*sepulchral tones, from beyond the grave*
hellooooooooo … children …
(Okay, that was creepy. I admit it.)
In my previous posts for this series, I’ve broken down the basics of both MBTI and the Enneagram. Today, for the final installment, I’m here to talk about personality typing as a writing tool: how you can harness MBTI and Enneagram to build more consistent, more vibrant characters.
As a writer, and a relatively new writer at that, I’ve received plenty of complaints about my stories. Valid, thoughtful criticism from beta readers, pointing out very real flaws in my skimpy worldbuilding and my sparse description and my Swiss-cheese-plotting annnnnnnnd …. the list goes on. *side-eyes Certain Early Projects Which Will Never See the Light of Day*
The one criticism I’ve never, ever gotten? “Your main cast were bland and boring, and I couldn’t tell what they wanted.”
Never once. Not. one. time.
Whatever other weaknesses my books have, I’m pretty solid when it comes to building characters and giving them a voice. My purpose here is not to brag, but to tell you this: the one thing that helps me MOST in writing strong, vivid characters, is knowing their personality types. I believe this knowledge could help other writers, too.
Allow me, my dears, to Elaborate™.
Some writers may worry about shoving their characters “in a box.” “If I type her as ESFJ, then she’ll act exactly like every other ESFJ instead of being unique.” Nope. That’s not the purpose of character typing. The Myers-Briggs type and the Enneagram number are a template around which you build a unique individual. A basic guide to the rules of their behavior, the patterns of their reactions. Let me assure you, as someone who knows multiple ESFJs in real life (as well as having multiple ESFJs in my stories): they are by no means exactly the same. 😉
Especially if you use both systems together. Because, as I hinted in my last two posts, cognitive functions and Enneagram numbers play off each other: so ESFJ 6 looks a bit different from ESFJ 2, who has certain differences from ESFJ 3, and so on.
Character Typing: Quick ‘N Dirty Version
- MBTI tells you how your character does things. How they process information, how they solve problems.
- Their top two cognitive functions are the “tools” they use most effectively: while their bottom two functions are the “tools” they pull out in an emergency. Usually to burn stuff with.
- Enneagram tells you why your character does things: in other words, motivation.
- What’s their greatest fear? What’s their deepest desire? Why are they employing those MBTI “tools,” and to what end?
- Both typings are equally useful. There’s no why without a how, and vice versa.
As our first example, let’s break down my protagonist, Meg O’Shea, from Water Horse. Meg is INFP, 9w8, sx/so, and sp blind.
What does this mean: and how does it help me as I write her?
INFP tells me Meg leads with Introverted Feeling (Fi) and Extroverted Intuition (Ne). Being Fi-dominant means Meg is an feeling-driven person whose feelings are largely private. She relies on her inner sense of “what feels right” to make decisions. You won’t catch her solving problems based on cold, hard logic–or based on anyone else’s ideas of “what would be right.” Nor will you find her revealing emotional struggles to anyone but the most trusted confidantes. She’s prone to keeping deep secrets about her troubled childhood, as many Fi types do.
Extroverted Intuition (Ne) makes Meg curious, open to new ideas, ready to jump on new possibilities, OVERidealistic (can be fooled by the promise of change which never comes); and lastly, indecisive.
Introverted Sensing (Si) and Extroverted Thinking (Te) are Meg’s two weakest points. Low Si means she’s sentimental about the past, romanticizes her environment, but doesn’t have enough Si to be good with practical details. Finally: remember what I said about the lowest functions being the ones we pull out in an emergency? Te is Meg’s emergency go-to. While she’s indisputably bad at commanding others, bad at recognizing “hard facts,” she may seize control under pressure … usually in a super haphazard fashion which doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence in More Practical People.
There. That’s Meg’s “how.” Let’s turn to Enneagram for her “why.”
Enneagram Nines fear conflict, and long for peace and serenity. Like many Nines, then, Meg is sweet, gentle, unhurried, unambitious, easily content with life’s simple pleasures. Tends to numb the pain of her past, as opposed to introspecting or dwelling on it.
And of course, she carries the giant, blinking, neon warning sign of all Nines:
**MAY BURY UNPLEASANT TRUTHS RATHER THAN DISCUSS HONESTLY**
Which lands her in an enormous puddle of trouble, and creates the book’s major conflict: she can’t, to save her life, tell George about the monster horses and ask directly for his help in fighting them, because … what will he say … what if he’s mad at me … can I just eat ice cream and forget all this is happening …
Meanwhile, Meg’s 8 wing means she miiiiiiiiiiiight surprise you with an occasional outburst of violent anger, if pushed too hard. The 9w8 is generally happy to “live and let live,” but if you come @them, they will come for you. Hard.
Finally, sx means she never shies away from intensity; and all things considered–past trauma notwithstanding–she really isn’t very hesitant to develop strong feelings for George, or respond to his feelings for her. Okay, let’s go, let’s do this. As for sp blind? I need only tell you this girl once rode out into the middle of a howling, freezing windstorm, WITHOUT THINKING TO BRING A COAT, and consequently nearly died of hypothermia. Fun times, y’all. Fun times.
You see, then, what personality typing does?
It gives me a solid background for each character, “this is how they will approach X problem, and this is why they’re so afraid of Y disaster.” It frees me from relying on vague archetypes, or on a mish-mash of the characters I’ve encountered in other stories. The real reason our heroes can sometimes sound “just like everybody else’s heroes” is our writing brains’ need for a framework. Trying to create a person out of nothing is exhausting. Without a clear picture of who this Entirely New Human is, what they want, and how they approach life, your brain often seizes on previous examples–aka the typical patterns for whatever genre you’ve picked–and runs with them. This is how we get legions upon legions of smirking, funny, cocky, irresponsible, dark-haired, chisel-jawed dudes in our romances, for example.
they’re mostly ESxP 7s by the way
In particular, I have to give a special shout-out to the Enneagram for helping me accomplish every writer’s cherished dream:
Pinpointing my characters’ biggest weaknesses, and exploiting the ever-loving crap out of ’em.
You want a high stakes story? Find out what they’re afraid of, and make them face it. Find out what they want most, and take it away from them. Lo and behold, Enneagram offers you a choice of nine distinct core fears, paired with nine “I wants” which are (conveniently) the mirror image of those fears.
Let’s take a look at a few more of my characters, and see how this works.
George Calhoun, Meg’s husband in Water Horse, is ESTJ 8w7 so/sp. His functions are the opposite of Meg’s: he leads with Te and Si, then follows up with much-weaker Ne and Fi. He’s a born leader, a born organizer, good with facts and details, comfortable making decisions based on hard evidence; and erm, not, exactly, the world’s most imaginative or most sensitive guy. 😛 He cares very deeply about Certain People, but will express such affection in concrete, practical ways rather than gushing about his feelings.
As a social Eight, George has a driving need to be strong specifically so he can protect people. He measures himself by how well he protects his family, his employees, and his friends. Unfortunately, George’s 8ish aggressiveness and need for control often pushes away the very people he’s trying to care for. Example: his first marriage fell apart,
and his wife ran away with a murderer but we don’t talk about that.
I saddled him with that failed relationship, KNOWING how insecure it would make him feel as an Eight, knowing how weak it would make him feel, and how much he DESPISES feeling weak: because that’s how you write a compelling backstory. That’s how you find out what your characters are really made of.
You gotta twist the knife, y’know?
Meanwhile, Jack Landry, from Dragon (current W.I.P.), is a counterphobic Six. Which means he’s rebellious, reckless, with a compulsive need to challenge authority: yet he (paradoxically) craves a strong authority to go up against. He feels safest around George and The Gang™, where he can gripe about George making him work too hard–yet 100% trust George to handle any danger which arises. He needs a place to belong. So obviously, what’s the best way to exploit Jack’s weakness? Throw him in a situation where he’s cut off from the gang, cut off from George’s support: worse, where he believes he can never go back home; and watch him flounder.
Ya want angst? Because That’s How You Get Angst.
(It’s also how you get growth, okay? I promise, I’m not a sadist. I’m doing this for a reason. For science.)
And don’t worry: I gave Jack a badass ISTP 8w9 girlfriend who’s more than capable of helping him flounder through … whatever he’s got going on in this book. 😉
That’s all for now, guys!
Do you use personality typing in your own writing?
Are you thinking of trying it?