This is part three of the MBTI for Writers Series. See the character creation worksheets and the 16 personality types (and how to use them to write complex characters) in the rest of the series.
Before we get into character design using MBTI personality types, there’s something you should know.
Your MBTI type isn’t your personality.
Yes, MBTI is a phenomenal tool you can use to design characters. Yes, it reflects our psychology. And, yes, you can tell a lot about a person from their MBTI type. But it makes up only a fraction of what most people mean when they use the term “personality.”
My unofficial view is MBTI makes up maybe 60-80% of your unique personality. Now, that’s a lot. But it isn’t the whole personality.
This is what so many people get wrong about MBTI, why so many of its detractors can’t wrap their heads around it, and what you as a writer need to be 100% aware of.
It’s actually great news for writers who want to use MBTI to create truly distinct characters. Because, as a writer, you can use the 16 MBTI types as molds to build out an endless cast of complex, unique, ultra realistic characters.
If MBTI Isn’t Really “Personality,” Then What Is It?
At its core, MBTI is really about what’s called “thinking styles” or “cognitive styles.” MBTI really comes down to two things.
- How each person takes in information from the world around them.
- And how they then use that information to make decisions.
MBTI doesn’t account for the culture you grew up in or how that affected your worldview. It doesn’t cover how your gender or ethnicity or birth order or any other external pressure changed how you relate to others or yourself.
Individual personality, true personality, is unique to each person. It’s also changeable.
You behave one way with teachers, another with bosses, another with your children, another by yourself. Your behavior can change depending on which language you’re speaking. Not to mention when you’re hungry or haven’t gotten enough sleep.
Who we are can’t truly be captured by any one system.
And we just don’t know enough about the brain yet to come close to truly predicting how a real life person might act or respond in any given situation. There are just too many variables that go into who we are.
But we don’t need all that for MBTI to be a useful tool. And we definitely don’t need it to write realistic characters using MBTI. Not when it comes to designing characters that will knock your readers’ socks off and make them feel like the characters you write could be real people walking and talking somewhere out in the world.
Because when it comes down to it, MBTI makes up A LOT of who we are. And our environmental pressures—culture, gender, ability, confidence, ethnicity—all of this is filtered through our MBTI thinking type anyway.
In a lot of ways, this can and does mean that people of the same type share a lot of characteristics in common. So when your characters demonstrate those shared qualities in your fiction, your readers will recognize their friends and family in the ways your characters talk and think and act.
Imagine how beautifully that will play out in first-person and close third-person point of view narratives.
So use your character’s MBTI type like a guidepost as you work through your story’s plot. It will give you a variety of likely ways a particular character might realistically respond to a situation—even when they do things that surprise you.
And the brilliant part is, since MBTI covers just a portion of who we are as people, there’s still so much room to make each type unique and real—even if you use the same MBTI type for two characters in the same story.
How? Think of it like this.
How to Create a Two (or More!) Unique Characters from the Same MBTI Personality Type
Imagine one of those clay artists on the Venice Beach Boardwalk in California. If you’ve been to the Boardwalk—or any public space where vendors, artists, and performers gather—you may have seen the kind of artist I’m talking about. He’s the guy who will sculpt your face out of clay for twenty bucks while you browse the sculpted casts of celebrities at his table.
Now, he’s a Boardwalk artist. He’s got to work fast. So you’re not all that surprised when he pulls out a plastic mold and works the rectangle of clay into its nooks and crannies before he goes to work on you.
When he’s done, out pops the vague semblance of a face. It’s nobody’s face yet, just some roughed out features—depressions for eye sockets, an over-pronounced brow, a bump for a nose, jaw and cheeks and chin in all the right places.
We all have these features, right? So why reconstruct the base for each person? Why not just cast the base from a mold and spend our time instead on the features that make each of us unique?
He whittles away at the clay while you watch the body builders lift weights on Muscle Beach in the distance. He glances at you and back at his work, all the while working it over with fingertips and tools. He thins out the nose, sculpts the eyes into shape, builds out the lips, adds clay to the cheeks and lifts them, carves out the cupid’s bow.
By the time he places the warm mound into your hand, the lump that had been nobody in particular is now a perfect little clay rendition of your face. Anyone would recognize it as you.
MBTI can work like this when you’re creating characters. Sixteen molds to build your unique characters from. And even better than our Boardwalk artist who can sculpt only the physical details of your face, your characters won’t just look like themselves. They’ll also act and think and talk like themselves too.
Your characters will be people, all with the elaborate workings of a complex mind. And all in just a few quick steps.
As we move through the MBTI for Writers series, we’ll cover each type in depth in its own cheatsheet and article. It’s a powerful tool. And eventually you’ll get so good at it, even side characters will come easily to you.
For now, use one of the methods in the next article to select a type for your character. I recommend that for now you take these methods for a test run using just your main character or one that’s been giving you a lot of trouble in your current work in progress. Focusing on just one character is the best way to get some easy practice.