We’ve all encountered film and television that’s positively holds us in our seats because of the characters. Even when a film’s plot weakens or dramatic action wanes, we stick to our guns and continue taking it in, fascinated not because of what we are watching, but who. We’ll even ingest whole seasons of cookie cutter television simply to follow that singular character, whose overarching issues bring us back for more, or that couple, who quicken our hearts with their “will they/won’t they” relationship. To put this in context — nobody watched House for the medical mystery.
But what creates that chemistry in a character? What are the building blocks of putting flesh and blood into an idea of a human being? What makes them work with or against others in a story? Coming up with such memorable characters is certainly one part luck, but, without sounding too clinical, areas of study such as psychiatry can also play a large part in helping creatives form engaging characters who, not only contain heart, but soul. One of the most well known of these possible aids is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
Myers-Briggs: The Basics
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a “psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.” To put simply, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers used what they learned from Carl Jung’s four principal psychological functions (sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking) and created a test that could classify people based on combining four selections. With this combination, one could classify human behavior. These are as follows…
1. Extrovert or Introvert (E/I) — Extroverts learn best by talking and interacting with others. Introverts prefer quiet reflection and privacy.
2. Sensing or Intuitive (S/N) — Sensing types enjoy a learning environment in which the material is presented in a detailed and sequential manner. Intuitive types prefer a learning atmosphere in which an emphasis is placed on meaning and associations.
3. Thinking or Feeling (I/F) — Thinking types desire objective truth and logical principles and are natural at deductive reasoning. Feeling types place an emphasis on issues and causes that can be personalized while they consider other people’s motives.
4. Judging or Perceiving (J/P) — Judging types will thrive when information is organized and structured. Perceiving types will flourish in a flexible learning environment in which they are stimulated by new and exciting ideas.
When mapped out in all its different ways, we gain insight, not only on ourselves, but some of history’s greatest people.
When ENTJ Met INFP
So how can we use this classification system to make thoroughly dynamic characters? Simply knowing about the classifications and how they interact is half the battle. Need a combative, but sexually charged relationship for an ESTJ structured leader like Princess Leia? Look no further than the wild loner ISTP of Han Solo. Who can make things difficult for an INTJ like Walter White? How about making him work with a ESFP like Jesse Pinkman?
Understanding the dynamic relationships of each Myers-Briggs type allows you to structure characters in a framework and, when a story calls for it, move them out from under those foundations in transformation. You can either do this suddenly to shock your audience or gradually to show shifts in a character’s personality. You may even find that certain genres need special acknowledgment of MB testing. For example, a murder mystery will need you to construct a killer who is a certain type, but may be acting other variations out to fool your detective and audience.
Great tension can also be found between characters who hold the same MB type, but wildly contrasting ideologies. One could argue that a classic example of this is Silence of the Lambs, where both the cannibal Hannibal Lecter and the FBI agent Clarice Starling are INTJ. It is their dichotomy of psychological function versus moral action that draw them closer together and rip them farther apart almost simultaneously.
Letting it Play Out
The Myers-Briggs classification system is, without a doubt, an aid to any writer, not only because it’s a starting skeleton for creating, but because, if fleshed out completely, the characters create the story for you. Stephen King said it best in his book On Writing…
If a writer can internally grasp the complexities of the individual Myers-Briggs types, they can almost act as a rulebook for your character’s actions. This can be extremely frustrating when you want your character to zig, but know full well that, no matter what, he will always zag. While such knowledge can drastically affect your story’s plotting, it also smooths it out and adjusts all those contrived false moments to work together instead of against the universe you’ve created.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator allows creatives to mold dynamic characters and turn them into choice-making entities who ebb and flow naturally. It is with such constructs that we can cut the strings from our puppets and let them create a world that fits their story best and make our audience shift forward in their seats that much farther.