We’re all different, right? In a world of growing individualism we are encouraged to appreciate our unique attributes and ask ourselves What makes me stand out from the pack? What’s my unique selling point? Yet there are many psychological theories that aim to do the opposite–to package us into one of two, four, sixteen or however many pre-defined personalities. Regardless–we all have a type.
If you’re writing fiction or a life story, you may have also considered the personality types of your characters. And if you haven’t, now might be a good time to do so. All the characters in my historical fiction novel have just completed a personality test: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The origins of the test date back to Carl Jung’s theory, published in his book “Psychological Types” in 1921. Jung claims “it is one’s psychological type which from the outset determines and limits a person’s judgment.” He classifies people as either introvert or extravert, and having four functions of consciousness: thinking or feeling, and sensation or intuition.
MBTI takes these six traits and adds two more: judging or perceiving. From the permutation of these four pairs, sixteen personalities are formed:
Having carried out the MBTI for myself several years ago, it seemed like a brilliant tool to apply to my fictional characters, and here’s why:
1. I better understand my characters strengths
Taking the ISTJ type as an example: these people are responsible, sincere, analytical, reserved and have sound practical judgement. The mirror opposite ENFP type is creative, spontaneous and enjoys starting new projects. Understanding these behaviours means we more likely to create three-dimensional character that remains credible to the reader.
2. I know how my character will react in tense situations
Strengths are great, especially for establishing a likeable protagonist. But there is a destructive side to all personality types, and this can be useful for revealing how a character behaves when they are under stress or have lost them to a darker force. The darker ISTJ is controlling and may suppress people who are deemed a threat. And the ENFP is manipulative, self-absorbed and believes the world revolves around them.
3. It helps with character dialogue
Some personality types are more prone to communicate verbally – the extraverts and the judgers. Others are more likely to absorb information and perhaps say less – the introverts and perceivers. It’s a great tool for giving each character their own unique voice and making your dialogue credible.
4. I know how one character will interact with another
Not surprisingly, some personality types get on better with others. There is a multitude of MBTI compatibility charts out there – pick one or try this one. If you’re not sensing enough conflict between two characters, tweak one or more traits and discover their change in behaviour. Or if you’re writing a love story work on a perfect match. They don’t have to be the same personalities, but they have to get on.
5. It validates a character arc
The evolution of a character is at the heart of a good story and it’s important that a character arc resonates with the reader. Whether a positive, negative or flat arc, the MBTI will help you better understand your character’s inner journey over the course of the book.
Most people enjoy taking personality tests. If you haven’t taken the test yourself yet, now’s a good time to try. You might even learn something about yourself. Completing the test for all your characters might seem arduous, but it will be worth it, and you’ll have fun along the way. And you’ll return to your writing with fresh eyes and new creative ideas.
Whether you’re starting on a new novel or life-story, or have just finished a draft, sit down and spend time thinking about your characters’ personality types. Do you have a good mix of types? Do you need to tweak some personalities to increase the tension?