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Can MBTI help writers create compelling characters?

Writing has always been a field of constant innovation and change, and it remains true. The genres and styles writers employ would often shift to collide with the time they were written in. Fiction and non-fiction often relay common themes and issues for a specific period. But to successfully convey their message and meaning, they create a captivating story that people want to heed. And what better way to create a compelling tale than through a cast of unforgettable characters? Character creation is always an essential task in any story and is directly intertwined with its success.


Various tools give writers an overview of their characters and how to make them distinct. However, at times they may be exact and therefore limiting. An option that allows writers to see their characters as distinct while still leaving enough room for them to work with is MBTI; Myers-Briggs Indicator. It has been gaining popularity online recently, and it has many uses, character creation being an example. Isabelle Myers and Catharine Briggs developed it based on the typology of Carl Jung. It is a field that allows one to discern the cognitive psychological functions of an individual, and despite it not being science, it amassed quite a following on the internet and is familiar to many.


While MBTI is mostly known via the 16personalities test, it presents a more simplistic version of the typology. At its core, MBTI is a tool that analyzes the given person to determine their cognitive functions and the preferred processes and lenses in their mind, which they use to filter information. Those include thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensing, each having an introvert and extrovert version, making up eight cognitive functions. According to MBTI, a person prefers four of those functions in various orders and patterns, and the four-letter code for personality unveils the pattern of those functions. For example, someone with an ENTJ personality will have a dominant function of extroverted thinking with a secondary function of introverted intuition, often making people with this personality practical, decisive, and goal-oriented.


Of course, MBTI isn’t perfect and has been criticized for various reasons, many of which are brought up by Carla Delgado in her article. She points out that the test encourages self-evaluation even when the person is likely biased and unprofessional when evaluating themselves. It is also highly restrictive and puts people into 16 stereotypes, with many descriptions attributed to them based on their preference for dichotomies such as thinking/feeling. This might have radically different results for two people who fall in the middle of those with but a few % of differences and thus be inaccurate. All of those are widespread critiques. 


However, this doesn’t change the fact that the indicator may be handy for writers who want to create characters. The critiques mainly apply to the test of 16 personalities, a minimal and simplified version of MBTI. In reality, cognitive functions only show the preference for how a person will judge and gather information rather than more detailed aspects of someone’s personality. This provides writers with a skeleton over which they can build some character traits or, conversely, try and type their already created characters, allowing them to develop further. In talented hands, MBTI can serve as a tool for creating unique and distinct personalities.


The fundamental way to use MBTI is to keep characters consistent with their cognitive functions. When a character faces an important decision, a writer might look at the character’s cognitive functions and think about their preferred course of action. Will they decide based on what’s most effective or what aligns with their values? Will they focus on the present and deal with issues as they approach, or would they prefer to think long-term and focus on abstract futures and plans? The possibilities are many especially considering that it’s very rare to see a single function working independently. They’re always in tandem with each other, serving as one mechanism. This would help the writers know their characters better and their thought processes if they withstand challenges and trials.


Of course, when one uses MBTI for this method, it is essential to avoid stereotyping or leaning onto descriptions given on the 16personalities website, as those are far too specific for a simple cognitive function stack. Just because common traits are associated with a personality type doesn’t mean that all of them will follow each trait. For example, just because someone is ENFP doesn’t mean they must always be energetic, if not chaotic, and outgoing. This simply means they use extroverted intuition and introverted feeling as their primary functions, shaping their perception of the world. This is likely to make them good at generating ideas and analyzing them through the prism of their values, but how they will act upon this information and judgment is much more dependent on the individual rather than the broader personality type.


The main benefit of considering cognitive functions is that this would allow for clashing worldviews. Characters often interact, and in their interactions, conflict is created. When faced with the same situation, they might consider widely different courses of action that would put them at odds. For example, someone with highly extroverted feelings will care about the needs of others and consider the values of the group. In contrast, someone with highly introverted thinking will follow their understanding and rarely concern themselves with the opinions of others. This will inevitably put their worldview at odds, and they would have to search for a compromise or else further the divide between them. The possibilities can be endless, and it is up to the writer to explore them, as shown by K.M Weiland in her article.


Another way working with MBTI can be interesting is to learn to make different unique characters when they share the same type. It is straightforward to create a conflict based on the differences in one’s perception, but what when those perceptions are alike, if not entirely the same? When both characters have high introverted feelings, they will pay a lot of attention and heed to their values and beliefs, using it as their primary function to guide them through situations. When those values are different, however, this will create conflict. Similarly, those with introverted sensing will look to their past experiences and traditions to guide themselves through the present, and those can significantly vary from person to person. 


In the end, there are countless reasons why MBTI is a helpful tool in creating characters, from its ability to differentiate characters by type and create inter-personality conflicts to seeing how different characters can be, even if they share the same type. The difference between them is critical here, and it’s the difference between characters that often serves as a seed of conflict and, therefore, a captivating storyline that one could plan. It is crucial, however, not to focus too much on the 16personalities test and try to fit different characters within the boxes they present, and instead focus on the classic typology and cognitive functions, which will allow your characters to bloom.



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