I cannot resist a good personality test. I love me a Buzzfeed quiz (my most recent was “What Good Place character are you when you’re drunk?” Surprisingly, the answer was Jason.) I’ve signed up for Pottermore just so I could be sorted into a house—which was totally unnecessary, because it should be entirely obvious to anyone that I’m a full-out Ravenclaw. And I’m a huge Myers-Briggs aficionado and have spent a ton of time figuring out how the whole MBTI (Myers-Briggs Typing Indicator) system works and practiced on my friends (uh, hey, friends or anyone who I’ve spent any time with in person: I have probably secretly been typing you in my head) and on fictional characters. In fact, I got into MBTI by reading this excellent Tumblr blog that types characters from books, movies, TV, and other areas of pop culture.
A couple of caveats before we get into it:
1) As much as I like personality tests, I try not to put too much stock in them. Most are not backed up with scientific testing, and that includes Myers-Briggs. That said, there is still a lot you can glean from it and apply to character building in writing. I think MBTI can be really useful in figuring out what motivates people, which makes it applicable to character building.
2) Myers-Briggs typing is a fairly complex system to pick up – it’s not as easy as saying “oh, I’m an introvert and I’m pretty intuitive, so I must be an INTJ” or “this description of an ESFP is me exactly!” Online tests that promise to tell you your type aren’t always entirely accurate because they can’t pick up on the nuances of your choices. Typing requires an in-depth study of how MBTI works and how all the functions work together, along with critical self-examination to understand your own motivations. But if you’re willing to put in the work to understand the system, MBTI can be a great way to understand characters’ motivation and help you create fully realized personalities.
There are lots of resources on how to type people elsewhere that are much more experienced than I could be (I’ll leave some resources at the bottom of this post). For typing your own characters, I wouldn’t advise simply choosing a personality type (e.g. ENTP or ISFJ) for them and then trying to build their character from descriptions of those types—those descriptions tend to be general or show the stereotypes of a personality, and all that will get you is a flat character. I’d suggest instead spending some time with your character to figure out how they work organically and then typing them. Approach it like you would typing a real person—they are already have a personality by the time we come to type them, so do the same for your character. Build their backstory, write some dialogue, and see how they reacted to stimuli.
Knowing a character’s type helps you determine how they will react in any situation you put them in because you’ll understand their motivations. To do this, you’ll need to figure out what their first instinct is when confronted with a problem. The way I like to start is to ask if they’re an introvert or an extrovert -- so do they go in or out?
Introverts go into themselves and check how they are reacting to a problem: how does it work with their moral feelings (Fi), how does it make sense to their own logic (Ti), what’s their gut saying about how this will affect their long-term plans(Ni), how does it compare to something they’ve experienced before or remembered (Si).*
Extroverts check externally to things outside themselves: how others are feeling (Fe), what kind of external systems are at play (Te), what imaginative possibilities can this situation lead to (Ne), what can their senses actively pick up (Se).*
* I’m MASSIVELY generalizing here.
What does your character immediately do? Whichever of these eight possibilities resonates strongly with them is their primary motivation and their primary function. If you picked an introverted function first, consider what extroverted function you would choose next (or vice versa), and that’s their secondary function. Which of those extroverted functions are they weakest at? That will be your character’s major pitfall. Knowing all this, how do these functions inform your character’s personality and the choices they make?
So, for example, I’m an INFJ, which means I’m an introvert who leads with introverted iNtuition, followed by extraverted feeling, and my weakest/inferior function is extraverted sensing. So I gut-check first whenever I’m confronted with a new situation: how does this make me feel and, projecting into the future, how is this going to affect my plans for the future (introverted intuitives LOVE their plans)? Then: how is everyone else feeling about this? Can I tune into their moods and get an idea how they feel and try to make it better for them? But I’m terrible at being in the moment and using my senses to get information – I can do it, but it’s not my first, second, or even third instinct, and when I do it, I do it poorly and/or recklessly because I’m not comfortable with it. Someone who leads with extraverted sensing and has introverted intuition as their inferior function (an ESTP or ESFP) would be the opposite: great at reacting quickly in the moment and tapping into their senses, but terrible at long-term planning.
MBTI can help you develop rich characters with depth and clear motivation, who are making choices that make sense for the kind of person they are. They’ll feel real and lived-in that way. There is a lot of value to mine from MBTI, but you have to know how to get the best out of an admittedly convoluted system.
Understanding Yourself and Others by Linda V. Berens and Dario Nardi is a nice little primer to begin learning about MBTI.
16personalities – while I think most online MBTI tests aren’t very accurate, this is the best I’ve found, and it has great descriptions of all the types. It’s a good base to start with, though you may find as you learn more about MBTI that your original type wasn’t entirely dead-on in the first place.
Funky MBTI has excellent character profiles of all your faves, and a lot of posts on how to type more accurately; I’ve learned a ton from this blog.
C’mon, tell me: what’s your type? Would you use MBTI to build your characters?