Three Easy Ways the MBTI Enhances Characters

3 Easy Ways to Use

Here’s my confession: I’m a complete people nerd. I highly enjoy studying and learning about individuals, groups, mindsets, worldviews, cultures, and everything else that makes up the human race. One of the main reasons I got into writing was the opportunity to make more friends (literally, haha) and try out different scenarios to see how people can get along with each other (or not. Often not. Conflict is story, after all).

As part of this, one of my favorite methods for characterization is the Meyers-Briggs Typology Indicator (MBTI). This personality test divides people into one of sixteen possible types according to cognitive processing types. In other words, it categorizes people according to how they take in and process about the world around them, rather than just “introverted” or “extroverted.”

The actual MBTI theory can get complicated, and like most personality tests, there are naysayers. It also gets problematic when you try to categorize real life people, because shockingly we’re all the sum of our life experiences, beliefs, upbringing, physical limitations, and so much more than just the way we think. Using one single personality test to try and categorize the complexity of humanity is naturally going to have a few problem spots.

All that being said? MBTI profiles can be mighty handy for sorting out fictional characters. Unlike people in real life, fictional characters have to make logical, cohesive sense and characters within a story need to be sufficiently distinct from each other, while still having understandable reasons for their relationships (whether positive, negative, or apathetic). Using MBTI can give you a framework as a writer for basic “boxes” to put your characters in, which allows for consistency in characterization and gives you helpful ideas for weaknesses where they can grow (aka, character arcs).

Using MBTI as one aspect of your character creation process can also encourage you to be more complex in your character portrayals. Going back to the “extrovert vs. introvert” issue, here’s an example:

Extrovert: “this character likes to go out and is talkative around people. They don’t like to be alone.”
Introvert: “this other character generally doesn’t like to go out and very quiet around people. They need to be alone.”

Writer: I’ll have Character A and Character B contrast by having Character A go out and be social and Character B want to be alone. This way, I’ll have an extroverted character and an introverted character and tada! You’ve got a conflict.

Problem: I’ve known plenty of extroverts who get really tired around people and need to be alone to recharge. This isn’t necessarily an extrovert-issue. If you’re around people you don’t get along with or have a hard time understanding, you can get tired. Conversely, I’ve known introverts who light up the room around their friends or trusted colleagues. Going for this blunt introvert vs. extrovert division is pretty limiting in terms of your characterization and isn’t fair to the complexity of people.

Solution: one category of cognitive functions in MBTI is HOW you think and process. Introversion and extroversion aren’t just two categories; they can define multiple ways that people view the world. For instance, people who are Introverted Thinkers (Ti) go inside their own minds to figure out things, whereas people who are Extroverted Thinkers (Te) need to process externally (usually verbally). If someone uses Ti, even if they’re classified as an extrovert, they could appear more introverted because they have to go inside their heads to sort out life. If someone uses Te, even though they’re classified as an introvert, they could appear more extroverted because they have to get their thoughts out of their heads to understand them.

Writer: I’ll have Character A and Character B conflict by making both of them extroverts, but Character A has Ti and Character B has Te. So even though they should get along because they’re both extroverts, there will be friction over Character B (Te) wanting to talk out their thoughts after a party when Character A (Ti) just wants left alone to process. And I’ll have Character A (Ti) unintentionally keep something from Character B (Te), because Character A already sorted the issue out in their head and so considers conversation about it redundant.

Yes, this makes things a little more complicated to deal with. But great characters are complicated AND by going a little deeper, I was able to introduce a new kind of character dynamic that has unique contrasts, even with two extroverts (by the way, the Ti vs. Te? That’s me and my husband and yes, I do forget to tell him things sometimes 😉 ).

For more thoughts on cognitive typing, check out these websites:
Thought Catalog
8 Cognitive Processes
Simple Terms (Kinda–Depends on Definition of “Simple”)

Okay, mini-lecture over. Let’s move onto:

Three Easy Ways the MBTI Enhances Characters

1.) DO try to take the MBTI test as your characters. Do a little acting to get into the heads of your characters! Go to an MBTI online personality test and try to answer the questions as your characters. Even if the resulting profile isn’t one you agree with, the act of having to get into your characters’ heads is a worthwhile character development exercise.

DON’T merely accept the result that you get as your character. Remember, it’s still ultimately you at the helm (hopefully), so there will be some biases. Read through your profile test result, and if it doesn’t seem to match with your gut or your character notes, check out some of the other profiles to see if you can find a better match. Remember, the goal of this is to help you–don’t feel like you have to go for something that doesn’t fit.

2.) DO make a list of your characters’ MBTI types. Add it to your character profiles, right alongside physical appearance, skills, any special abilities, favorite color, etc. Your characters’ MBTI personality type is another potential facet to explore (and feel free to add other personality test results as well).

DON’T use this list to limit how your characters interact. With a little Google searching, you’ll find all kinds of “recommended” friendship pairings and relationship pairings through the MBTI system. Those can be helpful starting points, but allow your characters to develop their own natural affinities as well–and don’t be deterred if a pairing or friendship isn’t “recommended.” It’s your story and even MBTI creator Isabel Myers wasn’t married to her “ideal type”–and they had a great relationship.

3.) DO use MBTI as part of a starting place for your characterization. Often, a character will just show up in my head and start talking. After a while of getting to know them, I’ll start trying to figure out their type as a natural part of character development. Other times, I might deliberately go into a story aiming to try out a certain pairing or type, sometimes based off of a perceived challenge (it’s dangerous to tell me something can’t work). So if it works for you, go ahead and add MBTI type to your character growth process.

DON’T only define characters by their MBTI type. Like actual people, characters are more than their personality and processing style. Societal roles, gender roles (or lack thereof), upbringing, race (Fae, dragon, unicorn, Vulcan, cyborg, tentacled snow beast), culture, and a number of other factors can affect how a personality manifests. For instance, I’m currently doing a character study of a Fae royal who classifies as ENTJ: intelligent, commanding, protective, natural leader, total alpha male. BUT, he was raised in a pacifistic, simple life type of Fae commune which emphasized cooperation and group think over competition–and there is no way of getting promoted. This not only creates natural conflict, but it also affects his personality, since he’s telepathically linked to the group whole and is affected by them.

Bethany Jennings at The Simmering Mind has another great post on the benefits and pitfalls of the MBTI from a personal perspective.

Ahoy, #plothoppers! Are you familiar with MBTI? What types are some of your characters? What other personality tests do you use to figure out characters?

Confessions of a Role-Playing, Collaborative Writer

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So I’m still recovering from an awesome time at the Realm Makers 2016 conference. I have a ton of things to catch up on and to share, but in the meantime, I’m featured on Ralene Burke’s blog as a guest author, so go ahead and check it out! Includes some never-before-seen info, including:

  • Why I’m so passionate about character creation (to the tune of 37)

  • What would happen if I had to write in pre-internet days (answer: parrots would be involved)

  • Why role-playing made me a better marketer

  • What happens when a social writer breaks her own rules (hint: it weirds people out)

Click here or on the graphic to learn more about role-playing and collaborative writing!

Three Ways Superpowers Can Supercharge Your Story

Two important comic book facts to know about me:

1.) Marvel forever. I asked my future-husband when dating whether he liked Marvel or DC more–and if he had said DC, who knows where we would have ended up? 😉

2.) X-Men rules. I am a huge fan of the creative (albeit sometimes ridiculous) superpowers, the concept of being ordinary people alienated for something they can’t control, and the wide cast of characters (until M-Day and…I’m still not sure how I feel about that).

Anyway, sufficed to say I saw X-Men: Age of Apocalypse with my husband on Memorial Day. This isn’t a movie review, because I am highly biased and have no desire to approach dissecting the movie rationally. Plot holes? Oh yes. Underused mutants? Absolutely. Crazy anti-climactic moments where a major catastrophe is broken up by a certain speedy mutant saving the day to 80s pop music? Yes, please! And through all that, an underlying thread of meaning and regret and purpose. What I love about X-Men is that these aren’t larger-than-life superheroes or driven soldiers. These are kids and professors and losers from their parents basements who come together to make a difference.

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That brings me to the tips! Special abilities. Some people dub it magic. You could also say affinities or abilities or talents. I usually label any extraordinary skills superpowers, just for the sake of simplicity. I even put Adrian Monk from Monk in this category. Whatever word you prefer, having a special oomph in a certain area can amp up characterization, super-charge the plot, and just be a lot of fun to mess around with.

Three Ways Superpowers Can supercharge your Story (1)

1.) Make the superpowers contrast a character’s personality 

Contrast is one of my favorite story buzzwords, simply because tossing in a contrast is a super-easy way to create interest, tension, and conflict–all things that push plot. In this case, give the character a power, talent, or racial ability that directly goes against their innate tendencies. Make a quiet, brainy girl a Phoenix. Give a lazy, basement-dwelling guy super speed. Make a dragonshifter afraid of heights–and even fire! Or, for a more normal twist, make a pacifist a natural with a weapon. This creates internal conflict as the character struggles against their own gifts, and that will go a long way to making them more interesting. It also pushes for the characters to grow and expand in their perception of the world, for good or for ill. Make a thoughtful, rational person an empath, and suddenly they have to cope with all of the emotions of those around them. This could drive them crazy, but it could also force them to understand and appreciate the individuals around them more.

Note: be careful that the contrast isn’t so agonizing that the character spends the entire time whining about it. Then it just becomes annoying. Also, be advised that when you choose to go the route of contrast, it will take over a significant part of the character’s arc, and possibly the plot as well.

2.) Make the superpowers an extension of the character’s personality

This takes the opposite side of contrast, but if done correctly, it can be equally effective. Adrian Monk from Monk fits this to a tee, with his OCD giving him the ‘superpower’ of being highly detail-oriented (combined with human intuition). Another example is Iron Man, whose suits are literally an extension of his incredible intellect. A third? Steve Rogers. While he could also fit into the ‘contrast’ category as a weakling given superhuman capabilities, his heart, honor, and code of ethics are already superhuman. The physical stuff is just part and parcel. Their superpowers become part of a character’s identity, because they are already synced with their natural inclinations. Not only does this make their personality larger than life (helpful if your character is an introvert), but it also means that the superpowers can be woven into their origin stories in a very organic way. Consider how the death of Monk’s wife spurred his OCD, as well as his desire to track her killer. The more you can weave a superpower into a character’s psyche and make it natural, the easier it can be for the audience to accept it.

Note: be careful the superpower doesn’t take over the actual characterization. Story-tellers often find making personality and power match substitutes for actually digging into their brains and making them tick. While this can work for tertiary/side characters, it’s unsatisfying for primary or secondary characters.

3.) Make the superpowers have serious side effects

Some superpowers are innate, especially racial superpowers, like elvish nature-abilities or Vulcan telepathy. Others come about unnaturally, but end up helping the character (even if they hinder them at times). However, there’s always a third kind: the awful ones. Rogue’s life-force suctioning, denying her basic human touch. Scott Summers’ energy beams, which require that he wear ruby quartz glasses 24/7. In my Houses of the Dead, the abilities of each Blood Kind house have equally matching psychological conditions: super-senses get a sensory processing disorder, charisma opens up social conditions, and high intellect equals neuroses and savant syndromes. Any of the above make a superpower more than just fun escapism. They make things serious, and ground the story in a sense of reality. In real life, things have consequences–and adding side effects or difficulties increases the potential for consequences and disaster in the narrative. And that pushes plot.

Note: be mindful of audience expectations and the expectation of your genre. Serious side effects often add a dim or even depressing tone to a story. Readers like superpowers for escapism and may not always want a power laden with Serious Repercussions. If you’re going the route of heavy side effects, try to find ways of adding in moments of lightness or humor.  Unless you’re going super grimdark.

Thanks for tuning in! Character-Building From the Inside Out should be out by the end of the summer. In the meantime, please comment with your own favorite or least favorite superpowers and share why–as well as the superpower you’d like to have! Broad categories count; if you really want to be an elf, that race counts as a superpower. 🙂

Make Your Protagonist Special

My husband hosted an incubator of chicks in his classroom this past spring. Every day, the students faithfully checked on them. One epic day, they hatched!

Since the 4H gave him a mixture of eggs, most of the chicks were yellow, and a handful were black or greyish and speckled.

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Chicks chilling in a box while the brooder is cleaned.

When it came time for the students to take the chicks home, guess which ones a lot of them wanted?

That’s right. The black or greyish speckled ones. Especially the chick that my husband had named Ngogo. By the way, this word means ‘fish’ in Swahili. A chick named fish. I challenge you to write a story on that.

The reasons his students wanted those chicks were simple:

1.) The black and greyish chicks were distinctive. There were only a few, and the students could easily identify them. Their rareness made them more compelling.

2.) Ngogo had been given a unique name (from a story they were reading in literature). Not only that, he’d been set apart by the teacher, an authority figure.

How does this relate to protagonists? I’ll tell you another story. About a young teenage author who was so obsessed with making sure her main characters were NOT Mary Sues–characters overloaded with so many gifts and talents they make Sleeping Beauty look poor–that she wrote the dullest characters in existence.

That stubborn teenager was me.  And those characters were so flat, boring, and uninspiring that I can’t even remember their names. I had proven to the world that I wouldn’t write a Mary Sue. And in turn, I made characters that no reader cared about, because there was no reason to. There was absolutely nothing distinct, nothing special, nothing unique about any of them.

There are plenty of websites ready to tell you the Big Secret to making your character shine. And depending on your genre and your story and your writing style, they could be right. I’m always ready to learn more myself.

But here’s my secret:

Make your protagonist special. Make them different. Give them that weird hair color or that weird superpower or that weird, inexplicable fascination with toaster ovens. When you stick them in those impossible situations, equip them with some kind of special-ness to be able to handle that situation. Not at first, of course. Growth comes over the course of the plot. But don’t leave a protagonist with nothing to work with at the start.

Also, don’t be afraid to make your protagonist special in a negative way. Give them a fatal flaw. Preferably something that will crop up and interfere with the plot. Having a hatred of pizza won’t mean much–unless your hero is set to inherit a dynasty of pizza parlors.

If you want? Give the protagonist an odd name. Author Veronica Roth chose ordinary names for many of her characters, and yet she named her main character “Tris.” Her main squeeze’s name? “Four.”

Even Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables was “Anne with an E.” And her ‘special’–her imagination and dauntless will–was downright hazardous to her health sometimes.  But it made her memorable, and that makes for happy readers ready for the next book. I’m one of them. 😉 Anne Shirley drove me crazy sometimes, but to this day, she remains fixed in my mind as an awesome character.

For fiction? I’m currently writing Melrose Durante, a 2,000+ year old immortal healer from Blood Mercy:Thicker Than Water. He has a sarcastic wit, an unmatched intellect, a massive case of germaphobia, and a resolution to never personally harm anyone.  He’s also only about 5 feet, six inches. Or as his wife likes to say ‘short, smart, and scowly.’

In the spirit of epic protagonists, who is your favorite protagonist? If you’re a reader, share them in a comment (with a pic) along with why you think they’re awesome. If you’re a writer, share about one of your epic protagonists.

If you’re both reader and writer, share both!

5 Awkward Questions to Ask Your Protagonist

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I love asking questions. Awkward, weird, wonderful questions that get to the heart of people. It’s one of my favorite parts of getting to know someone. And while the following questions are perhaps a little too personal for general consumption, they are great for grilling protagonists (and other characters) and making them ‘fess up their guts. The thing to remember is that it’s not only what the character answers, but how they answer. A refusal to answer can be equally revealing. The trick is not letting the protagonist off the hook with a one or two word answer–hence, I’ve added bullet points after each question giving additional probes. Get ready to have some character fun!

1.) Would they wear the same clothes two days in a row? More than two days? Do they believe in the ‘smell test’ for clothing?

  • Can reveal their perspective on cleanliness
  • Can reveal their socioeconomic class
  • Can reveal how good their sense of smell is
  • Can reveal how conscious they are of how others view them
  • Can reveal their perspective on themselves
  • Can reveal general standards for the culture

2.) A bird poops on them. How do they handle it?

  • Can reveal their view of animals
  • Can reveal how they handle negative surprises
  • Can reveal their general outlook on life – positive or negative
  • Can reveal how prepared they are for messes

3.) Unexpected pregnancy–how do they deal with it? How would they react if they found out they were pregnant, or that their spouse/significant other was pregnant?

  • Can reveal their relationship status
  • Can reveal their attitude towards family and children
  • Can reveal their level of preparedness
  • Can reveal their religious background
  • Can reveal the sexual/courtship rituals of the culture

4.) What are they addicted to? What is the one thing they could never give up?

  • Can reveal their vices – think about ordinary, everyday issues
  • Can open up possibilities for areas of weakness
  • Can open up discussion about how they handle those vices. Are they ashamed? Proud?
  • Can diversify their characterization with negative traits

5.) Who or what would they die for? Why? If no one/nothing, why not?

  • Can reveal their perspective on death/the afterlife
  • Opens up philosophy and religious aspects
  • Reveals who/what they value
  • Can reveal their personality, in terms of pragmatism, martyrdom, selfishness, etc

Feel free to answer any questions from your character’s POV in the comments–or add your own questions!

Writing Better … by Not Writing

In case you haven’t realized, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) started yesterday! Wo0t!

NaNoWriMo has a special place in my fiction writing career, because winning it in 2009 was what restarted my creative writing brain.

I had just graduated college, just gotten married, and just gotten my first post-college job at a Kmart for the holiday season. Not super-impressive for a Summa Cum Laude graduate, but it helped pay the bills on our tiny apartment with an overabundance of mice tenants from the nearby dumpsters.

I had taken a hiatus from creative writing due to a mild addiction to daydreaming, and the demands of my senior year of college. But in November 2009, stretched out on a secondhand couch, I prayed and decided that if God wanted me to write fiction, then I’d manage to hack out 50,000 words.

The rest, as they say, is history. Since then I’ve pursued quite a few creative endeavors, endured more than a few failures, and made many friends along the way. I’ve never seriously attempted NaNoWriMo again, because I’ve really never stopped writing.

As my husband mentioned last week, “how is NaNoWriMo going to be any different?” and also, the entirely legitimate, “how are you going to make this commitment when you’re teaching?”

Here’s my secret: I’m not writing all the time.

I’ve set aside a certain word count for every day and a certain amount of time to complete it. And once I’ve achieved the word count? Done. Stop mid sentence. No matter if I could write more, or want to write more. Hands off the plate, just like in cooking competitions, and I’m onto grading or lesson planning or even washing dishes. Things that need to be done, because they are part of Life and Responsibilities and Joys. While I’m working on these other tasks, my brain is percolating and turning the ideas over in my head, so that when I sit down the next time? I’m ready to go.

Sometimes the secret to writing better is not writing. (Click to Tweet)

Live your life. Even though it’s fun to joke, please don’t neglect important stuff just to hit your word count. But do be sensitive to every moment for ideas. Think things and feel things and let your every experience sink deep into your soul. And then put your fingers to keyboard, your pen to paper, or your spoken words to your preferred voice recorder.

And go for it. If you don’t finish? You tried your best and were faithful to all parts of your life. Besides, there’s always December. 😉

write better

  • Consider whatever you’re doing. Whether it’s making supper, running an errand, reading a book, cleaning up after the dog, etc, try to imagine how your characters would each approach the same task. Would they do it slower? Quicker? Use a superpower or magic? Make their servant do it?
  • Keep sharp for ordinary humor. As I mentioned in my humor-writing article, sometimes the best inspiration can come from awkward, odd, or downright disastrous moments in your life. After you deal with the embarrassment, shame, or emotional turmoil, think how you can mine that sucker for plot interest.
  • Test out dialogue by talking to yourself. Now, I only do this when I’m alone, because my students think I’m crazy enough as it is. 😉 However, if you want to go around muttering to yourself in public? I’m not there. I won’t stop you.
  • Get ideas from unlikely sources. TV commercials. Billboard ads. Children’s books–yes, even the ones you’ve read a hundred times over. The reasons those commercials are being aired and those books are well-read are that they are apparently reaching some kind of audience. Think about who they are reaching, and how they do it.

How about you? Any other tips out there?

Are Your Characters Too Nice?

I want nicer character faults. Y’know, the kind that actually help people? Solid, pretty faults that sound great at job interviews.

Like “I can’t help but tip the waitress 30%.” 

Or maybe “I really love grading. I just can’t help going over every test three times.”

Or how about, “I am so excited about cleaning the narsty scum beneath cabinets. It’s a terrible fault, I know…”

Are you feeling it? Me either. Unfortunately, my faults fall along the lines of impatient. Unfeeling Closed off. Things that definitely slant negative, and definitely don’t flatter me.

It’s easy to want to make ourselves look good. We like to keep our pride intact. It’s even part of some marketing advice: get personal, but never too personal. Never ugly. Because then things get real, and when things get real, they get messy. And to be honest? There are plenty of tell-alls out there already. The abbreviation TMI exists for a reason.

Messy isn’t always great for real life. But messy is fantastic for characters. (Tweet This)

It’s easy to fall into the trap of making characters too likable. Call it the Cinderella Complex.

She’s too docile. She’s too kind. She cleans too much and saves too many animals. These flaws make it hard to relate to a character and also make them less realistic. No matter how kind or gentle, we all go through bad days and it’s important to show that by making the character really lose it once in a while. These character flaws  are also passive; they make a character less likely to act. And protagonists need to act to push the story forward.

What about the opposite? The Hercules Complex.

Yes, the Disney Hercules. He is too brave. Too heroic. He just can’t stop himself from saving the day and protecting everyone. This is also unrealistic. No matter how self-sacrificing, no one can keep up with that. Eventually, like Mr. Incredible says, the hero is just going to want the world to stay saved.  Also, like a Cinderella, a Hercules is too impossibly good for us ordinary humans to click with. The good news is a Hercules will push the plot forward; the bad news is that, unless they fail, they won’t learn anything along the way, and this makes for a flat character arc. Flat character arcs can work, but showing struggle can’t hurt. Even Jesus cried blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Solutions? Well, you could just rethink the whole character. However, that’s not always convenient and takes time away from writing. For a too-perfect character, try to flip their strengths into flaws. (Tweet This)

Docile and kind? Becomes a pushover who won’t stand up for herself or others when bad things happen.

Brave and self-sacrificing? Turns into a mountain of pride and a secret ambition to never need saving and never let anyone rescue him.

Sometimes, there is too much of a good thing. Sometimes, you really can’t afford to tip the waitress 30% (although as a former waitress, I still promote 20% if the service was decent). Sometimes looking over those tests three times or cleaning that scum takes away from time with your family or doing other tasks. Or sleeping.

Are there any other too-perfect character stereotypes? Please feel free to share!