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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