Why MBTI Is Good For Fiction (But Probably Not Much Else)

In which, after ranting more than I meant to, I give advice for using the MBTI to craft characters who feel like real individuals. 

Hello everyone!

I was going to do the rant/analysis part of my Turtles All the Way Down review, but I am so, so very ill as I’m writing this. It’s been a rough 19 hours so far, and I’ve still got a splitting headache and am carefully (or should I say…gingerly? Heh heh…) sipping ginger tea because I can’t hold down much else. So, that may be more information than you guys wanted, but you know you can always count on me for that. Also, uncomfortably bad puns.

Anyway, I didn’t feel like pulling together something like that today. Instead, I’m going to talk about something that’s already been stewing in my mind for a while, meaning I’m more prepared to talk about it when I’m not at my best.

My Thoughts Have Changed…

Bear with me, because I’m about to get more personal than I like to get anywhere, especially on this blog. I’m going to have to use myself as my example for the things I’m about to talk about.

I used to love the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), especially when I was in highschool. It just came at the right time, I suppose. To make the understatement of the year, I didn’t understand myself very well at the time. Probably most teens don’t, but I was neurotically introspective, so it really consumed me. At one point, I convinced myself I was a sociopath, before BBC Sherlock made it cool. It was an interesting time.

When I took the test the first time on a site I can’t find now, and later a second time on this site, I got INTJ, as you may remember from this post (which makes me cringe for a lot of reasons, but which I’ll still link to. For science). So, at least I can’t say that my results were inconsistent, as some people complain.

And the INTJ label just really seemed to fit. Better still, it wasn’t a negative thing. (No one wants to be a sociopath, except possibly sociopaths, and teen girls on the internet at the height of BBC Sherlock’s popularity.) It helped me understand other people, too. There were 16 quantifiable different ways of seeing the world, making decisions, and processing emotions. My particular way was relatively rare, that was all. And so I really latched onto that label. It was comforting to be able to compartmentalise messy humans in this way.

My first clue something was up with the MBTI was when I mentioned it to my psych professor and got an eye-roll, but not really any explanation as to why she preferred the Big 5 and dismissed the MBTI. But I still really liked it for a while, and identified strongly with the INTJ label at least until I wrote that post in June 2016, so quite a few years.

Gradually, I started to see the problems. For one thing, I’ve always really hated being boxed in. And the MBTI itself, but especially how people have used it on the internet, really boxes people in.

At my core, the four traits of an INTJ still do apply to me. But I think when you try to take the sum of those parts and try to define a living human that way, and apply that to every aspect of their life, that’s where it falls flat. People aren’t flat stereotypes. They are more than the sum of 8 possible traits expressed as 4 dichotomies.

For one thing, despite my love for planning, I’ve come to appreciate spontaneity as well. Now when I travel, I prefer not to have a completely nailed-down plan of what I’m going to do. I like to leave some things open. How very un-INTJ of me.

For another, according to Pinterest, these are popular job choices for INTJ.

That last one. I would rather gouge my eyes out than be an investment banker. Here are jobs I have had in my life, the last one being my current job:

  • Babysitter
  • Janitor (this is a great job, by the way. You go in when the offices are closed, you don’t have to interact with anyone, and when you’re finished depends on how fast you can work).
  • Caregiver
  • Managing social media accounts and blogging for a home building company.

I guarantee you that none of those things will show up on lists of jobs well-suited to INTJs, but I loved all of those jobs. Especially caregiving.

In fairness, I should concede that I was briefly interested in computer programming, interned at an IT Department, and almost pursued that career path. There was also a weird time in middle school where I turned my bedroom into a laboratory and was a sketchy amateur scientist who did groundbreaking work with crystallizing sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid, as well as unethical ant experimentation, and during that time, I wanted to be a chemist. (I’ve had a lot of weird phases in my life…) Bottom line though: everything on this list either flat-out does not interest me, or it interests me on an amateur level, but not as my life’s work. I’m sure that goes for most people who test as INTJ.

According to this, I definitively do not like clicking noises, when actually, I have always adored clicking noises to a weird degree and find them soothing. What a strange, specific thing to state as fact about a swath of the population you don’t even know personally!

When you wanted more examples but can only find things that make you go, “Dang. I really am an INTJ.”

I am not actually a psychologist shocking, I know, and I really didn’t want to spend so much of this post ranting about this. To wrap up: if you enjoy the MBTI, that’s fine. I certainly owe it a debt for helping me understand myself. However, real humans are inconsistent and surprising. They defy any attempts to predict their behaviour, regardless of how well you think you know them. You can’t determine what jobs people will have, what their interests are, how they dress, who they will get along with, etc. based on what boils down to an internet quiz. Spectrum-style psychometrics, like the Big 5, work much better than definitive boxes that were never based on empirical data and real science, but rather on theory that has more to do with philosophy than psychology. And honestly, I’ve come to question the point of categorising personality at all.

Finally, dubious personality tests can have real-world harmful implications. My own small example is one time when I failed to get hired for a job based solely on the results of the personality test they made me take. Which is basically saying: “To be clear, it’s not your qualifications, it’s you as a person. Please don’t ever apply again.”

But hey, do you know who shouldn’t be wildly inconsistent and should instead have a definitive, pin-point-able arc? Fictional characters! #segue

Why You Should Try the MBTI for Your Characters

As with so many things in fiction, what flies in the real world doesn’t fly here. People are very inconsistent in real life, and don’t always behave in predictable ways. But in fiction, while you don’t want your characters to be stereotypes, once you set the parameters of this character’s personality, suddenly having them act in a way that is inconsistent to that without providing some explanation will be jarring for readers. It’s one of those things that might be realistic, but will read the opposite on the page. You’ve probably heard the similar rule about coincidences.

You want your character to have a consistent way of viewing the world, making decisions, processing emotions, and interacting with others. Any changes to their personality should be gradual and rooted in the events of the story, and serve as part of a traceable character arc. Additionally, you want to make sure that your characters are all different from each other (and from you, for that matter). You want to make sure that you keep these things straight. And you want to make sure, especially if your book is largely character-driven, that these different personalities will interact with each other in a way that drives conflict.

You know where I’m going with this. The MBTI is a great jumping-off point for crafting your characters. You have 16 different combinations to choose from, which means that even in a large cast, you can make sure you have great variety. With all the characters in the novel I’m working on, I came up with the character and their name and everything first, but it wasn’t until I figured out their MBTI type that they made sense to me and became fully fleshed out. Now, just like with real people, you don’t want to box them in too severely, otherwise your characters will be flat and boring. But it’s a great place to start. Let me talk about this in a little more detail, starting with the one that’s been huge for me.

Writing a Character Who is Nothing Like You

In my current novel, the protagonist, Miles, is an INFP. He was so hard for me to write at first, and still is sometimes. Especially since I’m writing him in first person. Sometimes, I would catch him being super cold and analytical, and realise that wasn’t his voice at all, that was me. It’s so hard for me to write someone who relies more on emotions when making decisions, and who prefers staying open to making plans. It’s getting easier all the time, and now I don’t have to catch myself quite so much. But in the beginning, using information about INFPs as a guide was extremely helpful to getting a deep understanding of how Miles receives information about the world, interprets it, and acts on it. It also served as something to measure against whenever I questioned whether something he said or did really made sense for his character.

Determining How Characters Interact

I used the ISFJ type as the basis for Molly (who, I have to admit, is kind of my favourite “child”). The funny thing is, according to this chart (which I’ve seen a lot of criticism of) she and Miles shouldn’t get along at all. That’s why I’m warning you that, even for characters, you should take this MBTI stuff with a grain of salt, and use it as a jumping off point, not as definitive. Molly and Miles have things in common, like the way they use their imagination, how private and reserved they both are, and their sensitivity. But she’s objective where he’s idealistic, hard-working and practical where he’s lacking those qualities, and much better at understanding and connecting with people despite her shyness. Overall, she’s a very supportive and loyal person, but not afraid to tell him when he’s wrong—and that’s exactly the kind of friend Miles needs.

I had a very good idea of those two even before I knew their types. But I didn’t know much about Billy, another of my major characters, personality-wise. The first thing I knew for sure was that I wanted him to be an extrovert, since I already had two introverts. I knew I wanted there to be a lot of conflict between him and Miles, so I wondered what it would be like if I made him the exact opposite: ESTJ. So I looked up that type and guess what? It fit so perfectly with the scenes I had already written involving Billy, and immediately sparked more ideas. It was so perfect.

So, once you have your protagonist’s type, play around with your other characters until you find the traits that will either fill in the deficiencies of your protagonist or bring out the most conflict, depending on what you have in mind with that character. Also, it helps to look at them side by side and make sure you have enough variety. You don’t want all introverted characters, or all feeling characters, etc.

Character Arc Inspiration

Most of the time, you’re going to want your protagonist at least, if not other major characters, to have some sort of arc. A great feature of that 16 personalities website is the “Strengths and Weaknesses” page for each type. It can give you an idea of some of the weaknesses your protagonist might learn to overcome in the course of the novel. In a character-driven story, these strengths and weaknesses might even end up being the basis for your plot.

Don’t Worry If It’s Not a Perfect Fit

For Molly and Billy, I was able to find personality types that fit them perfectly. For Miles, INFP is the best fit, but it’s not a perfect fit. For example, I would never describe Miles as altruistic, which is supposedly an INFP strength (and one of the weaknesses is “too altruistic”). That doesn’t worry me, though, because a lot of the things you’ll find about INFPs on the internet describe them as these absolutely perfect, pure little cinnamon rolls to the point where you’re like “Okay, no, these people do not exist.” So it’s inevitable that Miles, and any real-life INFPs, would not fit this type perfectly. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t find a personality type that fits your character perfectly. That probably just means they’re complex enough that they don’t fit neatly into this flawed system. However, if none of the personality types fit at all and you have trouble describing your character’s essence in a few words, it may be that you need to do some more work developing and fleshing out that character.

One Thing I Found Doesn’t Work Well

I used to try taking the actual test as though I were the character. This may work for some people, but it didn’t work for me, especially before I knew my characters well. Now that I know them well, I think I probably could. But part of the reason I know them so well now is because of their MBTI types. I would say it’s better to click through the different types and read descriptions of them and choose the one that best fits your character, rather than trying to take the test as that character.

Another Method I’ve Tried

Almost always, my novel ideas start with a character rather than a plot. However, maybe you start with a plot premise instead. A novel I was working on a while ago, and might return to someday, was like that. In that case, I went through and sort of “cast” types that interested me and that seemed to fit for the different roles I would need. That’s a method you might try if you’ve got a plot but are at a loss when it comes to your characters.

That’s about it for this extremely long post! Do you use the MBTI for your characters? Do you agree with me or disagree with me about its real life usefulness? Let’s discuss further in the comments!

Have a lovely day!

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10 thoughts on “Why MBTI Is Good For Fiction (But Probably Not Much Else)

  1. Thank you for this post! Very insightful. I love the suggestion to use the MBTI for fictional characters instead especially as I realised recently that a character I’d written in my first draft of a novel was wayy to similar to me. It would definitely help to have a way to “box” them in through exploring the different types of personality types. Also in regards to you questioning categorising personality types at all – I’m on the same page-they’re useful but again we’re all inconsistent. In writing a recent blog post where I touched on getting to know yourself I found this: “Contrary to the popular idea that we have some inherent true self, our personality is best scientifically evaluated simply according to how we—and those around us—see ourselves”, which I really liked.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Okay, I haven’t read everything on that blog yet, but I’m loving what I’ve read so far. I really wasn’t able to articulate very clearly my issues with the MBTI system as it has been adopted by the public at large in this post, and I didn’t really touch on the ways I think it can be useful (other than for writing), so if I’d known about this blog, I could have just dropped the link in and been like, “Here, go read this.” Because it’s brilliant! I can’t wait to finish reading it.

      Hmm, I have a theory forming. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were extremely common for an INTJ to go through a “sociopath phase.” First of all, INTJs are relatively rare in the world, and female INTJs are rarer still. So I know that for myself, I felt so different from everyone, from my peers to older people I looked up to to fictional characters. And since INTJs are so prone to over-analyse and be perfectionists, turning all of that inward can make one’s quirks seem more and more glaring, until it seems something must be wrong.

      So, you have a young person who is a little more analytical, calculating, and emotionally detached than her peers. Not unable or unwilling to take the feelings of others into account or to empathise, but a little more likely to view those feelings as something less than the first consideration when making a decision. In other words, a little bit more objective. Now, this young person, struggling to understand herself and seeing herself as different from others comes across a description of sociopathy. It’s not a perfect fit, but it’s the best label she has available to her, and she really values being able to nail down and label things. It’s really not surprising she would adopt that. Anyway, that’s my theory based on our extremely broad sample size of two people. 😉

      Now I’m off to read more of that excellent blog! Thank you for linking to it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read of that particular blog so far. Sometimes it can occasionally venture into that wierd Tumblr arena of Jung Is My Religion, but for the most part, I found it very scientific (as scientific as you can get with the MBTI, anyway) and so thought-provoking. The cognitive functions explain brain functions/personality sooooo much better than the 4 letter system.

        I think you have something with that theory. I know too that I found the label of sociopath appealing because I would always identify with/understand the male sociopath/psychopath villians in books or movies or whatever. Media always takes things to the extremes and so there’s not a lot of realistic INTJ portrayals…so as someone is isn’t any overly emphatic person, I’m always drawn to align myself with the cold emotionless character (usually a man) rather than the flower girl who’s sitting in the corner crying.

        But yeah, so glad you find the blog interesting! Happy reading! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. LOVED your post! I thought I was the only writer who didn’t like MBTI. Like you, I used to enjoy having the box of INFJ to describe myself, but then I met a lot of really pretentious INFJs and decided I didn’t like that label anymore. Not to mention that although I get INFJ on every single test, the actual descriptions of INFJs don’t apply to me at all (I have taught myself to be very practical and unromantic.) Also I have a good friend who’s an INFJ and we’re very different. I think MBTI may be useful in figuring out how someone looks at the world, but honestly I believe that decisions are a lot more important to discerning personality than temprament. When writing, I tend to classify my characters as introvert or extrovert and give them a Hogwarts house (side note: you’re right, it’s SO hard to write characters different from you, I’m an introvert Hufflepuff and my MC is an extrovert Gryffindor!) But this has made me reconsider the value of MBTI-ing characters. Maybe I can put aside my dislike of MBTI if it’ll help me write. Thank you so much for sharing this post, it was really good!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you express it very well. (Also, I might have guessed you would be an INFJ; so many of the really insightful bloggers I’ve met turn out to be.) Oh dear, writing from the perspective of an extrovert would be quite a challenge; I’ve never tried that yet, but I’d like to someday. Well, it never hurts to try things. I know for me, even though I’ve been working with these characters off and on for five years or so and really thought I knew them, once I nailed their types down, I realised I hadn’t known them at all before. Doesn’t mean it will work for everyone, but it definitely worked for me. 🙂 Thank you so much for your kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

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