Giving your characters personality

Now that you understand the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and the four main personality types, let’s talk about writing books and how it can help you.

As I previously mentioned, the MBTI offers 16 subtypes. This allows for a bigger variation among types than personality profiles that allow only four. Because the test is made up of the four basic scales, it’s easy to understand.

And now, after two posts, we finally come to my point: you can use this personality test to help you identify your characters. If you don’t know enough about your character to tell me if she is an introvert or extrovert, feeling or thinking, sensing or intuitive, and perceiving or judging, then you don’t know your character. And if you don’t know your character, your readers won’t know your character either.

Knowing your character is important, because if you don’t, you can’t make her act in a realistic manner. Let’s look at a character as an example:

Since I’ve been using the pronoun her, let’s have a woman, Sophie, as our protagonist. She’s 29, single, and from a small community. If we decide she’s an ISFJ, we can choose some careers that feel real. Making her an engineer isn’t going to be a good choice, but a nurse, teacher, therapist, or administrative assistant would work. Let’s make her a therapist.

What would be an idea day for our ISFJ? Well, maybe successfully helping a client overcome an addiction, lunch with her mom, and dinner with a good friend. Or, maybe she goes home and watches her favorite movie for dinner. Now, what situation is going to make her most uncomfortable? It depends on the novel. If we’re dealing with a modern setting in the real world, maybe being forced to go to the office party with her boyfriend where she has to make small talk with people she doesn’t know. If we’re going fantasy, being moved to a magical world. Trust me, the first thing an SJ will do upon arriving in Narnia is start trying to figure out what drug she took.

If we’re developing other characters and we want to really bother Sophie, we could give her a business partner who is an ENTP. He doesn’t feel obligated to follow the rules. He comes up with theories and expects Sophie to figure out the details. He doesn’t understand Sophie’s needs from an emotional standpoint, and he thinks she’s a snob since she isn’t as sociable as he is. See, we just heightened the emotional tension.

On a related note, I believe pairing off opposites types is the basis of almost every romance novel. Example: ISTJ male who is grounded in the real world, follows rules, thinks logically and is kind of an introvert, meets or marries an ENFP woman. She’s a free spirit, not very organized, and loves people, especially doing weird things for reactions. You know what we have? The basic plot of What’s Up Doc?, Barefoot in the Park, and Charly. I can think of plenty of others.

Before I sit down to write, I usually outline my novel. I figure out what types my figures are, and where they are on the spectrum. I also know how they’re going to react in various situations. If I decide I need a character to act in a way that’s contrary to their core personality, I have to give them a huge reason. If I don’t, the action will ring false to the reader and you’ll lose him or her.

Don’t do it. Get to know your characters. The MBTI is a simple tool that will help you create more believable characters, and can be used to increase tension by knowing the exact types of situations will be chaotic for that individual.


Introduction to the MBTI 2

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So last week I explained the basics of the MBTI. This week I’ll mention the four main groupings:


This group makes up 38 percent of the population. SPs are the life of the party. They tend to be impulsive. They’re charming coversationalists. They like to try new things. Thee people like jobs involving action. They tend to focus on the process, on the doing of a thing. For example, if you have a piano virtuoso who is SP, it’s not because he or she had a goal of becoming a master pianist and dedicated hours to that goal. It’s because this individual enjoyed playing the piano so much, that he or she willingly sat there for hours honing the craft.

Also, if an SP is an actor, it’s because acting is fun, something he or she enjoys. An NF on the other hand becomes an actor because he or she wants to make ART.

SPs are great in a crisis. They tend to do well in positions that require one to examine the situation, and make the correct changes to fix things, regardless of how things have been done in the past.

SPs are pretty athletic and are more laid back in their disposition than others.


Remember that teacher’s pet in your second-grade class? She was probably an SJ. These people want to belong and to earn their place in the group. They tend to be obedient to rules, care deeply about other people, and honor tradition. Like SPs, they account for 38 percent of people.

SJs tend to gravitate toward service professions: teaching, administrative assistants, nursing, and counseling. If they see something that needs to be done, they tend to do it. If the SP is on stage, the SJ is working the lights and designing costumes.

SJs don’t like change. They also tend to be more pessimistic than the SP, who is optimistic by nature.


NTs are intellectual by nature. They are also more introspective than the previous two groups. NTs love knowledge for knowledge’s sake. They thrive on theories. For this reason, NTs are more likely to be found in college classrooms if they’re teaching. They do it because they are passionate about the subject. They like to work in fields related to the discovery and application of principles, such as scientists, engineers, securities analysts, things like that.

If you have a different opinion than an NT, it’s because you’re wrong. NTs can appear arrogant but they are also the most self-critical. You can win over an NT but you have to do it through well-thought out discussions.

NTs make up about 12 percent of the population. They’re very inquisitive. They solve problems in a practical and unsentimental way. They can be oblivious to the feelings of others.


NFs are highly visionary. They’re introspective and are driven self-discovery and self-actualization. Their goal is about becoming the person they can ultimately be. Integrity in action is huge to an NF. They are imaginative and passionate about a few causes. They make up 12 percent of people.

This group despises conflict and tries to smooth things out between family members. They are very compassionate and tend to be good listeners (as long as their minds aren’t caught up in an idea).

Occupations that appeal to the NF include writers, poets, journalists, psychologists, psychiatrists, ministers, and teachers (but as teachers they’ll probably be found in the social scientists and humanities). Knowing how this group tends to go into writing, look at how many books have a theme of discovering oneself. It might surprise you.

Inside of each of these groups are four subgroups. They have subtle differences. It’s worth studying them. But if you do, you’re probably an NF.

Of course, the more entertaining way to do it is by seeing who you would be in Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Doctor Who based on your personality type. I put Doctor Who below because I couldn’t find a good place to link it. WARNING: You might not like the result. Trust me. My daughter was pretty upset to learn she was Emperor Palpatine/Draco Malfoy/The Master.


Next time I’ll finally talk about how we can use this knowledge to make better characters in our novels, and to increase the psychological tension.

Introduction to the MBTI

So, I wanted to share some writing advice, but it’s long and complex so I’ve broken it up into two posts. In the first I wanted to talk about the MBTI, and in the second, discuss how it can help writers. So, here’s part 1:

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a personality test that divides personalities into four large categories and 16 subcategories. Each of these is based on where you fall in four different scales. So, I think the best way to do this is to explain each scale first. I’ll do it in the order the results normally appear. Please understand, that these are scales, so you might land right in the middle of something and not show a strong preference for either end of the scale. That’s okay; it’s one of the strengths of this personality profile. The capped letter shows how that characteristic is represented in the results.

Extrovert vs. Introvert

As I mentioned before, this isn’t whether or not you like people, it’s about where you get your energy. Interacting with other people energizes extroverts. They tend to be great at cocktail parties: they move from person to person, chatting with them and getting to everyone. Extroverts like to get things moving and are outwardly focused.

Introverts on the other hand, find energy in themselves. They like working in their own thoughts. If they go to a party, they tend to sit in a corner and have deep conversations with one or two people. Ironically, introverts can feel lonely in a large crowd of people. Introverts are prone to more reflection than action.

iNtuition vs. Sensing

Notice the capital “N” in intuitive? That’s because we all ready used the “I” for Introvert.

Where you fall on this scale makes for the biggest difference in personality.

The easiest way to explain this difference is that sensing people look at what is, and intuition people look at what could be. Sensing people make up 75 percent of the population. A friend once told me that this was good: you have one person to come up with new ideas, and three people to respond.

Sensing people trust information they bring in through their senses. They tend to be grounded in the here and now, and look for practical uses in things they’re learning.

Intuitive people like to look at the big picture. They tend to be drawn to metaphorical language, and think about what the world could be like.

To illustrate, my wife (S) and I (N) were driving down the road one day. We were talking about all the challenges our children face: Internet predators, pornography, moral relativism, etc. I said, “Wouldn’t be great if we could use a time machine to go back 150 years and raise our kids there, when things were simpler?”

My wife looked at me and said, “But that’s impossible, so we need to work on raising them in the world they’re in.”

Thinking vs. Feeling

This is about how you make your decisions. Do you tend to use logic, or do you lean toward gut feelings and how others will feel about your decision? Like I said, It’s a scale, so it’s not like you have to choose between Spock and McCoy here. This division is the most likely to fall along gender lines, so 60 percent of men are T and 60 percent of women are F. I’m just sharing information here, I didn’t make that up.

It’s good to know how your boss makes decisions when asking for a raise. If he’s a T, then you’ll need to present how much more productive you are than co-workers, how your salary stacks up against the median in your industry, and how the company can justify the raise. If you’re an F, you might talk about the benefits of this raise to morale (both yours and the company’s), and maybe explain why you need the raise.

Judging vs. Perceiving

Let me start off by saying that this last category has nothing to do with either how perceptive you are or how judgmental you can be. Essentially this is about how you do things. The Myers-Briggs Foundation clarifies that this is about your outward-facing behavior, since internally you might be different.

So, Judging people seem to prefer a more orderly life. They put work before fun, they plan out projects to avoid a deadline-induced flurry of activity. They tend to make lists. They also tend to obey rules more, and have more respect for tradition, and like to plan things out.

Perceiving people on the other hand, like to keep their options open. They work to deadlines, tend to work in bursts of energy, and like to mix work and play. They also tend to question rules more. Never tell a P that we’re doing something because that’s how it’s always been done. They might just do it differently to see what happens (which may or may not be an autobiographical truth).

I’ve also heard this attribute explained as how you feel about decisions. Are you more comfortable before or after the decision is made? J’s like decisions already made. P’s like to have their options open.

I’m a P. I had a four-hour layover in Paris once. I turned it into a 28-hour layover and spent the day wandering the city without any clear plans. I walked 22 miles, eating, smelling, seeing, and shopping my way through the city of lights. About 11 p.m. I realized I hadn’t considered where to sleep. I went back to the airport and slept on a bench. Serendipity is often my guiding principle when I travel. I figure I’ll find something really cool, like a night in New York when I wandered into a small Italian restaurant off Times Square where a live jazz trio was playing. These moments are more precious to me because I feel like I found something really special.

I have a very good J friend who planned out a vacation with our family. She emailed us a detailed itinerary saying where we were going and when. It was a busy trip. There’s nothing wrong with that. We had a good time and pretty much knew what we would see before we left the house.

Wow, given the length of this post, I think I’ll stop here. Next time I’ll talk about the four major types, and then we’ll talk about how to use this in writing.