Using Personality Type Theory to Develop Fictional Characters

index boxIn her 1929 novel Murder Yet to Come, Isabel Briggs Myers used her knowledge of personality type in creating her fictional characters. The novel won the national Detective Murder Mystery Contest, beating out a work by Ellery Queen. Her success suggests that personality type theory can add depth to fiction and help authors develop more believable characters. But doesn’t the author also risk stereotyping characters? What’s the best way to use personality type in writing fiction?

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing.” In my experience, starting with a personality type in mind is the hardest way to create a character. It limits you. You end up making choices based on personality type rather than story. A novel is an organic thing. If you don’t let it evolve naturally, it will never breathe.

Do…

  • Know the character well before you start thinking about personality type. I recommend that you wait at least until you’ve finished the first draft. That way, you’ll have a better chance of discovering the character’s type rather than imposing one.
  • Identify the sources of conflict for the characters. Do patterns emerge? These patterns should suggest personality type more so than specific actions.
  • Once you’ve discovered the character’s type, use this knowledge to sharpen the contrasts with other characters. For example, show an extraverted character going out with friends after a rough day, while the introverted character goes home to recharge alone.
  • With personality type in mind, revise the language used by the character in dialogue and internal monologue. For example, feeling types are more likely to use the word “feel” and to experience the world through emotion; thinking types are more likely to use the word “think” and to experience the world through facts.
  • Remember that when the character is under stress, the inferior function comes out. A perceiving type may turn rigid, or an intuitive type may become overly focused on mundane details. This can be a useful way to show that the character is being worn down by a series of setbacks and isn’t making good decisions.
Don’t…
  • Assign every character in the novel a different personality type just for the sake of variety. Characters with the same personality type can be vastly different.
  • Show the character always acting according to type. Type is a preference, and people adapt to the situation as needed. You can demonstrate growth by showing the character consciously choosing to act against type.
  • Allow yourself to be limited by type. David Keirsey describes type as a predisposition. It’s just one of a vast array of factors that drive people toward certain actions and choices.
  • Try to fit the story to the personality type. If you find that the story isn’t working with the type you’ve chosen, put your thoughts of type aside and let the story unfold. Then, reassess the character’s type. Maybe you were wrong on one of the scales. Maybe your concept of type was too narrow. Open your mind and let the character show you the way.

When it comes to writing fiction, I find that personality type gives language to concepts I already understand on an unconscious level. It allows me to bring into sharp contrast the conflicts that naturally occur based on differing value systems. While knowledge of personality type informs my work, it doesn’t dictate it. Creative writers should draw on the sum of their life experiences. Our observations of the world tell us far more about the mysteries of human experience than any classification system can.

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2 thoughts on “Using Personality Type Theory to Develop Fictional Characters

  1. Pingback: Emotional Resonance: Enneagram Style Two | Writers Alliance of Gainesville

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