For Writers: Pros and Cons of Using Myers-Briggs

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know that I’m a fan of Myers-Briggs typology, and enjoy applying the theory to my characters and writing.  But lately I’ve also noticed some downsides to writing with MBTI in mind, so I wanted to share my thoughts on what makes it a useful – or not so useful – tool for writers.

Why do writers need to familiarize themselves with Myers-Briggs typology?

Answer: you don’t.

Writers have been creating and sharing amazing characters for all history, long before this theory appeared on the scene.  To write great characters, all you need is a realistic understanding of human nature and the ability to portray fictional human beings in a way that makes them come alive.

You don’t need Myers-Briggs to do that.  MBTI can be very helpful – or, it can be a hindrance, depending on your understanding of the theory and how you use it.

Silhouettes of Business People VectorFirst, what is Myers-Briggs?

As a quick explanation, Myers-Briggs theory is the theory that people can be sorted into 16 basic types based on how they see the world and make decisions because of their psychological preferences.  The “type” of each person becomes a starting point from which to understand them better.

But you can learn about MBTI basics elsewhere!  (Check out this article I wrote which explains the theory simply.)  This post is about the pros and cons of knowing and using the theory in our writing.

First, some positives of using MBTI to type your characters…

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Myers-Briggs helps you understand how different characters see the world and make decisions.

One of the most useful things MBTI does is make you aware of how people think, and how the logic we use and the way we interact with the world can be radically different from even the people closest to us.  We focus, prioritize, and react differently to things depending on our temperaments – or in MBTI lingo, our “preferences.”  As an author I’ve found it very helpful to understand my characters’ cognitive processes, because I am prone to assuming all my characters will see the world and react to it similarly to the way I do!  And that just isn’t so.

It helps you develop a cast of unique characters.

If most my characters think and react like I would to everything, I’m going to have a very boring, monotone cast!  Understanding MBTI and applying it to my characters helps me make each of them come alive in a unique way.  While I may have some commonalities with both an ISTP character and an ENFJ character, those two personalities are radically different from each other and it may be better to accentuate their differences rather than their similarities.  (Conflict – it’s what makes a story good!)

It helps you discover and express your character’s strengths and weaknesses.

Maybe you’ve never considered how your thoughtful and insightful character might also be forgetful and absent-minded.  Or that your decisive and fast-acting leader character may have difficulty understanding people’s feelings or may come across as abrasive.  For most human beings, our greatest strength has a correlating weakness, and vice versa.  MBTI can be a great way of exploring these things, if you’re researching in the right places.

Now, the downside…

Misinformation abounds!

Not everything you read on the internet is true, and this is also the case for MBTI.  Newbies beware!

We’ve all seen those big tables of fictional characters that say, “Which character are you?” based on MB type.  Most of them are really inaccurate.  (Hermione, an INTP?  Not likely!)  Furthermore, the internet is full of blog posts claiming certain characters are certain types, and typing them completely wrong – or even “slightly” wrong, which is really just as bad.  (An INFJ is quite different from an INFP, and an ESTJ is very different from an ESFJ…one letter can change a lot.)

Actually, a lot of fictional characters are inconsistent and don’t even fit to a particular type, or there is huge controversy about what type they are.  And most shows and books don’t have one character for every type, which leads to the desperate stretching of those character tables to find a person for each box.

Overgeneralization is a danger.

MBTI is a starting point, not the end-all-be-all to understanding someone.  When you find out your character’s type, that gives you nothing except a basic blueprint of their psychology.  It doesn’t tell you their quirks.  It doesn’t tell you what makes them unique as a person.  Basing everything off their MB type is a great way to end up with a stereotype instead of a full-fledged, human character.

My WIP’s main character is a male ENTJ – and I’m not sure if I know any male ENTJs in person.  So when a friend recommended a TV show that had an ENTJ male character in it, I started comparing and contrasting him with my protagonist…and I think I actually have to stop watching that show for awhile because my perception of that character is invading my perception of my own character!  Characters should be unique people.  No real people fit neatly in solid “boxes,” so if your character fits in a neat box, what you have is a weak character, not a strong representation of their Myers-Briggs type.

God didn’t make you with a cookie cutter, so you should be wary of making your characters that way.

Stress over “doing it right.”

I’ve had writer’s block for several weeks running now, and I realized last night that part of it is due to pegging my main character’s type.  Now, instead of writing his actions and reactions however they come to me, I stop writing every few minutes and run to the internet to ask Google about “ENTJs after stress,” or whatever it might be.  I’ve been so worried about portraying him accurately that I was pigeonholing him and destroying my own creative process as I went!  Relying on MBTI can kill the muse fast.

In summary…

Myers-Briggs experts will be quick to point out that most of the negatives I list are examples of amateurs applying the theory badly.  This is true!  However, most writers are not experts in MBTI.  So if we’re going to use the theory, we’d better be aware of some of the pitfalls we could fall into if we’re not careful.

Be warned.  If you only have a tertiary understanding of the theory, it may actually do more harm than good with your writing.  It can easily short-circuit your creativity and cramp your characters into stiff, predictable stereotypes.

Whether you use it or not, MBTI should not have the ultimate say over your story and characters.  It’s a useful tool, when used properly.  But it’s a theory, not a law, and there are exceptions to every “rule,” just like in real life.

MBTI can’t tell you what the core of your character is, either.  I am a middle-class, firstborn, white, American female – and those things color and affect all I do and how I see the world, just like my being an INFJ does.  But you could know all that and much more about me, and still never know who I really am as a person.  A MB type doesn’t “define” a person or character; it’s only an aspect of their being that gives them some things in common with other similar individuals.

MBTI can do many useful things for you as you tell your stories.  But ultimately you still have to do the most important thing all on your own, the thing that will make your reader fall in love with your character and give them life beyond the page – you have to give your character a soul.

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Did you ever have a new theory or system that ended up messing with your creative process?  How did you fix it?  Did you ditch the system, or modify how you used it?

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15 Comments

  1. Haaa. I’m guilty of this too. And then I got really frustrated because there are so many different websites with different information. Plus, I really started to see a bias against certain types, depending on who is writing the information. That really discouraged me as I was trying to write to “fit a type” — only I was SURE my character was very intelligent, and all these websites painted that type as clueless! So now I get to know the character first, get inside their head, get comfortable writing them, and then if I need to for specific instances or interactions, I’ll type them as much as it helps me. What I’ve found is just as helpful as typing profiles is lurking on personality message boards, because you’ll get a broad array of people of the same type who all still act and react differently. Yes, some of them might be exaggerating or making things up, but so am I, so that doesn’t bother me (you also have to watch for trash-talking, regrettably). However, sometimes this helps broaden the mind (of course, the INFJ boards are the first to say “don’t take typing too seriously, everyone is made wonderfully individual” which is humorously ‘true to type’). Excellent post!

    Reply
    • Thank you! I’m glad you liked the post!

      I love browsing internet forums for my MBTI research. They are usually much more helpful than blogs and articles…but they suck me in for longer, too. 😉

      Reply
    • And I hate the bias against types, too…for example, ENTJ’s are regularly trash-talked when I research them. In trying to make my Kevin more ENTJ-ish, I’ve ended up cutting away a lot of what I loved about him…his compassion, and conflicted deep thoughts, and those kinds of things. It destroys him as a character, rather than making him stronger! And who says ENTJ’s can’t be compassionate, etc.? Those I know in real life aren’t angry bossy jerks! But that’s how the forums start to make them sound. 😛

      Reply
  2. Ahhhh… Good post! I was worried the show’s character would cramp your style. So sorry about that! Glad you’re getting back on your feet again with this. 🙂

    Reply
    • I still love the show! 😀 But I need to dissociate a bit. I was in “input” mode for a long time, but now that I want to shift into “output” mode and do some writing, I have to get my head back with my characters and story again. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Like you, I find Myers-Briggs types very handy. But you’re right: they aren’t gospel! In my own life, I’ve found that the type I test for is not the type that best describes my behavior. I’ve found that to be true with a lot of the characters I create when I run their types. It’s useful, but also very subjective. I found a “short” online test that I will use when I’m trying to get to know a new character in a story’s cast, but then I have to check types that are only one letter off to find which one actually describes the way they behave. And so much of the conflict that fuels our stories (or at least, mine) doesn’t come from everyone having a different type–since some are more common than others. Having the same framework for decision-making isn’t the same as having the same values and/or worldview. Isn’t it amazing what works (and what doesn’t) on paper, versus real life?

    It is a useful tool, though, when trying to get inside the head of a character who is definitely NOT like me. 🙂

    Reply
    • I agree! It’s very helpful to get in the head of a character who’s different from myself. Have you done much research into the cognitive functions (Fe, Fi, Te, Ti, Ne, Ni, Se, and Si)? I’ve found that a really helpful branching-out of the theory that’s made it easier to determine what my characters’ actual types are. 🙂

      Reply
      • I know of it, but I haven’t found it useful in real life application, so I try not to use it in fiction. (I know non-writers who swear by it.) What I usually do is ask myself 4 specific, pointed questions when I’m trying to assess a character’s probable type. I can use the humanmetrics test, which I like, but I’ve found that these four questions consistently provide an accurate type that helps with getting inside a character’s thought process. The questions are not exactly how experts classify the types, but these give me the right answers, so I’m willing to go out on a limb with my own process. 🙂

        Reply
      • The questions I use (and this is for me when I’m trying to get a lock on a character) are as follows:

        1. At the end of a long, bad day, does the character seek out friends/public entertainment, or does the character retreat into isolation? (E or I)
        2. Given the character’s druthers, Aristotle (concrete and empirical), or Plato (abstract and theoretical)? (S or N)
        3. {And this question is especially hard for Christians.} Which does the character value MOST: Justice, or Mercy? (T or F)
        4. When a decision must be made, does the character weigh all the mitigating factors and possible consequences, or does the character mentally isolate the situation and consider it on a case-by-case basis? (J or P)

        Especially for the last two, the knee-jerk response from anyone who knows M-B is to argue, because that’s not what that element is supposed to measure. BUT, these questions help me arrive at a type that is consistent with both behavior and decision-making processes. I also like that using these questions allows me to see where a character might waffle on an issue–suggesting that the preference in this area would be slight. Take it with a grain of salt. 🙂

        Reply
        • Those are good questions to ask about a character, even if you’re not trying to find out their MB type necessarily! Thanks for sharing a little about your process. 🙂

          Reply
  4. This was great! As in all areas of life, striking a balance is key, isn’t it? I think this is a terrific cautionary post for writers that crave method or a checklist. Great characters just aren’t that simple.

    Reply
  5. Thank you; this is a great idea for developing characters. Mine tend to do what they want, but I start out with good intentions.

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  6. I found the idea of using MBTI unique and helpful when I ran across it a couple weeks ago. It CAN be frustrating because I’m discovering my characters as I write them DESPITE knowing so much/having to know my characters before I write the stories… But it helped me realize I had to figure them out better as the story goes along. It’s nice to have a starting point. And it will help me make sure my characters aren’t shadows of me. Well written post.

    Reply
    • Thank you! – I’m glad this post was helpful! 🙂 I typed my characters long after creating them…I’ve found that’s typically how I work, not creating them to BE a type but rather getting to know them and THEN typing them and making sure they’re consistent to the type I find them to be. MBTI has been so very helpful!

      Reply
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