Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Characters & Myers-Briggs: Why and How?

When I told my non-writer family that I'd given my characters a personality test, they laughed at the idea. Then they realized I was serious. I had, for real, given personality tests to every character who plays a role in my work-in-progress. Like them, you may wonder: why on earth should you give fictional people a personality test? And how would you even go about doing such a thing if there was a valid reason?

Why on earth should you make your characters take the test?
If you know your character pretty well, the Myers-Briggs test can help you understand where a lot of his behaviors come from. You may think, "Oh, that's why he's clueless when it comes to so-and-so's feelings!" or "That's why he's such a perfectionist!"
If you don't know your character very well, running through an online Myers-Briggs quiz can help you get to know your character better. Once you've actually seen the results, you may be able to use the character's type to fill in some of the gaps. If your character is a P as opposed to a J, he probably prefers the "wing it" approach opposed to the detailed plan approach. You may be able to realize that since he's a Perceiver, he's also habitually messy, or doesn't really care if his outfit is color-coordinated. Knowing that your character is an extrovert and not an introvert will give you a basis as to how he'll act around people, and knowing that he's a T and not an F will tell you whether he trusts emotions enough to make a decision based on them.
For example, I gave Tyv, my protagonist, the test and his results were ISTJ (introverted, sensing, thinking, judging). After reading the type descriptions, I saw that ISTJs are known for their reliability and loyalty, for not being naturally in tune with others' emotions, and for their love of tradition and rules. While Tyv doesn't follow the law (there are always going to be exceptions for anyone trying to find their type), he does love routine and hates risks. He's ridiculously loyal and honest, and can be oblivious when it comes to emotion. Reading his type overview just made me realize that he had those traits, and now I can emphasize them as his redeeming traits.
On the other side, I gave another character named Gabriel the test, and got ENFP. Now I know a few ENFPs, and Gabriel doesn't act like they do. So I decided that he fit more in with the INFP profile. There are always going to be little instances like that. But you know what? Getting ENFP for Gabriel made me realize that he does have a huge passion for other people. Giving him the test let me get to know him better, even if I disagreed with a portion of the results.
So, giving your characters the Myers-Briggs test can be useful for developing them or understanding them.

Okay, but how are you supposed to give someone who isn't technically real a test?
In the past, I've taken the test for my characters by putting myself into their life. I read my character sketches over, read all my notes. Study my drawings and imagine their reactions to situations and people. Then, with all of that swirling inside me, I go to the online test and begin answering the questions. I don't think about them too much. I just start answering whatever feels right for that character swimming in my head. And by the end of it, I read over the results and decide if the type I got is really the most accurate. Most of the time it is.
But what if it isn't?  What if you begin reading the type description and think,  "Wait. None of this sounds right." In that case I always look closely at the description and really try to find similarities between it and my character. If I still fail to believe that the description is the best fit for my character I pick out which initials in the four letter code are wrong. With Gabriel, it was the extrovert part that I had an issue with. The rest was alright. So I went and read the introvert alternative, INFP. It seemed to fit much better, so I deemed the test results off and officially put Gabriel down as a INFP.
Sometimes,  I know,  it isn't that simple. Two or more initials are wrong. Well, I have a plan of action for you, too. Usually the sixteen types are divided into groups of four: the rationals (NTs), the idealists (NFs), the guardians (SJs), and the artisans (SPs). Read the group descriptions and decide which group you character fits best into. Easy, now you've got two initials settled. Now you just have to decide the other two. This will be a choice between introvert and extrovert, and then  perceiving or judging if your character is in the first two groups or thinking or feeling if he was in the last two. 

Let me also point out that you don't need to be certain of your character's type.
Many real people swing between types, even between groups. The object of all this is to gain a better understanding of your character. If you know that he prefers to wing it like a perciever but finds stability in rules like a judger, that's fine! You've still gained some understanding of how he behaves and thinks, so the purpose of the test has been achieved.

Another few disclaimers:
Beware turning generalities into rules. While it is true that some of the basic "facts" are very accurate regarding a certain type, facts often get distorted and set down as a rule. "Research shows that ESTJs often love sports" and "ESTJs all love sports" are two different statements.
And. . .
Beware the stereotypes. True, I get a great amount of enjoyment from the stereotype humor out there. But the stereotype is often not the reality. I'll use an example from my own type, INTJ, because it is the type I know the most about (stands to reason, I suppose).  "INTJ's are emotionless robots" is a immensely popular falsehood circulating about us INTJs.
Really? Who on earth started this? Just because INTJs are known for being detached, uber-introverted (some would say anti-social, but that is another topic for another day), logical, and hard to read does not mean we are emotionless. I'll let you all know that INTJs can be very emotional - we just try to base our decisions on dependable logic rather than those emotions, and we like our privacy so we tend not to advertise our emotions for all to see.
See what I mean? Now, there are stereotypical types of people out there, who would probably make wonderfully entertaining characters. But base your type knowledge (and character typing) on the facts, not the exaggerations or rumors. And lastly. . .

Type is not all there is to it.
The Myers-Briggs test describes basic behaviors - it doesn't dictate everything about people. Far from it, in fact. People have different abilities, likes, vices, family issues, weaknesses, appearances, histories, and dislikes which all affect who they are as a person. Your character should, too. The Myers-Briggs test is just one thing that you can add to your characters to make them as layered and multidimensional as possible.

What about you? Have you ever given your character the Myers-Briggs test? Why? What did you learn, if anything, about your character through it?

A few other useful/fun links:
Post-Apocalyptic Survival by Type (warning: if you enjoy a slightly wacky sense of humor this will keep you occupied for hours).


  1. At last I find another author who gives her characters personality tests as well! I have a ISTJ character too, but he's an exception when it comes to not reading emotions or taking risks. Maybe he's not an ISTJ after all... *ponders*
    Anyhow, thank you for this post!

  2. I always think it's super cool that people do Myers-Briggs tests for their characters like you have, but the main problem here is that I actually AM an ISTJ. That thing about being oblivious to emotion? That's me. That's so me. I can't put myself in other people's shoes... which can really be a roadblock on the way to writing, let me tell you.

    Still, you make some excellent points, and I am always so happy to see when people feature ISTJs as their characters (you'd think we're not popular...).

    (Also... I mean, your character and all, but when you say that your character is different because he doesn't obey the law—he probably doesn't obey somebody else's law. In regards to his own law, his own moral convictions, I'm going to guess it would take serious business for him to betray his own morals. I think this area sort of bleeds in with the other traits you've mentioned, but from an ISTJ's perspective I think it's a distinction worth making.

    That is, if it fits your character. If not, ignore me. Heather's bein' crazy again!)

  3. Haha, for a while I thought I was an ISTJ. And I totally relate on the emotional obliviousness - realizing I was an N instead of S didn't change that. My sister (ENFP) will be like, "wait, you really didn't notice that?" I'll just look at her sort of bemused.
    And you're dead right about my ISTJ character. He definitely has a moral code that he sticks to like he'd die if he broke it. Thanks for that insight!

  4. Great post! I've given a few of my characters the Myers-Briggs test but I need to look into the descriptions more, but it was fun. ^ ^ I'm an INFJ myself. :)

    Stori Tori's Blog

    1. Oh, nice! INFJs are the rarest type in the world, I think I heard? Could be wrong, but that's cool!
      Thanks for reading!

  5. Myers-Briggs is fantastic, I've long been a fan but the past year I haven't really looked at it much. Taking the test seems like a good idea to develop characters. I'm sitting in between INTP and INFP. The Post-Apocalyptic Survival Type kept me laughing for days after I found it. I told my dad about his story (ISTJ) and how they were obsessive about cleaning up the bullet shells while they were still fighting mutant zombies (or whatever it was) and he ended up giving me a whole explanation on why it made sense.

    1. I have a friend who straddles the same two types that you do. :) Oh, gosh, have you seen the comics? Those are pretty funny too.
      OH GOODNESS REALLY? That is so . . . stereotypical. xD And hysterical.
      Thanks for reading!