Sometimes a character’s personality just doesn’t want to come to you. You might have the rest of your characters set in stone, the world crafted, and the plot completely mapped out, but your protagonist is evading you.
You don’t know how she’d react under certain circumstances—or worse, you can’t keep her reactions and motivations consistent.
This happens to everyone. Sometimes you just get stuck.
Luckily, there’s a really quick, easy way to get inspiration for a character that can not only help you determine “who” she is, but give you a guideline to keep her character consistent.
It’s called the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI®).
That sounds really fancy, but it’s actually just an inventory of 16 personality “types” published in the 1970s. It’s a tool that psychologists and social scientists use to analyze people and personalities, and can be used for individuals to better understand themselves, as well.
These personality types, according to the theory, can categorize every single person on Earth. While there’s a lot of disagreement as to whether the tests are realistic and whether the theory is accurate or not, the personality types, and even the test itself, are a writer’s best friend.
Why the MBTI® Is a Great Writing Tool
Let’s say your character is a newbie cop with a dark past who’s trying to prove himself by hunting down a murderer. You’ve got all the basics, but you aren’t sure if he’s impulsive and emotional, cold and calculating, or naïve and idealistic. Maybe you’re so torn that you find his behaviors aren’t consistent across the scope of your narrative, and that he doesn’t seem to have a solid personality.
That’s where the Myers-Briggs personality types come in.
There’s information on the different types all over the place, but this site provides some quick summaries on a single page to get you started.
Using the Tool as a Guideline
Even if you had absolutely no idea how to develop your protagonist, having an inventory on hand containing in-depth profiles of various personalities can be incredibly helpful when trying to develop a character.
By exploring the 16 personalities in the inventory, you’re probably going to come across one that just sounds right for your character.
For example, the newbie cop trying to prove himself might fit well into the ENTJ personality type, who are strong-willed, imaginative, and aren’t afraid to forge their own path when there isn’t one available already.
However, maybe your cop isn’t strong-willed. Maybe, instead, it makes more sense within the plot of your novel for this cop to struggle with his lack of assertiveness throughout the entire novel. Your cop might then fit better into the ENFJ personality type, who are strong leaders, though often very sensitive to criticism.
The benefit of the MBTI® is that there is a plethora of information available about how each personality type behaves in various social environments and circumstances. It can potentially give you inspiration for every scene in your book.
That means the MBTI® can be helpful even if you have a solid idea of who your character is, but you’re struggling with their reaction to a particular circumstance.
Creating Characters, Not Cutouts
Just like people, good characters should be fully-fleshed out and full of life and dimension. But, unlike people, characters need to be simple and consistent enough to fit on the pages of your novel or script. Readers don’t like it when they don’t feel they can get to know a character because he’s too wishy-washy about his motivations and decisions.
On the other hand, readers also don’t like it when characters seem like cardboard cutouts.
That’s why you should never adhere 100% to everything in the descriptions of a specific personality type.
There’s no law saying these personality types are set in stone, and if you want to have an ENFJ who is good at bringing people together under a common cause, but isn’t exactly a good leader, then you don’t need to make your character a leader-type in order to draw inspiration from the ENFJ personality summary.
Not only will this allow you to use the same personality type for different characters without making them feel too similar, but it means you’re not letting the personality type do all the work of creating your characters.
There are a multitude of ways the MBTI® can be used to develop characters.
From there you can read up on your character’s personality type, and take down a checklist of traits and behaviors that your character should adhere to.
If you’re just looking for some quick inspiration, you can also just use the chart to create a checklist of character traits.
For example, let’s say you’ve decided your character has the following traits:
- Likes being the center of attention
- Focuses on the here and now
- Bases decisions on personal values and how he might affect others
- Likes new situations and surprises
This character would fall under the ESFP personality type, but you don’t have to read up on that type in order to follow that checklist.
Every scene you write with that character, you can make sure that your character never acts outside that checklist (not without internal conflict, of course!), or you might find your character is coming across as very bland in a certain scene, so you refer to your checklist to see where you might be able to demonstrate your character’s rich personality.
You certainly don’t need to fit each checkpoint of your character’s personality into each scene, but making sure they’re sticking to the list will help your character’s consistency.
Better yet, use your checklist to find places where your character can grow throughout the story.
If he is strong-willed and stubborn, maybe he’ll learn that he should listen to others around him and be open to new ideas.
As previously stated, characters should face internal struggles when acting outside their personalities, just like real people do, and that helps make your characters relatable and interesting to readers.
Don’t Limit Yourself to the MBTI®
The MBTI® isn’t the only inventory of personalities you can use to create characters.
Try exploring zodiac signs to find inspiration for your characters. Most people are at least a little familiar with Western astrology, and there’s plenty of information to be found about the different signs. Better yet, because of its complexity, there are even ways in which the personality of someone under a sign might vary depending on where the moon was when they were born, and what position the stars were in. This is a potential goldmine of inspiration for writers looking for help developing characters.
The Chinese or Indian zodiacs are also good options to explore.
Get Out and Start Writing
Whether you’re using the MBTI® or a zodiac sign as inspiration, or you figure it all out in your own head, sometimes having a checklist of characteristics to follow while you write can help you keep your characters feeling real and multi-dimensional.
While the MBTI® is an awesome writers’ tool, characters should still always feel like real people.
Try to think of people in the real world who might fit into a particular personality, or look up examples of celebrities of that personality type to examine the variations you can find within each grouping.
Creating characters is a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be a pain.