All,  Characters,  Tools and Tips,  Writing

mbti for richer characters

Annnnnnd we’re back with characters. What can I say? Creating deep and interesting characters is one of my favorite parts of starting a new writing project and is one of the most important parts of forming a flavorful plot.

Usually, an idea for a character is what sends me flying to my computer for a five-hour writing binge at two in the morning (okay, I exaggerate, but that’s how it feels). I have this lively person in my head with a bright and loud voice and I just need to get down some of the things he’s telling me. From there, some semblance of a story follows, especially when I pit him against another bright and loud individual with an equally lively, though opposing, personality.

Other times, however, (especially when I first started writing and didn’t understand what listening to my characters meant), I need a little nudge creating characters that are more than versions of the same old people I’ve written in the past, or even the versions of myself I rely on. When I feel as though all of my characters are starting to share a voice, expressions, body language, and choices, I turn to MBTI for a little help.

For a quick overview, MBTI (that’s Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) is a self-assessment test that helps identify a person’s personality type based on Carl Jung’s psychological types. Depending on how a person answers “this-or-that” phrased questions, MBTI pinpoints the tester’s strongest traits and, given the combination of traits, provides a short description of how that person’s behaviors and habits, motivations and pet peeves, strengths and weaknesses and reactions, based on his or her personality. Personalities are generally given as a string of four letters (e.g. ISTP, ENFJ), with each letter referring to one of the eight traits recognized by MBTI, for a total of sixteen total personalities. For more information and a more in-depth description of the personalities and traits, visit 16 Personalities, and if you have a spare moment, take their free test to discover your personality!

Because Myers-Briggs personality typing is trait-based, rather than rooted in behavior or belief systems, it’s a great option for writers looking to add depth to their characters or form a basic outline of their personality. It should be noted, however, that using any kind of personality assessment cannot replace a true character study or a dive into their history. You should always put forth the work to get to know your characters, and that involves spending a lot of time with them … which involves writing. Nonetheless, here are some of the ways I use MBTI to boost my knowledge of my characters and understand the nuances of who they are.

Take the Test For Them

If I have some time and want to test my knowledge of a character or tease out some possibilities in terms of personality, I’ll take the test pretending I am that character. This can be a little tough, as your personality, as well as your vision for the character, can dominate the questionnaire and taint the results, but it certainly is a fun exercise in operating inside a character’s head. Taking the test gives you a taste for how a character may react to different circumstances — under pressure or in a room full of people or walking through nature alone — and these specific circumstances can help you understand how that character will react throughout the whole of your story.

This exercise is best if you have a firm grasp on your character’s personality and are simply looking to solidify it in your mind, or when you have a foggy caricature version of the character and need to flesh out the rest. On the other hand, taking the test as a character when you haven’t formed any impression of him or her may lead you to mistake who that character is and derail the story from its true path.

Explore Types Based on Descriptors or Traits

This is how I typically utilize MBTI in writing, as I tend to recognize at least one characteristic of characters’ personalities and only need a little help fleshing out the rest. For example, I struggled for some time understanding my protagonist in my novel, Imperfect One, and as a result, the first few drafts of the story fell on their faces. The story offered no reason to care about the protagonist or his journey, and the plot’s major conflict didn’t make sense based on his motivations. I couldn’t even take the MBTI for him because I didn’t know enough about him to get into his head. All I knew about him from the start was that he is very curious and loves to read, despite how much it could cost him.

Tracing from that one characteristic to the personality types (you can read descriptions for the types here), I discovered my protagonist is an ENTJ, the Commander personality type, an Extrovert and Intuitive, when for some time I had been writing him as an Introvert and Sensor. This is why I tend to use descriptors rather than traits to uncover my characters’ personalities, but if you know for certain that your protagonist is an Introvert or your antagonist is definitely a Thinker rather than a Feeler, you can try to pin your character’s personality according to a single trait. But remember, since the personalities are formed as combinations of traits,  personalities can share traits — for example, there are eight Extroverted types, eight Intuitive types, etc. — so it is important to read about the different personalities in depth before plunging forward with a type based on one trait.

As I wrote before and as most writers know, a tight grasp on your characters’ personalities is essential for a gripping story, and typing is just one way to enhance your knowledge in that area. Using MBTI to find my protagonist’s personality type has added a stronger sense of conflict and intention to the story, as his decisions, now clear to me, are directly opposed to the antagonist’s hopes, dreams, and intentions, and has made sense of his motivations in context of what the ENTJ desires most: personal achievement. That being said, if MBTI doesn’t do it for you, there are plenty of ways to crack even your toughest cookies and create living, breathing beings on the page. All it takes is a whole lotta writing and plenty of time.

/// E.S.T.

NOW TELL ME // Do you use MBTI in your writing or life? What other personality assessments or exercises have been helpful to you in your writing journey? Tell me below!


  • Christine S

    I really love this post!! Can’t wait to read your novel and see if I can dicipher which personality type each of your characters are. What a helpful idea!!

  • E L Sherman

    Another really interesting article Emily. Had not heard of the personality test and find it fascinating
    that a writer would use an actual test to develop a character. Would never have thought of that.