Using Personality Theories In Characterization
First of all, what are personality theories?
Simply put, personality theories theorize that people can be divided into various sub-groups based on their personality. One of the earliest and most simplistic had to do with the four humors, which inspired four temperaments — choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. Another very simple personality theory categorizes people into two “boxes” — Type A and Type B. You’ve probably heard of that one. Type A individuals are high-strung and controlling, while Type B individuals are more laid-back.
If you think for a moment, you’ll probably be able to recognize that you, to some extent, categorize people based on personality in your day-to-day life. You have that one friend who’s hot-headed, and you keep that in the back of your mind. He’s kind of like your boss, who’s also hot-headed. There are those people you know who always want to help out. And there’s that one girl who’s super easygoing, and that guy who always wants to be the center of attention. And then, of course, there are people who are quiet and people who are loud. We all keep track of basic facts like these.
Personality theories delve a little deeper, into the reasons why a person acts the way they do. The two personality theories I’m most familiar with are the Myers-Briggs or MBTI personality theory and the Enneagram personality theory (which I’ve written about previously here).
The MBTI Personality Theory
The MBTI personality theory categorizes people into sixteen personality types, based on a four-factor system. If you don’t know about MBTI, read a bit more here. But suffice to say that an individual can be introverted or extroverted (roughly corresponding to quiet or talkative), sensing or intuitive (roughly corresponding to observing or interpreting), feeling or thinking (whether you use your heart or your head more in making decisions), and judging or perceiving (roughly corresponding to ordered or adaptable).
For example, I am an ENTP. E stands for extraverted. N stands for intuitive. T stands for thinking. And P stands for perceiving. So based on the very simple comparisons I made above, I’m more talkative than I am quiet, I tend to interpret information, I use my head over my heart, and I’m more adaptable (read: messy, flexible, and chaotic) than I am ordered and orderly.
If you’re very interested in learning more about MBTI and would like to hear it from me, give me a shout in the comments and I’ll consider doing an individual-oriented MBTI article! But for now you can access the website I linked above or Google “MBTI,” and you’ll find lots of results.
The Enneagram Personality Theory
So, again, I wrote about this personality theory previously, so you can read my explanation in that article, but I’ll give a few words here. The Enneagram theory groups people into nine personality types, numbered 1-9. It’s a bit simpler than the MBTI theory. When you take an Enneagram test, you receive a major type and a wing. The wing has to be adjacent to your major type. So, if my major type were 2, my wing could be 1 or 3.
Enneagram types are based around core desires and core fears. So, as I explained in my other article, my Ennegram type is 8w7. I’m an 8 as a main type, and a 7 as a wing. As an 8, my core fear is losing control over myself and my environment, and my core desire is to have control over myself and my environment.
If you’re looking to learn more about the Enneagram theory, I recommend The Ennegram Institute’s website.
What I learned from taking the MBTI types of my characters
So, before I get into my tips for using personality theories in characterization, let me tell you a personal story. At some point several years ago, I decided I’d try something — taking an MBTI test for each of the characters in one of my books. I found out some interesting things. First of all, I found out that the character I’d related to strongly shared my type. I also discovered that I was prone to writing the two types that are supposedly “most compatible” with mine — INTJ and INFJ — as well as my polar opposite type, ISFJ. I could write most “NT” types with ease. And the types that I found annoying in real life often made up my annoying characters.
This says a lot. For one, everything’s in the eyes of the beholder. For all I know, my annoying characters might turn out to be a lot more relatable to many more people. (Especially given that the “NT” type group to which I belong makes up a relatively small part of the population.)
I found out a lot of other interesting things, too. When I set out to write historical fiction based on the life of Alexander the Great, I found out I’d been writing his character for a lot longer than I’d thought. A character that was essentially “him” had popped up in my earlier works — along with a character very similar to his close friend. Why had this happened? Because, as I explained in my other post about the Enneagram, Alexander and I happen to be personality twins. I’d written myself into some of my earlier works as a guy, and that guy turned out to act a lot like the historical Alexander the Great.
Okay, you’re ready. You understand what personality theories are and you want to learn how to use them in characterization.
I’ve used two basic approaches when using personality theories in characterization. One of them has worked exponentially better for me than the other.
The first involves taking a given personality type and developing a character around it.
I haven’t been very successful doing this. When I try, these characters usually come out pretty two-dimensional when I want them to be three-dimensional. They’re not as one-dimensional as tropes and archetypes, but they’re not as multi-dimensional as a character who’s walked through the door of my imagination. I imagine that this could work okay for supporting characters who aren’t going to get much of a spotlight, but in general I haven’t pinned down a great way to use this strategy, and I’m not sure it’s the greatest strategy. Why? Because it starts from a boiled-down base, which is going to give you a boiled-down character. Because as great as MBTI and Enneagram are, they don’t contain all of what makes a person tick.
What’s the strategy that works, then?
The second approach involves taking the personality test for a pre-existing character you’ve already imagined and using your findings to develop them further.
I’ve had success doing this. Knowing the character’s personality type helps me visualize them a little clearer. It helps me hone in on their key attributes. They’re pre-existing, so there are other components that exist — little quirks and smaller personality traits that make them who they are — but it can be nice to know how exactly a character thinks (or what they think about all day). This helps you envision a vivid life for them “off-screen.” For example, an extroverted character might be found socializing, while an introverted character would be more likely to stay in and read a book.
When I write a character, I want to be able to imagine what that character would do all day, not just the things they do during their “on-screen” time. I want them to be like a real person, so real that I could walk up to them in the street and strike up a conversation. Using MBTI and Enneagram to expand the character’s identity helps a lot with this. You can imagine how the character would act in a variety of situations. You can imagine what their interactions with others would be like. You can figure out which of your other characters they’d be predisposed to like, and which ones might annoy them.
I don’t advocate letting your character’s MBTI or Enneagram type be the be-all end-all of that character. As in, once you know your character’s type, don’t hyper-analyze each of their actions to see if it “fits” their type. Instead, trust that you know your character, and have them act according to what you know about them. You created them, after all!
Using this approach can also help you identify if you’re writing a “Mary Sue” into your stories. A Mary Sue is basically an idealized version of yourself. Now, I’d be sort of tempted to categorize some of my ENTP characters as idealized versions of myself, except that most of them are pretty sucky people. They’re arrogant, act like jerks, and occasionally descend into homicidal rages. They’re more like an anti-version of myself than anything else. I may have written them as preventative measures to hold that kind of behavior in check in myself.
But if you find a character of your type who’s basically the badass of your world, you may want to consider whether you’ve decided to idealize yourself on purpose and insert yourself into your story. I won’t say this can’t work — but it often leads to an unrealistic, superhuman character. Turn a hard eye on Mary Sues (and the male equivalent, Gary Stus). You also might want to be careful about using the personality type of, say, your ex. Question your motivation for doing so. Is that person your story’s punching bag? Hmm…
Anyway, using personality theories in characterization is both interesting and useful. Interesting because, well, personality theories are fun, as flawed as they are. Yes, all personality theories have flaws. Can we really group people into tidy little boxes? To some extent, but people are always able to cross the boundaries of their personalities, and people always have a mixture of traits. As extroverted as I am (which is to say, not very), I’m still pretty quiet a lot of the time.
But, okay, a lot of this is a topic for another time. For now, I want you to have at it! Test your characters’ personality types. You can try the 16 Personalities test for MBTI. For real individuals, it can produce pretty flawed results. But for characters, it hardly matters. You’re unlikely to be dishonest about your characters’ traits! (I hope.) There are a whole host of other tests available for free on the web. Please don’t take the paid tests for your characters.
Tell me how else you use personality theories in characterization, if this is something you’ve been doing for a while! If you take tests for your characters, let me know the results. If you know your type, tell me if any of your characters fit your type! I’d love to have more anecdotal information about people’s types and what types of characters they write.
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