Thursday, 4 October 2012

What type are you?

I’ve written before about trying to be less of a pantser and more of a plotter now I’m writing my second novel.  This has met with some success. Although I’ll never reach the stage of outlining an entire plot before starting to write, one approach is producing such good results that I doubt I’ll ever stop using it.  I’ve mentioned this in an earlier blog post: developing characters with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), as recommended by Jeff Gerke in his excellent book Plot versus Character.

You can read in detail about MBTI on Wikipedia, but I don’t want to get too hung up on it, as it’s only a jumping-off point for creating rounded characters who behave in credible ways. In a nutshell, this psychological typing uses four opposing pairs of ways of thinking and acting (labelled dichotomies, although you don’t even need to know that).

  • Extraversion (E) – Introversion (I)
  • Sensing (S) – Intuition (N)
  • Thinking (T) – Feeling (F)
  • Judging (J) – Perception (P)
There are 16 possible combinations of these dichotomies, and there are tests you can do to find out what type you are.  According to the Humanmetrics Jung Typology TestTM  (which is free to take),  I am, apparently, an INFJ and I like what I read about them.

"INFJs are gentle, caring, complex and highly intuitive individuals. Artistic and creative, they live in a world of hidden meanings and possibilities. Only one percent of the population has an INFJ personality type, making the most rare of all types."
They are also ‘as genuinely warm as they are complex’ and are liable to have messy desks! 

All very interesting, you say, but how does this help to create compelling characters? I’ll give you a recent example. My novel calls for a person who runs my main character’s office. She’s reliable, to the extent of being put-upon, but has the potential to be dangerous if ever her devotion to her employer wavers. I’ve called her Helen for now.

Gerke’s book lists the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types with brief descriptions. I read down the list, looking for the one that sounds closest to the vague outline of the character in my head. One leaps out at me, though it’s usually not that clear-cut and I often have to take a second run at the list to identify the best fit. Helen feels like an ISFJ: A serious observer of others, overwhelming desire to serve others, often taken advantage of, responsible.

This is where I deviate from the process suggested in Plot versus Character. I google ISFJ (just the letters, you don’t even need to put in Myers-Briggs) and get page after page of profiles. They overlap, of course, but this serves to emphasise the most prevalent characteristics Helen should have. Then I transfer the characteristics I think are most important or could be useful to the story to one side of a table. Here are a few:

Prizes harmony, withdraws from conflict

An over-protective parent

Abhors waste of money

Rarely gets the praise/recognition deserved

Rich, inner world, excellent memory for details. Sensitive to others’ feelings

Respects tradition and laws

Learns best by doing, not reading theory

Has well-developed sense of space, function & aesthetics. Beautiful home, good interior decorator, great gift-giver

If has negative feelings, these may build up inside until they turn into firm judgements against individuals which are difficult to dispel

Has strong feelings of inadequacy

Family is central to life. Often possessive of loved ones. Has few close friends

Once that’s done, I fill in the other side of the table with examples of how these aspects of Helen’s character can be illustrated or used. Some are trivial: I’ve decided that because of her homemaking compulsion she buys fresh flowers every week for the office. Some may be problematic, e.g. ‘respects tradition and law’ if I decide to make her a suspect, but I can also use the table to see ways around these. So, if Helen can be persuaded to behave badly, this will probably come out of her devotion to her family. Some I leave blank if nothing comes to mind at this stage. I'll revisit this profile regularly when I'm plotting, and for writing scenes Helen appears in.

It took almost a day to create this profile of Helen, but I consider that time well-spent. I know her well enough to plunge her into the action. She’ll still surprise me – that’s one of the joys of writing – but I’m confident that I now have the tools to make her believable and well differentiated from my other characters.

Do you pre-plan your characters or do they develop organically as you write? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment below (if you can, I know Blogger is uncooperative sometimes). And if you try out the Humanmetrics Jung Typology TestTM  on yourself, tell me what you think of the results.


  1. I had to do Myers Briggs for a job once. I'm an INTJ - so we are very similar Janet.

  2. Hi Sarah, thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. I've been out of the jobs market too long to have been tested as part of a job application. Judging by the google results, Myers Briggs typing is big business now, especially in America.

  3. Hi Janet
    Like you I've been trying to be a bit more organised plotwise, but so far any characterisation I've done has been intuitive. Hadn't thought of using these matrix tests - could be worth a try!

  4. Hi Janet,
    This is a really interesting post and I always find the MB personality types interesting. I hadn't thought of using their personality types for writing characters. It's a great idea. I tend to focus on body language but a character's personality as a whole is what helps the reader to identify with them.

  5. This is really interesting, thanks for posting! I tried the test and had goosebumps reading the results. Spooky! It's definitely worth using for character building, thanks.

  6. I never thought of using Myers Briggs to plan a novel. My first novel, FRY was only planned very loosely but I plan to be more structured with my next one, so maybe I'll give it a go.