Editor’s Note: This article is the third installment in our five-part series on how to build empathy between readers and characters. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching the topic, read our introductory post.
Personality assessments are a hot topic today. But, like everything in life, people’s opinions differ widely. Some treat personality types as the explanation for all human behavior. Others are skeptical for reasons ranging from personal to religious.
The truth, as so often happens, falls between those two extremes.
While a character, and a person, is more than a set of numbers or letters, personality types help us learn more about ourselves and how others view the world. They are not excuses for sin. They do, however, reveal common weaknesses in particular types, show us where we can grow, and teach us how to empathize with and reach others better.
When we’re unsure how a character might react to a situation, her personality type provides a starting point. Through it, we can search out her motivations, fears, and much more.
Nature vs. Nurture
Before I discuss personality assessments in detail, note that people are shaped by two forces: 1) Nature—the personality and perspective they’ve had since opening their eyes for the first time. 2) Nurture—the lifestyles, people, and experiences they’ve been exposed to.
Stances on this vary. The MBTI website doesn’t commit to a side, but Carl Jung, who introduced the idea of personality types, believed people were born with a sense of personality. I agree with his hypothesis, because anyone who creates characters realizes that they don’t (and shouldn’t) all act like clones. A tragic childhood turns one character into a distrustful hermit, yet it inspires another character to become a tender healer. Opposite responses to the same event implies that these characters had unique natures or personalities beforehand.
In this article, I’ll approach both MBTI and enneagram as the framework a person is born with. A character’s initial type depends on her nature. However, the extent that she conforms to it depends on her nurturing, which plays an equally important role in her habits and choices.
For instance, my sister is an ENFP, but our father is an ISTJ. While she’s much more emotional than I am as an INTJ, compared to every other ENFP I know, she’s very logical. This is the result of growing up in a well-structured home.
Has a character’s life been easy or hard? Has she lost someone? Has she built shields around herself because of past pains? Just because a character is a Three or an ENFJ doesn’t mean she’ll match those descriptions perfectly and never deviate.
Internally, how a character processes information is tied to her type. But how she expresses herself outwardly is influenced as much, if not more, by her backstory.
Applying Personality Types
Methods for typing a character will vary from writer to writer. I normally create a basic character, draft a few scenes to experiment with his voice, and then type him. After that I’m able to develop him further. In some cases, however, I want a particular pairing, such as ENFP and INTJ brothers, or an INFP father and INTJ son.
Just remember not to sacrifice your character so he’ll fit into the type you think he’s supposed to be. Sometimes people and characters display quirks we wouldn’t expect. This is usually due to the nurturing I touched on above. If you give him some consistencies, though, you’ll notice that he leans toward one type more than the others.
To type your characters, you can take online tests and answer as them. But tests can be unreliable because of human diversity. The best tactic is to research the types yourself and figure out which ones your characters resemble. The task may seem overwhelming at first, but you’ll get faster at it the more familiar you become with the types.
Using the MBTI System to Deepen Your Characters’ Thought Processes
MBTI is a well-known personality assessment that assigns individuals one of sixteen different types represented by a series of four letters.
The first letter is an I or E, which stands for introvert or extrovert.
Most people assume introverted characters are quiet while extroverts are loud. The contrast between these types goes beyond a preference for seclusion vs. socialization, though that’s a factor as well.
When faced with a problem, introverted characters will look within themselves for answers. They need to analyze the situation and compare it to previous observations they’ve made. They may ask for input, but someone else’s opinion takes second place to what they feel and know internally. Each of their thoughts interconnect like a vast, complicated web. This is why they’re satisfied with much less “stimulation” than extroverts, who thrive off of crowds, surprises, and activity.
Extroverted characters, on the other hand, seek answers and energy from external sources. This doesn’t mean they won’t evaluate an issue carefully, but they do it more vocally—such as in a long, rambling conversation. They let the wisdom of those they trust help guide their feelings and goals.
Introverted characters can be as exuberant as extroverts, but they’ll need time alone to recharge. Extroverted characters can enjoy solitude, but they’ll need interaction with others to renew their energy and drive.
The second letter is an N or S, which stands for intuitive or sensing.
Intuitives draw conclusions in an abstract manner. They center themselves on ideals, beliefs, and instincts they’ve honed. They’re the starry-eyed dreamers, the soldiers marching off to fight for freedom, and the artists arguing for the importance of beauty.
Sensors, however, ground themselves in facts and physical reality. They see the world as it is more than how it could or should be. They will still march to war, but it will be for the child left behind. They might argue for beauty, but they’ll defend it from their own experience instead of as a general concept.
Ultimately, intuitive characters rely on gut feelings and observed patterns to process the world around them, but they can struggle to implement their ideas. Sensor characters rely on their background and the resources available to them, but they can struggle to see the big picture.
The third letter is a T or an F, which stands for thinking or feeling.
To be clear, both types think and feel. But one response will be more dominant than the other.
If your character is a thinker, he’ll cling to logic and push emotion aside. What should be done? What will save the most lives? How can he ensure the group he’s leading achieves its goal? He’ll feel emotion, yes. But it’s secondary to his convictions on the right move.
If your character is a feeler, she’ll sift through scenarios in her head and imagine how her actions might impact others. Will her decision hurt someone? Can she avoid that by adjusting her plans? How can she keep her group unified while pursuing a goal? Logic comes after she considers the emotional aspects.
In the end, a thinking character may opt to follow emotion, and a feeling character may opt to follow logic. However, their type will determine the direction their brains jump when they assess a situation.
The fourth and final letter is a J or P, which stands for judging or perceiving.
If your character is a judger, she’ll desire closure—and the organization that leads to it. Her thought process will be structured and future oriented, even if that future is just the next hour or day. When she encounters a problem, she’ll hunt for the root, then map out steps to solve it, each with a deadline and checklist of its own.
If your character is a perceiver, he’ll become stressed if he’s forced to make a quick decision. He lives in the present, reacting to events as they occur and keeping all his options open. His thought process will likely zigzag chaotically from one notion to another.
In summary, judgers are doers and perceivers are explorers. A judging character attempts to prepare for what’s ahead and control life as much as possible, while a perceiving character relishes each moment and welcomes the unexpected.
Keep in mind, all these examples are generalized.
Personality types are much more fluid than I’ve conveyed here. No matter how staunch of a thinker your character is, if his son has been captured and is about to be harmed, he’ll do everything in his power to stop it—without consulting logic.
Also, cognitive functions are a crucial part of the equation. Cognitive functions are an extension of MBTI that dissects the letters (and their order) even further to define why a person gravitates toward certain thought patterns. The concepts are too complicated to address in this article, but if you want more details on how MBTI influences people’s dispositions, delve into cognitive functions.
Merging the Principles of MBTI with Other Personality Systems
If MBTI is the skeleton of a person’s attributes, enneagram is the muscle. A word of warning, however: enneagram has questionable, mystical, and arbitrary origins. I’ve found the basic aspects to be valuable, but others I tend to discard. With any personality assessment, make sure what you’re learning aligns with biblical truth, and don’t accept man’s word as gospel for how the human mind works.
MBTI explains how a person processes the world, whereas enneagram pinpoints internal fears and longings. It consists of nine types, each one with three subtypes. Though I don’t have room to go into depth, enneagram’s largest benefit is how it explores people’s motivations. It associates a single “vice” with each number that the individual either embraces or wrestles.
Enneagram concentrates on how people protect themselves physically and emotionally while pursuing their needs and desires. This is why it’s a wonderful tool for fleshing out characters. Insecurities and yearnings naturally color a character’s thought processes, whether it’s a One seeing something wrong and itching to fix it, or a Six seeing something good and positioning herself to guard it. The better you understand what’s driving your character, the more realistic she’ll come across to readers.
Other personality systems exist, such as the DISC assessment and the Kolbe Index. The precise assortment you use is at your discretion, but MBTI and enneagram will probably cover all you need.
A final reminder: in life, we need to be careful not to get so swept up in ourselves that we forget our focus ought to be on God. We must orient ourselves properly when writing too. Types are helpful, but we can’t let them take over our characters so thoroughly that they lose their unpredictable, endearing humanness.
Make ’em, Then Break ’em
I’ll leave you with one last twist on personality types: breaking them.
This circles back to the nurturing I mentioned at the beginning. Discover your character’s type, then build off of the paradoxes between his life and his impulses. You may have an extrovert who hides from interaction with others. Or a perceiver who freaks out if he doesn’t know the tiniest detail about everything. Your character might not reflect his type’s “normal” tendencies consistently—and that’s the true normal.
Remember, personality types reveal the path a character’s thoughts default to, as well as the behavior that may stem from it. Most importantly, personality types allow readers to understand your character’s inner world and even connect with seemingly unrelatable characters.
Return on Monday as Brandon describes how to create characters with relatable emotions. In the meantime, we’d love to hear how you balance the nature and nurturing of a character. What interesting combinations have you come up with or observed in real life?
Hope Ann entertains a mob of younger siblings, manages shifts at Culver’s, and writes a wide range of fantasy. Fueled by passion, relationships, and constant learning, she works to provide an escape from the grind of normal life through fiction and the sarcastic, no-nonsense inspirational posts on her blog. She’s the self-published author of the Legends of Light series, a personal writing coach, and the Story Embers newsletter manager. You can join her email list to claim a free novelette about a sister willing to face Death himself to reclaim her sibling.