’s listening intently and processing everything. She needs to find a way to show the cute guy more of who she really is than he can see on the surface.

I’m not sure what she’s ought to do about the dinner party problem; I haven’t figured that one out in real life myself. If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments, ok?

Regardless, by the end of the novel I can still bring her to a better situation in her life by confronting this difference in perception—by resolving the outer character arc—rather than by changing her introverted nature.

Nobody is ever exactly how they seem

That’s the key to unlocking an outer character arc. No person on earth is ever perceived by others as they truly are, way deep down inside. Other people don’t see you as you see yourself. The clever writer turns this fact into an outer character arc by making the character see this difference. Give the character a moment of epiphany that reveals to her the underlying nature of the central conflict that has been dogging her all along. The epiphany can generate three different outer character arcs, depending on how you want to resolve the conflict and whether you want to add any inner character arc techniques as well.

Don’t change the character, change how she presents herself.

This is the pure outer character arc example I gave above, although obviously you can do it with any trait, not just introversion. This is where the character concludes that she does not need to change, that she is already comfortable with who she is, but that she needs teach the people around her a couple of things. One, that there’s nothing wrong with her, thankyouverymuch, and two, what her actual capabilities, skills, and interests are. Her goal is staying true to herself while changing others’ perceptions, and her life will improve when she achieves it.

Don’t change the character, and that’s ok.

This is where the character may start out thinking she needs to change her inner self, but in the end realizes that she’s ok with who she is and she’s also ok with it if other people don’t really get her. It’s a hybrid model that starts out looking like an inner character arc, but then turns out to be an outer one. To continue the example, maybe she circumvents her problems at work by quitting her job to start her own freelance book editing business where she can work from home and be her own boss. Hypothetically, you understand. Ahem.

Do change the character after all.

This is where a character considers the difference in self-perception versus how other see her, and concludes that in fact they’re right. She does in fact have a flaw that should be addressed. This is a hybrid too, but is the opposite of the previous one. It’s an outer character arc that turns into an inner character arc. If you have the skill to pull it off, this one can work particularly well in first person narratives where the character really is clueless about something. Use the character’s behavior to show the flaw, and use the first person style to show the character’s self-perception contrasting with the flaw.

An outer character arc isn’t always appropriate to add to a novel. But if you’re starting from a character that you like, that you don’t think needs to change at his or her core, consider it. It’s another tool to put in your toolbox, as Stephen King would put it. If you do decide to give it a try, kick things off by putting the character in a situation where she wants to shout at the world, “You don’t know me,” and where the world responds by saying “yeah, but maybe you don’t know yourself all that well, either.” Then see what happens!

October 23, 2009 18:43 UTC

Tags: character, inner character arc, outer character arc, introvert, conflict, POV, self-image

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