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Meyers-Briggs and Your Characters

You've probably, at some point, encountered the Myers-Briggs inventory (MBTI), whether you've taken a Buzzfeed quiz or the formal inventory.  Debate exists over the scientific validity of the test, with many experts calling it "meaningless," though the Myers-Briggs foundation maintains that it is a reliable method with valid results.  Much of the argument seems to stem not from the descriptors themselves, but from the way that some, including businesses, use the results.

As a writer, I'm less interested in what Forbes says is the proper and improper use of the MBTI than I am in thinking about how the inventory asks us to think about describing people.  The claim--four traits, each existing in a spectrum, combine to explain how a person interacts with the world around them and perceives their engagement with it.  Does a person prefer spending time in their inner world or the outer one?  Does she focus on individual pieces of information as they come in, or on pattern interpretation? Does he look at logic or the human element? Does she prefer to have a final, decided answer, or remain open to alternative possibilities?

Each of these questions can certainly be useful to a writer trying to create--or understand--a character, his or her motivations and defaults, and how he or she will react to and attempt to solve problems.

Of course, you've probably seen character breakdowns of your favorite geekdom interpreted by MBTI standards:


So, I test consistently as an INTJ, so you'll all be happy to know that I'm taking over the galaxy any day now.  I haz evil plans, guys.

Right--good time to remind you that MBTI doesn't determine good or evil (OR DOES IT?!?), career preferences (even though INTJs are sometimes called "The Scientist" there are plenty of INTJ writers, teachers, etc), hobbies, favorite TV show....it's about asking (and trying to answer) how a person interacts with the world.

Even if you're a pony, not a person:

For a (potentially frighteningly) in-depth discussion about MLP and MBTI, read here.

That's right, people!  PRINCESS CELESTIA! Proof: INTJ =/= pure evil.  Also, Proof: I have watched too much My Little Pony with my three-year old.

We all know people in our lives who react to the world differently than we do, right? The friend who isn't bothered by the mess on her desk when we'd go nuts, or the significant other who prefers to plan every detail of a vacation when we'd rather leave ourselves open to whatever adventures may come.  Yet sometimes when we craft characters, we can default to how WE would deal with the world when put into their shoes.

Often, we might also equate personality with the things that have influenced a character, even if we don't mean to.  A character might be leery of interacting with others because of abuse or isolation in her past--but that doesn't mean that she is naturally introverted.  A character might be a highly trained scientist--but that doesn't mean that collecting data and applying principles to it is her natural mode of operation.  Consider the potential conflict and tension between how a character prefers to interact with the world and why they behave in reality.

Asking where characters exist on the MBTI spectrums can be a helpful tool.  For one, just asking can spark more great character development questions, even if you don't buy the hard-and-fast MBTI types.  For another, determining a character's preference can help to maintain consistency in their thinking and actions.  You won't have a character bouncing back and forth between extreme shyness and chatting up the mailman without a good reason for the difference in reaction.  A character who typically applies basic principles and logic in decision making will be challenged when they don't work in a situation, adding an extra layer of tension and forcing some juicy character growth (or failure, which is also fun).

So:

E & I: Extraversion vs Introversion.  Probably the one we talk about the most right now, with some long overdue understanding that being introverted doesn't mean you're shy, a jerk, incapable of human interaction, or a dweeb. (I'm not saying I'm not a socially inept dweeb, FWIW.)  But ask yourself--does a character prefer to spend time in his own head, or does he want lots of human interaction?  Does he get tired out by people, or energized by him? And don't mistake forced isolation for introversion--an extraverted social outcast is going to have a different experience than an introverted one.

N & S: Intuition vs Sensing.  Basically, whether a person relies on their sensory perception or whether they rely on the patterns they perceive.  Does a character pay attention to the physical world around her, or to the patterns and meaning in the information she receives?  Are her perceptions of the world rooted in the physical reality ("I see, I touch, I smell") or does she connect them to the things she already knows ("When I see, I think X, when I touch, I remember Y").  Think about the great potential for conflict here--a data-driven individual at odds with someone who believes he understands a pattern in the information that the other just doesn't see.  How do those two work together?  I love how the concept of data vs patterns forces people to question their perception of "what's the right thing to do."

F & T : Thinking vs Feeling.  Thinking doesn't mean "smarter" and feeling doesn't mean "emotionally intelligent."  Instead, think about whether characters apply basic principles across the board (thinking) or engage in a more personal, tailored concerns.  It's important to consider that thinking doesn't mean "right."  Consider Star Trek--how many times did logical Spock apply his basic principles of evaluation to a situation, have it disregarded by Kirk--and Kirk's course of action is right?  (Yes, without the use of a handy chart, I am deciding that Kirk is a Feeler and Spock is a Thinker.)

J & P : Judging vs Perceiving. We might think of this as openness--do you interact with the outer world to get a decision made, or to remain open to possibilities?  While this pair is often used to describe work styles (does your character make lists and work toward a goal, or work in seemingly random bursts?), it can also be helpful for understanding worldview.  A principled person can still be a P, of course, but does your character look at their understanding of the world as all figured out, or as constantly evolving?  Two people can share a belief system and still understand their view of it differently.

You  might not hold your characters to hard-and-fast types--and remember that the idea isn't that most people are 100% one extreme or the other.  But asking about *how* your characters perceive, think, and engage with the world, instead of just *what* they do (or *why*, from a motivation or background perspective), is a good exercise!

What do you think, potentially useful tool or hokum? If you've taken the MBTI or a related quiz, what's your type? Do you agree with the assessment? 

Comments

  1. I've taken the test and consistently test as an INFJ. I'm sure there are issues with the test--there is so much variety among people. However, the one thing I've appreciated is learning, not so much about myself, but about other people--how they understand and function in ways so differently than I do.

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