Part Three: Personality Typing, Writer’s Edition

*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.

73ff0a9367ff12f1b26682d9deee3182
(Meg)

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.

blue horse
(source)

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.

George
George: Trying His Best (TM)

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. 😉

funny Jack and Shufen
Shufen: Ready For Anything.  Jack: Impressed But Concerned.

That’s all for now, guys!

Do you use personality typing in your own writing?

Are you thinking of trying it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 thoughts on “Part Three: Personality Typing, Writer’s Edition

Add yours

  1. First one to comment? YASS.

    That last screen shot made me laugh so hard. I can totally hear a character saying that, or that being his motivation. And you did an excellent job making Meg and George true to their characters and both over-react and under-think when it came to dealing with their life issues.

    I don’t think I consciously set out to create a character type in advance when I draft a book, but when I go back over it, their pattern emerges and then I get a sense of their type and that allows me to build more toward that or remain at least consistent. I mean, my Henry Tudor is an INTJ 5w6 sx/sp. He always thinks far ahead, he sees through things, but he relies on his extroverted enforcer to act on his behalf. He is paranoid, secretive, and somewhat insecure, but also totally convinced he has made the right decisions, like a 5. His 6 wing likes to be liked, and focuses on his family, and can be charming and funny, but his default is always to withhold himself, even from his wife, out of an sx5 fear of her disapproval. Meanwhile, his ENTJ 8w9 sp/so enforcer goes around intimidating people (but playing nice with his wife) and doing what “must be done” (even if it’s immoral) to protect his chosen few.

    I seem to still be ‘feeling out’ some of my other characters in the Tudor books. Katharine is an ENFJ, but has not told me yet whether she’s a soc 2w3 or 3w2. Given how easily she pretends things she doesn’t feel and puts aside her own needs, she might be 3w2.

    But yes. Knowing a characters type avoids the bad boy ESFP trope. Though looking back on my previous books, I noticed I tend to write a lot of NT 8w9 men with hurts in their past. Must like the idea of them. 😉

    Like

    1. YASSSS

      Hahaha, good!! Yep, that is 100% Jack and Shufen’s dynamic. Shufen is an unapologetic badass, will jump on anything, tackle anything, does not care: Jack is meanwhile going, “honey, I am concerned for your safety but also lowkey turned on right now.”

      Thank you! ❤ I'm glad you liked how they came out!

      Yep. I can absolutely see both types as I read, INTJ 5 and ENTJ 8 … they're very consistent! Myself, when I begin creating a character / drafting, sometimes I have a vague idea of the type (like Meg, I knew she would be NFP, but her Enneagram shifted from the 6 I was originally envisioning, to a 9w8). Going forward in the series, though, now I KNOW her type for sure and will be relying on it to craft her arc. On the other hand, with a character like George, from the very get-go, my brain was all, "Lo, he shall be ESTJ 8," and behold! it was so.

      😛

      I could see 3w2 for Katharine. That girl certainly knows how to perform. And emotion-wise, affection-wise, she's honestly not very … needy? Compared to what she could be, I mean. She definitely has feelings; but she's not exactly defining herself by her relationships.

      Well, we know you DO like the idea of them 😉 but honestly that's good!! It means you're writing a distinct character archetype that makes sense and works FOR YOU; not just the one that "everyone" uses or falls back on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know that I have ever written an NFP other than Thomas More (whose Fi-dom THIS IS WRONG AND I MUST STOP IT stands out a mile away) … which is odd, since I am one. Maybe I know what we are like and want to avoid trying to write the manic mental energy. 😉

        Katharine shape-shifts very well and … you are right, puts herself aside less than she becomes whatever the situation requires. She’s not very controlling, either. Sweet little protective, proactive Estrella is probably the 2. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This post is wonderful!!! 👏🏻 I’ve been eagerly awaiting your posts on personality typing, and I enjoyed your first two immensely—but this is the one that I could hardly wait for! 😉

    I’ve used the Myers-Briggs types to create my characters for years, but I’m not quite as familiar with the Enneagram. Your posts are super informative though, and I cannot wait to implement the Enneagram into my characters! It’s going to be so helpful, especially for my protagonist, who has been a little difficult. 🙈 You did an incredible job of breaking it all down and explaining it all in a very accessible way! 👌🏻

    (Also, I loved hearing more about your characters! 🤗)

    Like

    1. Thank you, Caitlin!!! Ahhhh, I’m so glad to know you enjoyed this post and that it was helpful for you! ❤ It was super fun for me to write, I couldn't wait either 😀

      Aw I'm glad!! My characters are such Hot Messes, but isn't that the best kind?? I have fun with them xD

      Like

  3. Ooo, I LOVE this post so much! All your personality posts explain things so well, and I loved the way you showed how each of these personality “tests” can play out in characters. Fantastic! ❤ ❤ *goes off to type characters* XD

    Like

  4. YES. YESYESYESYES!!!!!! MBTI helps me create my characters SO MUCH. (And now I totally need to use Enneagram as well and I’M EXCITED TO GIVE IT A GO.) I think I mentioned it before, but that’s kiiinda how I became MBTI obsessed–using it to help understand my characters. It’s so very useful!

    Your point about people fearing they’ll be putting their characters “in a box” is SPOT ON. For example, I have a BUNCH of ENFP characters. (I love me some ENFPs. Especially writing them. They’re such fun!) But not a single one of those ENFPs are all that similar. They’re VERY different people. Like you said, it’s more like a template, a framework to start with and understand how a character is going to process and act on something.

    Basically this is all perfect and I have so thoroughly enjoyed this series!!!

    Also, it was a delight getting to know some of your characters. 😀 They sounds like such dynamic people to write about!

    Like

    1. Ahhhh thank you Christine!! *beams* So glad you enjoyed it! YES. Writing and creating new characters has definitely helped sustain my interest in both MBTI and Enneagram–because I NEED SOME WAY TO UNDERSTAND THESE CRAZY CHILDREN BETTER. *facepalms slightly* Isn’t it so much fun?? 😀

      I love ENFPs. They are my People. ❤ And yes, they really can be all different!!

      Thanks!! They're idiots, but I do love them *grins*

      Like

  5. Ok, but first things first – Swiss cheese plotting! XD That cracked me up.

    (Now we may continue.)

    This is so inspiring! No, really! I can TOTALLY see why no one would have ever picked on your characters. And girl, I NEED THIS. Because that’s something I’ve been frustrated at myself at – I feel as though my characters are kind of shallow, but I don’t know how to accurately build their personality without throwing in stereotypes and conflicting behaviours. So I will DEFINITELY be using personality typing from now on. 😀 Super excited to put this into practice!! (And it should definitely also improve building intensity, when you can project the correct challenges and fears to place in front of your characters to solve. *rubs hands gleefully*)

    Like

    1. *cracks up with you* 😉

      I’m so glad!!! I really hope it’s useful to you!! Because it’s been REALLY USEFUL to me, in all seriousness. It helps me soooo much with not just knowing who my characters are and how they react on a day-to-day level, but also how to Challenge Them and make them Face Their Demons. *gleeful hand-rubbing intensifies*

      Like

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