I have a secret to share with you.
When I create characters for my novels, I often call on the expertise of two renowned psychologists. Their names are Carl Jung and Isabel Briggs Myers. Many of us know their work in the form of the theory of psychological typology, or the personality inventory called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I’ve found that once I start developing a character, I can turn to the Myers-Briggs personality types to fill out the outline of a character with true-to-life traits and behaviors using the four categories of personality type. In short, it’s like a cheat sheet for character creation.
Let’s look at an example using the first piece of the four-part MBTI.
I’ve got a rather demanding physicist I want to cast as my reluctant hero. As an academic, he fits the Introvert (I) type, rather than the Extrovert (E): he prefers private time, doesn’t do well in crowds, and is sometimes so wrapped up in his thoughts that he’s oblivious to what’s happening around him. I’d say that’s a good description of a physicist who loves to work long hours in a research lab. However, since I want him to come across as blunt and insensitive, I’m going to throw in a little Extrovert: he tends to act first, and reflect later, in social situations he finds challenging.
Here’s the scene I’m working on: After finishing a 20-hour stint in the lab, the physicist is awakened from a deep sleep by an insistent knocking at his front door.
Here’s the question I have to answer as the author: Is he going to greet the visitor with a smile, because he can’t wait to share the big discovery he made during that lab marathon? Or is he going to roll over and refuse to come to the door?
I decide he’s going to roll over and pull the pillow over his head in true Introvert style.
But the knocking continues. He has to do something to make it stop because it’s infringing on his solitude, which he craves.
Grudgingly, he drags himself out of bed; he’s not going to be a happy camper when he opens that door. Nor does he want to talk with anyone (this is an awkward social situation, remember!), but because of that bit of Extrovert quality (act first, think later), he ends up jerking open the door. When he see’s it’s his least favorite colleague from work, he blurts out a rude, “What are you doing here?”.
By using the MBTI as my guide, I’ve accomplished several things, such as giving him consistent character traits, motivation for his actions, and even the beginning of a conflict with another character.
By the time I identify the other three parts of his personality type – Sensing (S) or Intuitive (N), Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), Judging (J) or Perceiving (P) – I’ll have the keys to his actions in any situation my plot throws at him.
How do you make your characters come to life?
9 Replies to “Thank You, Doctors”
I never thought of this approach. . .thanks, Jan!
I figured I might as well put those personality inventories I kept taking to use somehow, Jarm. Glad you found it intriguing.
Love this! Great way to think about how a character works. I’ve found that thinking about these types of things and writing a few practice scenes really helps me nail my character’s reactions.
Jessica, the idea of backstory/practice scenes has made a big difference in my own writing. I often cut the scene, but the character and story is better for my having written it!
What a brilliant idea! Thanks for the helpful post, and I’ll definitely be using those personality traits when defining my characters.
You’re welcome! The only down side is that you start trying to ‘type’ everyone you know…my kids hate it when I say “you’re just saying that because you’re an INFJ”.
Yes, I do that also. Makes my characters more real to me.
Thanks for chiming in, Sharon! I know I’m on the right track when other good writers confirm.
Jan, I as read your post, I realized that this is also a great way to examine nonfiction characters (like in memoirs and devotional-type studies), adding these kinds of details to character descriptions and dialogue. Thanks for the great writing prompt ideas!
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