Applying the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to Fictional Characters

Cognitive FunctionsThis article is by Sara C. Snider.

For those who don’t know, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is an assessment tool created by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Briggs, as a means of understanding and making accessible the different psychological types theorized by Carl Jung.

The result of this tool is the collection of 16 different personality types, based on four different sets of preferences one leans towards in everyday life: Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I); Sensing (S) or Intuition (N); Thinking (T) or Feeling (F); Judging (J) or Perceiving (P). You can read more about the MBTI on The Myers & Briggs Foundation website.

Essentially, it’s a tool that helps one understand different personalities. For a writer, that can be useful information. When I first learned of the MBTI, I bought a book about it and stuck it on my shelf, thinking that one day it might come in handy with developing characters. And it did.

I don’t pretend to have a great understanding of psychology, and so the only way I feel I can write this article is to share my experience in using the MBTI with two characters of my own. Case studies, if you will. Both characters are from the same book I’m currently working on, and in both instances, the MBTI provided useful insight that helped me flesh out one character and better understand another.

Case One: Jash

Jash used to be called Jachan. Initially, he was a typical roguish character—you know, fond of the ladies and snubs authority. When it came time to start writing, however, I found I really wasn’t interested in him. He was too typical. Too boring.

I suppose I could have just given him a personality trait that I thought interesting, but that’s not the way I write. My characters have the personalities they do because it’s what makes sense to me for that given story. I get to know them as I write them. To arbitrarily pick a quirk or a way for them to act kind of goes against that synergy.

So, being in the position of not really wanting to change his personality, yet feeling like he lacked depth, I dusted off the book I bought about the different personality types (Gifts Differing) to see if there was more to his personality that I was missing. I found a test online (there are a few of them) to easily figure out what his type was. I chose the answers as I felt he would have chosen them, and from that, came to the conclusion that he was type ESFP (Extraverted, Sensing, Feeling, Perceiving).

It would take too long to go into all the information given for ESFP, but here are some qualities that stood out to me as accurate for his character:

  • Love of material possessions
  • A good judge of character
  • Not fond of books as a means for learning, preferring instead first-hand experience
  • Realistic

That’s all well and good, but it wasn’t until I came across this tidbit that he finally came together for me:

Are able to absorb an immense number of facts, like them, remember them, and profit by them. (Gifts Differing, p. 99).

And then this:

ESFPs are curious about anything new that is presented directly to their senses—new food, scenery, people, activities, objects, gadgets or contrivances. (p. 100)

Turned out Jachan was nosey. Once I realized this, he really came alive for me. His womanizing took a backseat in favor of him inundating people with questions—sometimes quite personal ones. This had an added benefit of him becoming a source of conflict as well as amusement when paired with another character who is rigidly private. He became a fun, rascally character that I greatly enjoyed writing. The name Jachan seemed to no longer suit him, and so Jash was born.

Case Two: Enon

The problem with Enon didn’t arise until after I got my manuscript back from the editor I work with. See, Enon is a bit of a tough nut to crack. He’s quite reserved and can be rather gruff at times. He keeps to himself but, if pressed, will tell you exactly what he thinks of you. Yet for all of that, he’s actually someone who feels things quite acutely—he just doesn’t usually show it, or show it well. For that reason, I think he’s a character that a lot of people might have difficulty connecting with, and that seems to be the case with the editor.

It’s presented me with a bit of a predicament. The editor has given suggestions at certain parts of the story where he felt it would be nice if Enon showed more emotion. Yet, for me, they feel like a break in character. I also find myself thinking a lot about the editor’s question of, “does he have to be so taciturn all the time?”

As with Jash, I never directly intended for Enon to have this specific personality—it wasn’t part of some grand plan–it’s just what makes sense to me. So I’m inclined to answer that question with “yes, actually, he does, because it’s who he is.”

However, reviewing Jash’s personality type showed aspects I hadn’t considered, and so, wondering if the same were true with Enon, I ran him through the same gauntlet. Almost directly opposite of Jash, Enon came up with the personality type ISTJ (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging).

There were some general qualities that seemed to match Enon, such as being hard working, responsible, and practical. But these paled to two specific passages in the description of ISTJs that actually blew my mind.

The first:

They look on tempests and are never shaken. The interaction of introversion, sensing, and the judging attitude gives them extreme stability. They do not enter into things impulsively, but once in, they are very hard to distract, discourage, or stop (unless events convince them that they are wrong). They lend stability to everything with which they are connected. (Gifts Differing, p. 102).

And that’s exactly the roll Enon plays in the story. He comes to be a stabilizing force in what is otherwise a series of chaotic events. One of my beta readers even described him as “an anchor.”

ISTJs are also described as being “outwardly matter-of-fact, inwardly entertained by extremely individual reactions to their sense impressions.” (p. 102)

This point is further brought home in the following (and second mind-blowing) passage:

…they have one odd and charming quality that may not be apparent until they are very well known. Their sense impressions cause a vivid private reaction to the essence of the thing sensed. … Only when they are “off duty”—relaxing from extraversion, responsibility, and the judging attitude—will they sometimes give spontaneous expression to this inner perception. Then they may say what comes into their minds and give others a glimpse of their perceptions and associations, which may be absurd, irreverent, touching, or hilarious, but never predictable, because their way of sensing life is intensely individual. (Gifts Differing, p. 103)

The insight that ISTJs have an “on duty” and “off duty” persona really resonated with me, because that’s basically how I’ve written Enon. I’ve also realized it’s why the editor’s suggestions to have him show more emotion feels like a break in character–they’re all during moments where I consider Enon to be “on duty” and thus not really appropriate for him to let his guard down. And while he does let his guard down from time to time, I’ve wondered if it’s often enough, or too subtle when he does. Yet, from reading the above passage, it seems like there is no “one size fits all” for this kind of thing. Even when comfortable, ISTJs may or may not share a part of themselves, or when they do, there’s no telling what it will be like.

How is any of this helpful? For starters, it helped me better understand Enon as a character. Yes, he might be difficult to relate to, but from what I’ve read of ISTJs, that seems logical. People who put on a “this is me dealing with the world” facade, and keep their true selves tucked away, will always be harder to connect with than the outgoing guy who’s the life of the party. And that’s OK. I think the most valuable insight this specific exercise taught me is that there isn’t anything wrong with this particular character. The problem is with me as a writer, and whether or not I have the skill to portray this complex character type well. The jury’s still out on that one.

At the end of it all, I believe the MBTI to be a useful tool in any writer’s toolbox. Whether you’re like me and write on the fly or are a diligent planner, getting additional insight into different types of personalities can help iron out those characterizing wrinkles that invariably pop up in every project.

Source: Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type by Isabel Briggs Myers with Peter B. Myers , CPP, Inc., 1995.

For Further Thought

What methods do you use to better understand your characters?

What do you think of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? Do you know your personality type?

About the Author:

Sara C. Snider is personality type INFP, a fantasy writer, and American expat living in Sweden. When not writing or lurking in the woods, she can usually be found on her blog, Twitter, and Facebook. Her dark fantasy novella, The Forgotten Web, is currently available on Amazon.

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Jennifer
Jennifer
3 years ago

This is a really interesting idea. I’ve had a character that I just can’t seem to figure out. He’s basically the polar opposite of my INFJ, but I think doing the test with his answers would really help crack who he is. Thanks for posting!

Suzanne
Suzanne
4 years ago

Love this. What a great exercise! As An ISTJ, I have to share that my main talent is “making order out of chaos”. :<)

J Rose
5 years ago

This was a really enjoyable read. As I got a sense of your writing style, I had INFx in mind and was delighted to read your type at the end! (I’ve been interested in MB for quite a while and when I started thinking about characters in my own work, Myers Briggs was my starting point). I find cross-referencing characters’ traits with real people I know who have that MB type gets me close to their motivations and outward responses. Love this whole area! Thanks for the enlightening post.

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  J Rose
5 years ago

How cool that you got a sense of my personality type through the text. 😀 Glad you liked the article. Thanks for reading!

Adventures in YA Publishing
5 years ago

Applying the MBTI is a fascinating way to build character development. I’m a big fan of this test, and personality tests in general (I was a Psych minor in college, and personality was my favorite area to explore). But I’d never thought of applying these tests to characters in my own writing.

Lately, I’ve been developing my characters by trying to understand their deepest emotional wounds, and the “lies that they believe about themselves” (concepts from the Writers Helping Writers website). I develop lots of backstory, looking at core experiences that shaped each of the major characters into who they are at the time the story begins, and I try to understand how these experiences, especially wounding experiences and personal lies, contribute to the motivations that drive the characters through the story or shape whatever issues must be resolved for them before the manuscript’s end. But I love applying the MBTI as well. This is a great way, as you said, to identify the little nuances that are so real to people, but difficult to think up on the fly.

Thanks for an inspiring post!

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Adventures in YA Publishing
5 years ago

Thank you for reading. 🙂

Kern Windwraith
5 years ago

This is fascinating, Sara, and I can easily how helpful running a couple of my current characters through the MBTI might be. I’ve tried interviewing my characters in the past, with mixed success, but there’s something about using an objective, standardized test that’s very appealing–not as subject to bias as me interviewing one of my fictional creations. 🙂

Thanks for sharing this strategy!

(I’m another INFP. Today, anyway. Some days I’m INTP. I tend to yo-yo on the F and T.)

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Kern Windwraith
5 years ago

Thanks, Kern, and I agree–I feel like the objectivity of the test lets me take a step back, get out of my own head and look at the characters in a different light.

And yay, another INFP (today)! I’m pretty sure one of my preferences is really close to flip flopping. I think it might be the N (close to being an S).

Misha
5 years ago

I also see characters as fully formed, so I’m also more than a little rigid when it comes to changing them.

I stick to just talking things out with my characters, though. Usually, we can find a way to make things work by changing the circumstances subtly so that the characters can naturally react in a way that’s more pleasing to the reader.

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Misha
5 years ago

I love that you talk things out with your characters! Subtly changing the circumstances is an interesting approach. I’ll have to keep that in mind. Thanks, Misha. 🙂

Nicholas C. Rossis
5 years ago

As a fellow INFP, I loved this! 😀

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Nicholas C. Rossis
5 years ago

INFPs unite! Thanks Nicholas. 🙂

Anne Marie Gazzolo
5 years ago

Thanks for this article! I am a fellow INFP and my favorite people are INFP also (Frodo, BBC Merlin, Luke Skywalker). I haven’t tested my own sub-creations according to this, but I would not be surprised if some of them were the same.

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Anne Marie Gazzolo
5 years ago

Hello, fellow INFP! I had no idea those other characters were also INFPs. How cool is that? We writers can sometimes put a lot of ourselves in our characters, it makes sense that they might share similar traits. 🙂

Shawn Spjut
5 years ago

Sara. Great idea. I used to teach on this subject. Understanding what makes people do what they do, whether conscious of their actions/responses or not, makes it so much easier to understand why you either like or dislike them. So it only makes sense to use the same idea with our novel’s characters.

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Shawn Spjut
5 years ago

Hi, Shawn, and thanks. How interesting to have taught on the subject. Psychology is fascinating and, like you say, is an excellent way to understand our interactions with each other.

Sara L.
5 years ago

Great article, Sara! I’ve gotten into the habit of determining my characters’ MBTI personality types, too. Some of them were easy; others, more challenging. But they all fit their characters really well. 😀

And for the record, I’m an ISFJ.

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Sara L.
5 years ago

Hi, Sara. Glad to hear it’s worked well for you. And nice to meet you! 🙂

Tyrean Martinson
5 years ago

I’ve heard of using the Meyer-Briggs indicator with characters, but I’ve never seen a detailed explanation of how to do that until now. Thanks for sharing!

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Tyrean Martinson
5 years ago

Glad you found it useful, Tyrean! Thanks for reading. 🙂

frankvnl
frankvnl
5 years ago

Now I know there is a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which tests the psychological traits or personality of an individual. After I read your article, I gained more knowledge on how to detect the personality of different people. I want to try it and apply it to others. Thank you for sharing this, now I can see that I have an idea on how to react to the personality or different attitudes/characteristics of everyone. 🙂

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  frankvnl
5 years ago

Thank you, frankvnl! Glad you found it helpful. 🙂

Andrea Robinson
Andrea Robinson
5 years ago

This is a fascinating use of the Myers-Briggs indicator. I had a rough idea of what I would be, but went here to take the test after reading your article: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp

Turns out I’m an ENFP, which is not too surprising.

I have to congratulate you on your loyalty to Enon, which I think is an absolutely great quality for a writer. The fact that you were able to use the indicator to confirm your intuition about him was terrific.

I ordered a Kindle copy and look forward to reading it. Thanks so much for a very helpful article.

🙂

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Andrea Robinson
5 years ago

Ooh, you’re like the extraverted version of me. Very cool. 😀

Thank you for the kind words. Remaining true to one’s characters and story can be difficult at times, especially under criticism. Enon has managed to wedge himself into a deep place in my heart. So I think I’m extra protective of him. 😉

And thank you so much for buying the book! I really hope you enjoy it.

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Sara C. Snider
5 years ago

And by “Kindle copy” I realize now you probably meant the Gifts Differing book (I know, it’s not always all about me 😉 ), in which case, I hope you still do enjoy it and that’s it’s as useful to you as it has been for me. 😀

Kim
Kim
5 years ago

This is not the first time I heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator but it is the first time I read about it in any detail. It is a very interesting personality test. I actually went on a website and found out what my personality type. This was my result:

INTJ
Introvert(78%) iNtuitive(12%) Thinking(12%) Judging(67%)
You have strong preference of Introversion over Extraversion (78%)
You have slight preference of Intuition over Sensing (12%)
You have slight preference of Thinking over Feeling (12%)
You have distinct preference of Judging over Perceiving (67%)

The introvert part was definitely accurate!

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Kim
5 years ago

Very cool! I don’t remember my percentages, except for the introversion one. Apparently I’m 100% introverted, hehe. Let’s just say that no one that knows me was surprised. 😉

Ryan Crown
5 years ago

Great article! I’ve always been fascinated with the MBTI — I love taking the tests, as well as reading about the various personality types.

It had never occurred to me, however, to use the test to analyze my characters’ personalities. I think this is a great idea for getting into the mind of your character. Just the process of taking the test forces you to put aside your own personality for a moment and think about just how would your character respond to each question? And then of course there are the many articles about each personality type that you can use to find those little insights that you might not have thought of, like you mentioned.

Thanks so much for the article!

Ryan Crown (INTJ)

Sara C. Snider
Reply to  Ryan Crown
5 years ago

Thanks, Ryan! Glad you enjoyed the article. Like you say, it’s a great way to get into the head of your characters. I don’t do it for all my characters, but for the problematic ones, it can be really helpful!

And you’re the second INTJ! I’d guess that a lot of us lurking around her are introverts. 😉

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