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?

3 Easy Tips to Use Dialect in Writing and World-Building

When you bring up world-building, one of the first things that comes up is language. People ask if you’ve made up your own language, or if you’re going to, or how you should do it.

Now, if you want to make up languages, go ahead! I’m not stopping you. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the world of phonemes, morphemes, etc.  However, if you want to focus more on getting words onto paper, I’d suggest a different route.

Use dialects.

The different between a language and a dialect can be subjective.

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Officially (more or less) the difference between languages and dialects is that people who speak different languages can’t understand each other, whereas people from other dialects can at least hold a conversation (this Economist article does a nice job with a few more details).

For the purposes of writing, we’ll call a language something you have to make up and then translate for the reader somehow–context clues or a convenient translator repeating everything for the protagonist are common ways. A dialect is something that involves more of syntax (word order) and lexicon (vocabulary) than long strings of foreign language. The reader can still understand the dialogue more or less.

For example, the acceptable, grammatically correct way of phrasing a sentence might be this:

I like flute music.

Nonstandard speech might phrase it.

I like me some flute music.

Another way could be.

Flute music me likes.

(Yes, I used to play the flute).

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The second and third examples are both nonstandard usages of English that would get a red flag from any editor–unless those usages were intentional uses of dialect within a fictional setting. Then it becomes a matter of which usage best fits the voice of the character, the tone of the piece, and is easy for readers to understand.

Unlike the tips I’ve given you previously, messing around with dialect isn’t an easy trick. It requires time, effort, care, and a fair amount of YouTube videos (and if possible, some in-person reference or personal experience to draw upon). However, I’m all about action items, so here are:

3 Dos and 3 Don’ts of Dialect

1.) DO use dialect as a way of showing differences between culture, ethnicity, and socio-economic class.

You can also explore concepts of discrimination against certain dialects,  the elevation of other dialects as superior, and the way that people make judgments based on speech. It’s also great for showing geographical distance. Any time a people group is isolated, they will develop their own manners of speech.

DON’T overdo dialect at the expense of clarity.

I read a YA book with the standard love triangle with two guys after one girl. This was actually a decent love triangle. Both males were fully-fleshed characters who had their own lives and goals apart from the female protagonist. However, a main reason I shipped one guy over the other was due to dialect. This writer went all in for piratey dialect in such a way that made it really hard to understand what the guy was saying–and even harder to imagine his voice in my head. All of the commas and apostrophes used to indicate his particular way of speech made reading his dialogue more of a decoding session instead of an enjoyable experience.

2.) DO use resources online. Google references and sources on the dialects you’re using. If possible, go bother a linguist friend. 

DON’T just think you can do this on your own. Even if you are writing from personal experience and your personal dialect, still check some YouTube videos, online reference guides, and resources. Google is your friend. My current WIP draws heavily from my personal dialect and my experiences with Appalachian dialects. Plus, I’ve had linguistic and cultural training. However, I still have at least three different tabs open when I’m drafting for easy access to sentence structure, idioms, and unique lexicon. Writing is different than speaking and still requires intentionality.

3.) DO feel free to borrow different linguistic aspects from existing languages to substitute for fake languages.

Languages borrow from each other all the time–English being one of the worst offenders! Go ahead and Google ideas. Just be respectful and intelligent in usage. Having a linguist help out is invaluable.

DON’T forget to keep track of your own rules!

Each time you borrow a sentence structure or a type of spelling or a slang word, write it down or copy and paste into a document. Make sure you’re consistent in usage as well. In my current WIP, I’m managing the interactions of three different levels of Appalachian dialect: the super thick, archaic dialect of immortals who have lived there for over a century,  the mixed dialect of a descendant who wants to break away from his ancient clan, and then the dialect of AJ, the main character who moved to the valley when she was a young teenager and picked up a lot of the syntax to fit in but is a little self-conscious about it and will code-switch into more educated speech. Those little touches are easy ways to distinguish between character roles and deepen each character naturally.

What about you? Do you use dialect in your writing or world-building?

What do you think of books that are heavy on dialect? Any great pieces of advice?

 

 

Confessions of a Role-Playing, Collaborative Writer

MONDAYS

 

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!

4 Things Sword-Building and Character-Building Have In Common

Fun fact! I build swords. Ones made out of PVC pipe and camping foam and contact cement (hereafter known as ‘DAP’) and duct tape.

My husband and I met at a Dagorhir battle club at  college, beating each other up with foam swords according to the rules of this national sport. The rest, as they say, is history. And since he’s an awesome elementary school teacher, he adapted Dagorhir into a youth activity and taught at recreational centers, after school clubs, and this summer, an overnight camp.

All of this means that

  • We have an increasing stockpile of sword-building supplies
  • We get to have an enormous amount of fun even though we’re adults
  • We hold annual weapon-building classes for the students.

Like this week. We work with the kids to build their weapons well, from the inside out, starting with the core. Which brought to mind some comparisons with character-building.

1.) People Won’t Get Why You’re Putting In the Effort

We have a small sunroom stocked with foam weapons and supplies, which all comes out on build week. Some people who stop by the room think it’s awesome. Some are just curious. And some wonder why grown-ups are kneeling on the ground and explaining different ways of applying DAP or talking about a really cool axe they saw. It’s just a silly toy, right? Only meant for amusement.

In the same way, people may not get why you spend time talking about (and to) your characters. Your imaginary friends, as it were. Why it matters what eye color they have, why you spend time finding the right name, why their backstory is a big deal. After all, get the words on the page, and make sure you have good cliffhangers, and readers will follow, right?

But my husband and I believe in excellence. While we know our weapons won’t be perfect (and we certainly know the students’ weapons won’t be perfect), we do everything unto God and to bless others with safe, playable weapons. In the same way, your characters won’t be perfect–in fact, perfect characters are dull. But the more work you put into them, the deeper and more satisfying they’ll be, and that blesses readers with a  memorable ride that they’ll want to go on again and again.

2.) Things Get Sticky and Messy

Sword-building involves DAP. A lot of it. FYI, it doesn’t come out of cloth. We still have a nice ‘battle-scar’ on the back seat of our car. It does come off skin (thankfully), but in order to build well, you end up getting messy, especially if it’s your first time and you use too much DAP on your pieces.

Characterization is messy, too. You dig deeper into your characters and find out new things that are awkward and can ruin perfectly good plots. Like your main character falling for your villain–or a destined couple that works perfectly in theory has no chemistry on the page. Or perhaps, you keep writing and whoops! That character just died. Or worst of all: your character is boring, because you nailed them to the page so hard that there’s no room for creativity or free interaction. Whether you’re a plotter (like me), or a pantser, in the trenches of writing, things happen. Characters die (tragedy) or get married (comedy) and leave you bewildered. Sort of like DAP on the backseat of the car.

3.) Sometimes You Have to Start From Scratch

Funny thing about building foam swords. If your base layer of foam is too skinny at one end, or placed on the pipe crooked, or not trimmed well, it throws off the next later of strips. And the wrap layer. And if you soldier on, you’ll end up with my first sword, which was distinctly curved and warped around the pipe. I could still use it, but people noticed, and it was a pain to cover with cloth. I made sure with my next weapons to be more careful, instead of just trying to finish quickly.

In the same way, sometimes a character does not work. You try to change the surface things–tweak the appearance, maybe give them different parents or a pet. But that doesn’t quite do it. Soon, you realize that something deeper is at work. Their core motivation is wonky. Maybe you thought they were fighting for freedom, when in fact, they just wanted some adventure. Perhaps you thought they would never cave into a situation–but their pragmatic attitude suggests the opposite. One major cause of writers block is ignoring or misinterpreting the key motivation of characters, and causing them to act against what is plausible and reasonable.

“But I’m the writer,” you say (especially if you’re a perfectionist plotter). “This is my story. They need to get with the program.”

This works about as well as yelling at a crooked foam blade and hoping it’ll straighten itself. Instead, you have to roll up your sleeves and dig into the characters, and if necessary pull a revision. Don’t try to cover up poor character motivation. Readers won’t be fooled, but they could be confused and even angered.

4.) Most of the Work Will Never Been Seen

Sword-building involves layers of cutting foam, checking measurements, applying just the right amount of contact cement, and placing pieces carefully. Then, all of it is covered beneath a tightly-sewn cloth.

In the same way, much of the work that goes into characterization is “useless.” You will know far more about your characters’ likes, dislikes, favorite colors, etc than will ever reach the page. And it’s easy to wonder what’s the point? But like a well-built sword, a well-built character will hold up under pressure and hard usage. When you place your character in difficult situations, they’ll reward you with unique, intriguing reactions and authenticity that will have readers cheering for them.

I’m drafting Character-Building From the Inside Out, the second in my series of quick reference guides. Like World-Building From the Inside Out, it’s designed to give you fresh insights into character building, quick fixes for problem spots, and practical breakdowns that you can implement into your unique story. And it’ll be short. Because the goal is to get words on the page and bring your awesome ideas to life!

Of course, I love giving away advice and worksheets, so keep an eye out here over the next few months for tidbits and helpful advice!

Speaking of advice, feel free to include any tips on characterization in the comments! I’d love to include them in the book and give you full credit for your epic genius.  🙂