Throughout my life, I can think of a number of topics over which I have supremely geeked out.
Personality tests are definitely one of my pet geekouts. I think the fascination began when I was a bored middle school student, with a binder full of paper tucked under my arm at all times. Middle school + boredom + access to paper makes it only natural that I should start cataloging questions to determine “what color pumpkin,” “what type of neckline,” and “what era of history” my classmates “were”…right?
When I discovered that personality psychology was a legitimate field, my fascination blossomed into a full geekout. And then I met THE test, the crowning glory, the pinnacle passion. It was love at first scantron!
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was published by a brilliant, mother-daughter duo in 1944.
Based on the work of psychologist Karl Jung, the MBTI attempts to classify test-takers as one of 16 personality types. There are four dimensions to each personality type. See the excerpt from a psychology textbook below:
These dimensions are combined into one personality type, like INFJ (that’s me!), ESTP, ISTJ, ENFP, etc. And for those of you who rail against labels, don’t worry! There’s more finesse to the MBTI. Each dimension is given a percentage value, so two people with the same personality type might be described very differently by the MBTI. Example: I have another INFJ friend who has an 87% preference for J over P. My preference for J over P is only 3%. As you might expect, I am much more comfortable with spontaneous decisions than my strong-J friend!
I’ll restrain myself from further geeking out (guys, I haven’t even gotten into dominant and auxiliary functions) and move on to the application now.
As a writer, I give all of my characters the Myers-Briggs Type Index.
And it’s not just because I am a personality test geek. As a writer, I have found the MBTI to be helpful in developing my characters. Here’s how:
I can make the decisions my characters would make. Stories revolve around conflict and the response that characters have to conflict, but, as a writer, I sometimes have trouble tuning out my own reaction to a conflict. I know how I would respond; shouldn’t my characters respond the same way? Well, not if their personality is different from mine. Having a handle on my characters personality lets me make decisions that are true to them, rather than true to myself. I can even play out the decision-making process, so readers of a different personality will sympathize with my character. You better believe that, when the going gets rough, that TJ character is going to be holed up somewhere making a pros and cons list. On the other hand, an EF character is going to be calling all her friends for advice and moral support!
I understand characters’ relationships with each other. As we all know, some personalities mesh well together. Others don’t. Knowing the personality types of all my characters helps me understand how they should click and how they might clash. If I’m writing an argument between a T and an F, I know that I’m going to be dealing with a clash of logic and gut-feelings. If I’m writing a conversation between two INs, I know that its going to grow extremely meta…and will probably produce as many questions as answers.
I know my characters’ strengths and weaknesses. If conflict is the mechanism by which a story moves, growth (or decline) of the characters is the final destination of that movement. The MBTI provides a handy guide to areas where my characters might grow or sink. If I’m writing about a strong I, my character will probably need to either find a new way to integrate herself socially or accept herself as a bit of a loner by the end of the story. If I’m writing about a strong J, my character might need to find a way to chillax, go with the flow, in order to reach “happily ever after.”
I can proofread my writing for character consistency. For the most part, I feel like my characters steer my stories through the first draft. They have large enough personalities that they can blaze their own path, with only a few snags that leave me wondering “what would he/she do here?” Still, I like to take a look at the MBTI types of all my characters before I start editing. It gives me a frame of reference that helps me catch little places where my own personality has bled through into my characters’ dialogue or behavior.
If you’d like to put your own characters to the ultimate test, you can try taking a simplified version of the MBTI here. Just put yourself in the mindset of your character and answer the questions for them. Afterwards, you might want to learn more about your character’s type. My favorite website with descriptions of the different types is here, although there are plenty of other resources available on the web.
PS- Take one of my own goofy quizzes here!