How to Use Personality Types to Deepen Your Characters

If you’ve been an author for any length of time, you’ve probably heard about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Maybe you’re enthralled with it. Maybe you’ve glanced at the confusing muddle of letters and given up deciphering it. Or maybe you’ve heard others talk about it. Whatever the case, if you aren’t acquainted with MBTI, welcome to your introduction to personality types.

How_to_Use_Personality_Types_to_Deepen_Your_Characters

Although other personality tests and categories exist, MBTI is one of the most popular. With eight letters in pairs of two (Introvert or Extrovert, iNtuitive or Sensing, Feeling or Thinking, Perceiving or Judging) and sixteen possible combinations, the range is comprehensive without being overwhelming.

This topic is fascinating for those of us who enjoy delving into other people’s minds, but do personality types have practical applications in writing, and what are the limitations?

The Uses of Personality Types

A character is a character first, not a type. Like people, every character can’t be packed into one of sixteen simple boxes. Each character is influenced by his past, surroundings, and relationships. Sometimes a character’s personality is so twisted that the original type becomes obscured, yet it still undergirds how he processes the world around him.

Introversion/Extroversion

The first of the four pairs is the Introvert/Extrovert classification, which affects the central world of a character. Introverted characters concentrate on their internal world. They will recharge in solitude before venturing out and connecting with people. Some introverts might be painfully shy, while others are more outgoing. Introverts just happen to prefer their own company. They will recede into their inner world if the outer chaos becomes unbearable.

On the other hand, extroverts focus on the outer world and are energized by socialization. They’re more likely to consort with reckless companions because they enjoy surrounding themselves with people.

Sensing/Intuition

The Sensing/iNtuitive distinction shows how a character gains information. Sensors are rational and practical. They rely on concrete evidence and base their plans on factors they can see and hear and feel.

Conversely, iNtuitive characters perceive the world through patterns, impressions, and ideals. As dreamers, they will be more interested in the principles and abstract arguments and theories behind events. They believe there are exceptions to everything and might go with a gut feeling even when reality seems against it.

Thinking/Feeling

Thinking versus Feeling governs how characters make decisions. Thinkers will weigh the pros and cons of a situation instinctively and try to be as impersonal as possible, possibly to the extreme of appearing heartless. Although they do experience the pull of emotions, they view it as an unsound basis for a decision. So they suppresses their feelings to study the problem as logically as possible.

In contrast, feelers are more concerned about the personal aspect. They will act on what they feel is right, taking their own emotions and the emotions of others into consideration. They may rush into a solution without thinking the whole situation through. Logic will probably be consulted as well, but it is not the sole foundation on which their decisions rest. Their focus is more on the people involved and what is best for them than on hard facts.

Judging/Perceiving

The final set of letters determines how a person interacts with the world around them. Judgers keep life moving. They will drive the story, charging ahead to figure things out and draw conclusions on matters. They enjoy leading and may need to be restrained and forced to work with others.

Perceivers, however, tend to let life happen. As characters, they need to be given a reason to press forward. They are apt to be open to new ideas and options while they wait to see what will transpire.

The Limits of Personality Types

Whatever the personality type of a character, each trait can have varying degrees of intensity. One character might be very introverted and dislike being around people at all. Another might straddle the line between introversion and extroversion, enjoying people but still refreshing herself by being alone.

Remember that a character’s personality type doesn’t dictate how he acts as much as how he processes information. Situations will penetrate the heart of a feeler first, but that doesn’t mean she won’t force herself to analyze the issue impersonally. Or, a thinker might abandon logic and release an emotional outburst. Characters will have a wide range of reactions depending on the circumstances, but pinpointing their personalities and how they view the world is a great way to understand them better.

Although personality types do influence how characters think and behave, characters are more complex than that. Sometimes a character will flip to an opposite type while under stress. Another might act contrary to stereotypes due to past experiences. For example, an extrovert who was once betrayed might be more reserved and unfriendly than an introverted character.

Personality types will help lend consistency to your characters’ actions, but don’t cling to them at the expense of what makes your characters come alive. Their friends, family, and enemies. Their pasts. The trials they have suffered. Their ghosts and their dreams. All of this forms the window through which they see life.

Integrating Personality Types with Theme and Character Arcs

Your theme shouldn’t revolve around character types, but the characters you’ve created probably coordinate with your theme, and the message or lesson you’re teaching is likely an area they struggle with. In a current work in progress, one of my characters who learns to trust and surrender to God is an INTJ. Although any character could (and might need to) learn this lesson, it’s harder for INTJs because this type wants to be in control, understand what is occurring, and be able to change events. Being helpless and forced to trust will be more difficult for them than for another type, such as an ISFJ.

Breaking characters is yet another method for tying personality types into theme and plot. Watching a loved one get injured or killed could break many characters, but it will most upset characters who thrive on being in control (like INTJs). Some types can be broken merely by being ignored, while others can be broken if they’re pressured to commit a wrong. You don’t need type-specific events to break your character, but if you are working on your climax or trying to determine what will hurt them the most, this is a perfect place to start.

You’ll also be able to use a character’s personality type to define what pleases and irritates him, and what sort of flaws he will wrestle with. This partly depends on your characters, but because of the under-wiring of various types, certain things will affect some characters more than others. Any person can struggle with pride, but some types (like an ESTJ) will struggle with listening to others more than an ESFJ or ISFP. The structured schedules and charts an INTJ loves will drive an INFP or ENFP crazy. Some types enjoy hugs, whereas others tend to avoid physical touch. Some hide their emotions, and others display them without shame. Some enjoy teasing, some hate it, and others simply don’t get it. The list could go on and on.

To Use or Not to Use

You’re probably already familiar with how your characters think and react, but personality types take you deeper, allowing you to see through their eyes and view the world in a new light. In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether to study the types long enough to implement them in writing. Although it’s not a must-know for every writer, a foundational knowledge of personality types is worth the effort—and it’s an intriguing topic, with insights to understanding characters and people in general.

Profile photo of Hope Ann
Hope Ann is a speculative fiction writer who lives on a small farm in northern Indiana. She has self-published three Legends of Light novellas and is the Kingdom Pen Writing Team Captain. Reading since the age of five, and introducing herself to writing at age eight, she never had a question that the author’s life was the life for her. Her goal is to write thrilling Christian fantasy and futuristic fiction — stories she longed for while growing up. After graduating from homeschool, Hope now teaches writing to several of her eight younger siblings. She loves climbing trees, archery, photography, Lord of the Rings, chocolate, and collecting shiny things she claims are useful for story inspiration. You can claim one of her stories for free at: https://authorhopeann.com/rose-of-the-night/
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Comments

  1. This is awesome! I like taking the Myers-Briggs test as one of my characters. Reading about their personality type helps me understand how one of my characters would react to a specific scenario. Somehow, most of my protagonists end up INFJ like me….

    • Yes, I know how that goes. I generally have an INTJ character in most of my stories. 😀 And I’ve discovered I have more N’s than S’s in most of my stories too.

  2. I’ve always found the Myers-Briggs thing slightly interesting and slightly annoying. Probably annoying because the three times that I’ve actually bothered to force myself through the entire long test…the site crashed on me and never loaded my results. That’s my excuse. xD
    That said, I have done the test from one of my characters and I think the result sounded fairly accurate to what I already knew of his character. And it was interesting to see the information that they had on that type.

    • Ha, yes. That would be annoying. *wags finger* Not a valid excuse, though. XD
      I ignored types for awhile because the letters seemed such a confusing mess I didn’t think I’d ever figure them out. Once I finally focused and began grasping them, though, they became much more fun. I love trying to figure out how people think and how their minds work (hint: everyone doesn’t think and process information like me. XD)

  3. Yes! MBTI forever! 😀 Good job as usual Hope. And odd though it may seem, I don’t think my type turns up in a lot of my stories… *wrinkles forehead* Not sure why. They might if I did it on purpose, but I usually write a character and then type him later after I know him well enough.

    • I do the same thing; figure out a character and then type them (or let you type them *smirks*). I normally always get at least one INTJ though, without meaning to. And I’ve some INFPs. 😉

      • I get a lot of INTJs too. In fact I’ve begun to watch myself for that, because as fascinating as they are I don’t wanna overdo it. 😛 They’re supposed to be like the second most impossible type to understand, but I never really got that.
        Also for some reason most of my good guys end up Thinkers and most of the villains end up Feelers! XD

  4. Good job, Hope! I’ve mentioned this before in the forums too, that MBTI is great for a tool, but it isn’t completely accurate. Not every person is reliable to their type. However, it can be really useful for writing a character that has a different mindset than you do, or even creating foils among characters. Pinterest has some fun charts that show “compatibility” among types.

    • Poking my nose in here for a sec… a lot of people say that about MBTI but I think that’s because a lot of people see it as though it’s supposed to be a one-size-fits-all system of prediction.
      It’s not.
      If you take the trouble to understand it, it’s about the ‘chemical’ (for lack of a better word) composition of a human intellect. The four letters of each given type each say something about that person’s mind, not necessarily the way he acts. MBTI should not be taken at face value, nor was it meant to be. The descriptions of the types on the site are generalizations based on likelihoods, but they are only a result of what each of those eight letters generally mean. The letters themselves are the important things. Once you learn to recognize them for themselves —‘ Ooh, that girl’s a feeling extrovert with strong sensing and perceiving! And that one’s a thinking introvert with intuitive judging!’— it becomes clear that MBTI is much more than just a surface description of the way someone acts.
      *cough*
      Rant over. 😛

    • What Kate said. 🙂 It’s not sixteen boxes that everyone fits into. It has more to deal with how a person views the world and others than how they react to it. Reactions to the world do involve type at times (because how one views things will affect how they react to them) but a person’s reactions are shaped by their setting, their family, their past experiences. The type is like a skeleton or frame while everything else shapes the person or building into what it really is.

  5. I range from a INFP to an INTP, depending on my mood…
    I’ve never thought about the differences between a P and a J before, but you’re right, and speaking as a P, we do tend to let stuff happen and stress about it when the moment comes…
    Excellent as always, Hope!

  6. An article on MBTI AND writing. *sighs contentedly* 😀
    So much fun, Hope! I love it!
    I am continually surprised (being an INFP) by my natural habit of writing characters with the sensing trait. It’s funny really how it just happens ALL the time, and I also have tendency to switch up the types where gender is concerned. My female protagonist is an ISTJ, and my male sidekick is an INFP. In the words of Max-Ernest, “How ’bout that?”. I seriously don’t know why that happens. 😆 It’s a lot of fun though, so I am not exactly trying to break the habit.
    Need I say that the sidekick, Ariszi, is my favorite character in the land of my imagination? I love him to death. He just GETS me. 😜
    #favoritismalert

    • One of my favorite characters I’ve ever written is an ENFP. Contrasting character types is fun, especially when they are very different, like an INTJ/ENFP. Those are fun to write. 😉

  7. *stares at article title* Well, it was only a matter of time…
    In all seriousness though, excellent breakdown 🙂 I particularly liked the quote, “Remember that a character’s personality type doesn’t dictate how he acts as much as how he processes information.”

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  1. […] you want to know what the letters mean in more detail (and accuracy), there’s this great KP article (yes, second Kingdom Pen reference, I know) that breaks down what the letters mean in the context of […]

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