Writing Complex Characters Using Myers-Briggs

A few years ago, when I started writing romance, I picked up a paranormal series to study. In addition to engaging world-building, the heroine in the first book—witty and feisty—delighted me. She exhibited qualities that made me care about her and the story. I quickly consumed the second title, then started the third.

Unfortunately, while reading the third book, I realized that this third heroine spoke and thought in exactly the same way as the heroines in the previous books. They had different names and distinct physical attributes—one had brown hair, one red, one blonde—and different backgrounds—one came from poverty, one from wealth, one wasn’t even human—yet they reacted and sounded identical to each other in their respective books, even to the degree that they shared the same dialogue. I didn’t read the fourth book in the series, because…what was the point? I’d essentially seen the same character, in various physical disguises, fall in love several times over. An otherwise decent series of books was marred by a lack of varied and deep character development.

Fiction writing guides offer basic questionnaires useful at helping a writer flesh out aspects of both the physical and psychological attributes of a given character. Sometimes though, just answering the prompts can result in superficial character outlines that camouflage an underlying lack of difference between one character and another, until we see those characters speak and act inside a story. These questionnaires survey a character’s appearance and personal history, but are limited in exploring his inherent personality. People’s personalities derive from both genetics and environment. Lots of good-looking brunettes grow up poor with limited education, but they definitely don’t share the same personalities. So how do writers create characters with unique personalities? One way is to study what psychologists know.

I use personality theory to build different characters and their relationships within a single work of fiction. It addresses both a character’s personality as it’s shaped by the outside world and by biology. Personality theory, specifically the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (based originally on the work of Carl Jung), and its descriptors provide writers an ample supply of individual traits to draw upon in developing unique characters. Think of a painter mixing the primary colors of red, yellow and blue into creating first the complementary colors of orange, green and purple, and then using those to create the tertiary colors, mixing again and again, until one has thousands of colors.

In the case of personality theory, Myers-Briggs begins with four opposing sets of traits:

  • extrovert vs. introvert,
  • intuitive vs. sensor,
  • feeler vs. thinker, and
  • perceiver vs. judger.

These traits blend to make sixteen basic types. Each trait within each type is then positioned on a scale from extreme to mild, allowing one to combine individual traits into a thousand variations, just as an artist creates thousands of colors from red, yellow and blue. A person (or character) can be slightly extroverted, moderately extroverted or extremely extroverted.

At the core, Myers-Briggs categorizes individuals as either more extroverted or more introverted, more intuitive or more sensitive, more emotional or more intellectual, and more focused on gathering data or on analyzing it. For example, someone who is an extrovert, thinker, sensor and judger is categorized ESTJ; she’s nicknamed the “guardian” and valued for her inherent sense of responsibility to do what’s right, per time-honored practices and institutions. She can also have trouble understanding why anyone would work outside the system or want to change it. A character categorized as ESTJ makes a great detective, but also a law enforcement partner who has difficulty adjusting to the individual needs of others. How do we know an ESTJ has these attributes? Fortunately, psychologists have already identified and described them in great detail, both in respect to positive and negative manifestations. Just as colors can be cool or warm, personality traits can be positive or negative. Completely good or completely evil characters are boring. Myers Briggs explains both the admirable and the shadow sides of each trait, allowing writers to create complex—flawed but still likeable—characters.

Frankly, character is key to interesting storytelling. Characters with different personality types react to situations in completely different ways, resulting in different plot outcomes. Also, while secondary characters are generally static, protagonists, with limited exceptions, need to be dynamic. Fortunately, personality types aren’t set in stone. As people mature, they tend to become less extreme in their personalities (or they don’t, which can be an interesting development for a character/plot as well). For example, an extremely extroverted character can struggle with loneliness. As the story progresses, he can learn the value of being alone with his thoughts, of developing solitary activities—leading to a satisfying character arc. Growth for a character—key to building dynamic protagonists—involves movement away from the extreme towards moderation. The beauty of the Myers-Briggs personality indicator is that it allows a writer to study and apply highly nuanced differences (and shifts) of personality to their characters in ways that drive character choices, character relationships, and ultimately, the outcome of the story.

How to use this personality trait system to develop characters with distinctly different personalities? Start by taking a free personality test online. If you are ruthlessly honest with yourself, you’ll be able to determine your type without help. If you need assistance (the questions can be challenging), seek out professional guidance. Study your own type. What are the attributes in terms of work, love, relationships? Then expand out and study other types. Create a character using a specific type, then place her in a scene to see how her type dictates what she says and does. Create a contrasting character type and place him in the scene and see how the two react to each other.

Jungian psychologists claim that people gravitate to friendships with people who share similar personality traits, while they fall in love with people who are their opposites. People who share outlooks on life make great friends. Conversely, opposites attract (or drive each other crazy) because they tend to admire the way their counterparts are accomplished in exactly the ways they are not—hence the whole coming together to form a harmonious whole. As opposites, characters can also gently push each other to grow and develop. When I select protagonists for a romance, I create characters who are opposites on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument, throw them together, and then let them fall in love. The contrasting traits create lots of conflicting sparks and fireworks, ideal in romance stories, while forcing the characters to develop themselves to make the relationship work.
Further reading:

  • Type Talk: The 16 Personality Types That Determine How We Live, Love, and Work by Otto Kroeger and Janet M. Thuesen
  • Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates
  • Type Talk at Work: How the 16 Personality Types Determine Your Success on the Job by Otto Kroeger, Janet M. Thuesen and Hile Rutledge
  • 16 Ways to Love Your Lover by Otto Kroeger

This post of mine first appeared as a guest article on author Robyn Bachar’s Blog.