Monday, June 29, 2009

On Using the Myers Briggs Type Indicator to Create Character Personalities

A challenge for any fiction writer whose books are not solely plot driven is to develop memorable characters. These characters should be distinguishable from one another by their quirks, styles of speech, and patterns of behavior, and as they change, they should act in believable and consistent manners. Over the span of 300 or more pages, this is no small feat. There are tools we can draw on from other fields to provide a framework. One of my favorites is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which I enthusiastically embraced in my former lives as a career counselor and administrator.

Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Meyers expanded on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types and made it more accessible. Although developed several decades before, the MBTI came into vogue in the 1980s when a number of books about it were published, including the second edition of A Guide to the Development and Use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Isabel Briggs Myers and Mary H. McCaulley, Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., 1985) as well as the more popular Please Understand Me (David Kiersey and Marilyn Bates, 1978; new version now available). For awhile the MBTI was a very popular in corporate settings.

In brief, the MBTI poses four dichotomous scales designed to describe a person’s preferences in relation to her perceptions and actions. The names that were assigned to these scales can be a bit misleading in that they may conjure up images different from those intended. Simplistically put, the four scales are:

Introversion (I)-extroversion (E): Where does your psychic energy come from? Extroverts obtain much of their energy from being with others; introverts prefer being inside their own heads and may be drained by spending too much time with others, especially large groups. (Many actors and writers are introverts in this sense; many salespeople are extroverts.) Note that extroverts are much more common than introverts.

Sensing (S)-intuition (N): How do you collect and generate information? The sensing person focuses on concrete information and details gathered through their five senses. The intuitive person prefers the world of possibilities and ideas. (For examples of a sensor versus an intuitor, think George W. Bush versus Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln.) However, although we may associate creativity with intuitors, sensors can also be very creative.

Thinking (T)-feeling (F): How do you process information, especially to make decisions? The thinking person uses analysis and logic. The feeling person is more concerned with values and emotions. (Think Barack Obama versus Bill Clinton.) Note that women are more likely to be feelers, and men thinkers.

Judging (J)-perceiving (P): How do you operate in the world? The judging person likes to organize their world and prefers closure. The perceiver is more spontaneous and continues to collect information. (Think Felix versus Oscar in The Odd Couple.)

After completing a multi-item assessment, each person can be classified into a four letter type, and each of the 16 resulting types also has distinct characteristics beyond the sum of its parts. (Of course, on some scales, people may be more of a mixture; in others they may have much stronger preferences.) However, I’ve found that even a knowledge of the four scales provides useful information, especially to truly grasp why someone may think or act differently from you. As a partner, manager, subordinate, co-worker, or friend, you can manage your own expectations of others’ behavior much better if you understand their type preferences. Setting aside the arguments that the MBTI doesn’t describe all aspects of personality (and has its detractors), it covers a lot of the ground where tensions between people can arise.

Back in the world of fiction, these inherent tensions between types can also provide the fodder for conflict in fiction. Imagine the high J (judger) becoming very frustrated with the high P (perceiver), who seems incapable of making a decision. At the same time, the P accuses the J of being rigid. Or the high T (thinker) may ridicule the high F for being illogical while the high F may think that the high T has no heart. The high E can stay at a party all night, but the high I has had enough after a short while and would rather go home and read a good book.

There are hundreds of references on the MBTI. A useful, though not definitive, URL is To use the MBTI in the way it was designed to be used requires formal training and certification, but for the writer, the fun is in the description of type and seeing how these different types might aid in character development.

1 comment:

  1. This is so interesting. I never thought of using MBTI for a character, though I've been exposed to it at work quite a bit. I think it would be useful to validate that a character is acting "in character" and not veering into another personality entirely. I'm ENFP and now I'm wondering if the majority of the characters I write are ENFP, too.