My fellow staff members at Embers Igniting and I have, in the past, used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in a writing exercise regarding character. As I’m the one with the psychology degree, I thought I’d share this exercise with you wonderful people. However, before we can use the MBTI as an exercise, we all have to know what it is. If you took an intro to psych class in college, or perhaps even a psychology class in high school, you’ve probably heard of Jung. If you’ve heard of Jung, then you’ve probably heard of the MBTI personality test based on his work. But in case you have no idea what I’m talking about, I shall elaborate.
I won’t go into extreme detail regarding Jung or the test itself. Instead, I’ll tell you the short version. This personality test analyzes four dichotomies of behavior to show us how we interact with the world. The dichotomies are extraversion (E) or introversion (I), sensing (S) or intuition (N), thinking (T) or feeling (F), and judging (J) or perceiving (P). People tend to gravitate to one extreme or the other in each of these four pairs, sometimes showing a strong preference, sometimes showing only a little preference. For example, you might have a strong preference for extraversion over introversion, or you might have a moderate preference for thinking over feeling. You get the idea. The test takes your four personality preferences to get your personality type. Ta-dah! For more detail about the test, the history, a brief description of the sixteen types, etc. go here.
The authentic, full MBTI will run you about $50. However, several free versions of the test have been created so that everyone can get an idea of their type. I’ve taken the authentic test, as well as several other versions that have come along over the years, and have found that they’re not all created equal. If you’re into the free version over forking out the cash—and who could blame you—here are two tests (one and two) that I’ve found to be pretty decent. Test one has you answer yes or no to seventy-two statements, while test two takes you through a series of statements that you respond to along a sliding scale from “agree” to “disagree.” If you’ve got the time, go ahead and take both. And some friendly advice—don’t overthink your responses. Go with your gut before your brain can get in the way and try to analyze every word in the question. Be snappy in responding and you’ll most likely get a more accurate answer. Also, this isn’t the kind of thing that you can take five times and get five different answers if you’re being honest. If you want an accurate answer, be honest.
So, what does all of this psychology have to do with character? After you’re familiar with the test and have your own result to satisfy your curiosity, try taking it again as your protagonist. Get in his head and answer every question as he would. You can take this test for any one of your characters, and you should, but start with your hero. He would have an answer to all of these personality questions, wouldn’t he? Answering them as him will help you get to know him better. As a side note, I recommend doing this exercise only with a character you already know at least decently; this exercise isn’t meant to help you design a character, but to help you go deeper with one you’re on a long journey with.
After you take the test, read the description of the type. What do you think? For me, the greatest reward of this exercise is when I see the result. One of two things happens: 1) I’m affirmed that yes, that is totally my character’s type. I know him well and I have a clear vision of who he is, or 2) I’m surprised that result came up. He’s a feeler? No he’s not. Wait, is he? I reexamine his actions, his motivation, his innermost being and realize he is a feeler after all, or that perhaps I’m not sure what he is. Maybe I should sketch him out a bit more, maybe take that test again. I get something out of this exercise whether the result was expected or not. It helps me to write clearer, stronger characters because I get to see what I already know drives them in quantifiable data points. Additionally, you could take this test at one point in your character’s arc, and then again later—did he change? Is he no longer a feeler? Has he changed to perceiving over judging?
Some might say that this exercise could remove the mystery of character, that nail-biting thrill ride of not knowing what exactly your character will do at any given moment. I wholeheartedly disagree. Even knowing his type, I still don’t always know what he’ll do, because he’s a human being. He’s unpredictable, and he will surprise me. But a baseline is a handy reading, isn’t it?
Share your character’s result in the comments, or even share your own. I’ll get the ball rolling by sharing my type here, and the types of my fellow staff members (with their permission, of course).
By Madeleine Mozley