Using Personality Type in Character Development

Some authors (like myself) are character-driven. Others (like my “fanfic” collaborator Jason Ward of Barbados—imagine that, my fiction actually inspires fan fiction) are plot-driven. Character-driven authors can create colorful characters at the drop of a hat; it’s plotting which challenges them. Plot-driven authors can create interesting plots easily; it’s creating interesting characters which challenges them. Thus Jason and I have a mutually beneficial partnership.

Ever since I saw Jeff Gerke’s method of character creation for plot-driven authors like himself, I’ve been thinking about what lies behind the two preferences in writing. Among other devices, Jeff draws upon the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) and the model of cognitive dynamics which lies behind it to create and enrich characters. It occurs to me that two elements of cognitive preference likely dictate whether one is a character-driven author or a plot-driven author.

Of the sixteen codes in the Myers-Briggs grid, half have F and half have T. F means one prefers to make decisions using what Carl Jung called a “Feeling” cognitive process: either sensitivity to personal and universal moral values or else sensitivity to harmony in a group. T means one prefers to make decisions using what Jung called a “Thinking” cognitive process: either the ability to set things in logical order (as in outline form) or the ability to set things in either-or categories (as in a logical system or framework).

Harry Potter MBTIAs it happens, my cognitive preference is ENFP; Jason’s is INTP. I believe my character-driven writing is rooted in my preference for deciding according to moral values. I also believe Jason’s plot-driven writing is rooted in his preference for deciding according to logical systems thinking. F-based decisions are personal; T-based decisions are impersonal. The first preference lends itself to character-driven writing, which is personal; the second lends itself to plot-driven writing, which is impersonal. The correlation is consistent, in every writer I’ve observed for whom I know the Myers-Briggs type.

There are many resources out there on personality type, some based on the older four-level model of the psyche (including The Personality Page and TypeLogic), some based on the newer and more complete eight-level model (including CognitiveProcesses.com). Perhaps the best resources of all are written by Dr. Linda V. Berens et al. Her models include not only cognition, but interaction (social) style and temperament, and her extension of Dr. John Beebe’s work on cognitive archetypes (the order in which we use the cognitive processes and in what roles) is profound.

As with all other resources a writer may draw on, what one gets out of the material is commensurate with what effort one puts into studying it. The best foundation, of course, lies in first understanding one’s own temperament, interaction style, and cognitive preference. Be careful—it can be very difficult to infer these things even with professional help, let alone on one’s own! The roles one adopts in the long term and in daily life can blind one to how one truly behaves most naturally. Look for patterns and elements which distinguish one type from another.

After that one may use whatever knowledge one gains about type theory as an aid to construct and enrich one’s characters and plot alike. Consider then what I do as a character-driven author. In my Metacosmos (as I wish were true in real life), Starbards such as Alain Harper—my chief protagonist—have type theory as part of their core curriculum. Since the Myers-Briggs codes are actually copyrighted, I alter a shorthand used by Jungian psychologists, one which focuses on the top two cognitive processes in a person’s ladder of archetypes. Alain Harper has ENFP preferences, but in his Realm he is called a Ne’fi. He is married to a Ne’fi and unabashedly prefers the company of other Ne’fis, although he’ll be friends with anyone who’ll be friends with him and seeks to bring all to their full “type potential”. Some of his closest friends have types which are profoundly different from his (such as Slate Rockmire, an irrepressible ESTP or Se’ti—the pair basically take each other as the Ultimate Cosmic Jokes and their mutual humor plus mutual respect binds them together).

Most challenging and rewarding of all is this implication of type theory: “Character is what you do about your personality.” The first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount correlates with cognitive dynamics, interaction style, and temperament, in that order, before one word is said about the enduring relevance of God’s spiritual law. This too is something Alain Harper understands profoundly.

As an author, and especially as a Christian author, consider what potential strengths and weaknesses (there are always many) go with the type of a personage you’ve created. Alain is what he is because as few have ever done, he has “taken every thought into captivity to Christ,” and type theory on a biblical basis is a major tool he uses to keep himself so. Not everyone he deals with does this—the villains, of course, go so far at times as to revel in the dark side of themselves which “the Theory” makes all too clear to them.

One more thing: nothing is easier in applying type theory than the creation of stereotypes. This seems to be a pitfall for both kinds of authors, and it may lie in a different aspect of the mind than the T/F dichotomy. On the other hand, it is also easy to make a character act (as it were) “out of character”—that is, in a way which isn’t consistent with the multiple levels of his or her type. Be wary of this double trap, and make and keep your characters real!

John Wheeler (who writes on the Web as Johanan Rakkav) is a very busy Ne’fi (ENFP on the Myers-Briggs grid). Besides being a consultant in Christian apologetics, he is the editor and co-publisher of the book THE MUSIC OF THE BIBLE REVEALED by the late Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura (rakkav.com/biblemusic), a singer-songwriter who plays the piano, synthesizer, Celtic harp and ten-stringed Hebrew lyre (kinnor), a lifelong lover of the natural sciences (especially astronomy) and of speculative fiction, an enthusiast of personality type models, and (writing with E.V. Medina as Jack Shepherd) the co-author of the medieval fantasy/allegorical SF book REALMWALKERS (tiaera.blogspot.com). His fictional Metacosmos is now featured at undyingsinger.wordpress.com and rakkav.blogspot.com, as well as at the page TALES OF THE UNDYING SINGER on Facebook.

5 comments on “Using Personality Type in Character Development

  1. Nice touch, putting that type table in with my article! I have never watched any of the HARRY POTTER movies save the first (once) and don’t plan on doing so, but the table is funny and instructive at the same time. Yessirreebob, somebody understands us ENFPs all too well. 😀

  2. Reblogged this on Tales of the Undying Singer and commented:
    Here is something at the very heart of my fiction writing (and of my fictional Metacosmos): how character is what you DO about your personality… 🙂

    • Despite this being well conversed information- it is always interesting .
      It was when you began bringing personality type into what personalities you had chosen for characters, along with personality exploration with me , did it make more sense.

  3. Reblogged this on Donovan and the act of musing and commented:
    Great information to assist with thinking about character personalities.

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