Are you a writer? Do you struggle with making your characters realistic, personable, or relatable? Do you want to know how you can make your characters connect with your audience?
Have I got the suggestion for you!
(I think you know where I’m going with this.)
Personality typologies to the rescue!
(Thanks to Richard Wearn for the above stock photo.)
I’m a writer, and I did not start off with an awareness of personality typology when I was writing my characters. But when I discovered MBTI and the like, you can bet I was scanning through my old manuscripts and thumbnails (comic scripts) to type my characters.
Typology is a great way to get to know your characters better, and it’s a great way to get yourself familiar with MBTI and other personality systems. Think about it: you are psychologically analyzing your characters anyway, so why not take the time to really delve into their cognitive processes and motivations?
I’ll give you an example. The main character from one of my stories is Enneagram Type 9. Before I ever knew about the Enneagram, I had struggled to understand his inertia and passivity. It was like I couldn’t get him to budge much, whether from the plot or the other characters, and this lack of engagement on his part regarding whatever was going on around him felt frustrating in a way. I wasn’t sure if it reflected my own detachment in writing him or if that was indeed the personality he had developed (I let it happen on its own). When I discovered the Enneagram, I realized that a large part of his story is overcoming the passiveness of his Enneagram 9 fixations in order to truly connect in the world. Thus, I learned something about my character and the story by applying my knowledge of typology.
It also helped me to understand myself as a writer better. I’m an INTJ, and for some reason a lot of my characters tend to be ISTPs. When I thought about it, I could see some patterns developing between the stories I wanted to tell and the personalities I felt would best carry the story. Maybe I connect to that personality type despite our differences. They are just different enough and just similar enough to be interesting. Another pattern I noticed: most of my characters are gut triad Enneagram types (8, 9, or 1) whereas I am a head type (5). In order for me to fully develop, I need to access my gut presence and connect to my 8 point. Perhaps my stories are assisting with this?
I think I’ve given you enough of a reason to see the value of typology for writers, here. That said, here are a few tips for writers who want to use typology to develop their characters:
Don’t make your character a type.
What I mean is, let your character development happen naturally and discover their type after the fact. Don’t decide you really need an ESFJ or INTP in your story and desperately try to cram your character into that mold. That isn’t good writing. People aren’t types in themselves. Personality types help us to understand aspects of our cognitive processes, behavior, and motivations as well as how these things fit together. If you write a good character, you’ll find they have plenty of nuances that make them far more than a mere type. The type you assign to them enhances your understanding of their personality, it doesn’t define their personality. That leads itself nicely into my second point:
Let your character tell you their type, not the other way around.
Discover your character’s personality type. Don’t force them into that role if they don’t fit it naturally because you want them to be a certain type. Honestly, in the story example above, I felt a bit frustrated by the personality of my main character and wasn’t sure whether this reflected something about me as an author until I realized that the battle he faces between himself and his unwillingness to truly engage with the environment is exactly the key conflict for him to overcome. Sometimes, you have to trust them and listen to what they need to learn.
Use typology to deepen your understanding of the characters, not to stereotype them.
Typology is a fun and useful tool, but sometimes we can get a little caught up in the whole thing. INTJs are super-villains, INFJs are psychic mystics, INTPs are brilliant geniuses, INFPs are artsy snowflakes, and so on. That’s not what it’s really like and you know it. Think about your own life right now. Think about the type you feel is most represented by the people around you. (For me, that’s INFP and ISTP.) Do all of those people act exactly the same way? No. They’re different, and so are your characters. Use the type as a basis for understanding their perspective better, not as a neat and tidy archetype to shunt them into.
Don’t feel like you have to represent every type in one story.
We’ve all seen these, and you know how I feel about them. Remember when I said that you’re not going to find EVERY type in every single story? Don’t feel like you have to break your characters into little camps and that there has to be one person for every type. That isn’t how real life works. You won’t see that in an office, in a classroom, on a spaceship. Keep in mind that certain environments are going to befavorable to certain types and not others. Perhaps your story is about an ISFJ in an ESTP’s world, and how they overcome the challenge of being the odd one in that setting. Great! But don’t feel like all the types need to be there.
This is an extension of good character writing: people are people, not types. If your environment wouldn’t naturally see any INFPs or INFJs, don’t feel like they have to be there just ’cause. And if you have three ESTJs in your story, that’s fine too. Good writing will make them uniquely different from each other.
The best characters aren’t easy to identify as a type.
Why? Because you’ve done your job as a writer and made them intricate and complex enough that to type them would take some serious thought. Perhaps you don’t even know, and that’s okay! If your character is complex enough that an easy archetype doesn’t immediately come to mind, that’s excellent. That’s like real life! Of course, you can then study typology to further analyze your character for great new insights about them and your story, and then you’re really cooking. And you’re not using typology as a blunt instrument to get away from developing your character properly!
So, as you can see, typology is an awesome writer’s tool and I encourage you to consider how you might understand your characters (and yourself) better by studying personality. All writers are dealing with personality in some way, aren’t they? It’s a lot like what we’re doing when we’re trying to type ourselves and others in real life. Just be careful that you’re not using typology to excuse lazy writing, because then you aren’t doing your story any good.
Do you use MBTI and other typologies to deepen your development of your characters? Let us know in the comments!