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.

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