Personality Theory in Fiction Writing II: Employing Type Theory

In part one of this series, we talked about why using personality type theory can be helpful in creating fictional characters, and even in writing itself. But, in practice, what does that look like? Let’s take a closer look at how incorporating personality type theory into character development can make characters more believable and realistic, including some examples.

Consistency

By keeping in mind a character’s personality type, an author can craft reasonably consistent behavior, and thereby avoid confusing or irritating readers with seemingly erratic or incongruous actions. Let’s start with an example.

Example: Sergeant Denise Washington (a Turbulent Protagonist, ENFJ-T) was always the first through the door on a bust. Unrelenting since the day she joined the force, she wanted to prove herself amid the blue sea of masculinity that sometimes felt like it might drown her. She did her job with pride, putting her best foot forward determinedly to kick a hole in the department’s tired, old-world mentality just as surely as she’d kick in a door on a raid.

Referring to the personality theory model for a Turbulent Protagonist provides an understanding of how this character is likely to act in any given situation. She’s bold, forward-looking, idealistic, and restless. Knowing her trait-driven tendencies and behavior guides the author in deciding how she would react to a rift with a coworker, a lover’s quarrel, a death in the family, or even something as simple as a child knocking over a lamp. This supports consistency in the character, no matter what part of the story is being written.

Sometimes, a character needs to do something that seems unlikely for their personality type. In such cases, the author should be sure to explain or convey a reason why. (We’ll return to this topic in more depth in part three.)

Motivation

Being mindful of trait-driven behavior can help authors give characters thoughtful reasons for acting the way they do and can dovetail nicely with the backstory and personal details of the character.

Example: Arman (an Assertive Logician, INTP-A) drifted around the caliphate, unable to find joy in the craft of his father or contentment by his mother’s side – and he cared little for their disapproval. The thrill of discovery beckoned him ever onward, as did the challenge of liberating the finest gems from the realm’s nobility. Arman did not see the crime in stealing from the rich, nor any reason why he should not become wealthy in the process, and he was always cheerfully chasing new and clever schemes.

Why is Arman so unconcerned with the law and his parents’ wishes? Is he just a greedy jerk? Maybe not. As an Intuitive, Thinking type, he rationalizes his way around anything that limits his inspiration and prefers to be independent-minded because he’s somewhat insulated from others’ emotions. His Assertive Identity makes him self-confident yet unambitious in the structure of his life – he does what he wants, when he wants. The Prospecting personality trait drives his curiosity and enables him to feel comfortable with flouting rules. He’s an affable rascal, but unrepentant in his self-orientation.

Character Interplay

Understanding how different personality types interact with each other helps authors find insights into how characters can engage positively or negatively, inspiring plots and scenes accordingly and colorfully.

Example: Luca (a Turbulent Mediator, INFP-T) grew increasingly concerned by his chance companion. It was bad enough that their ski lift had inexplicably halted over worrisomely sharp rocks jutting up through the late-season snow, but the American next to him also seemed as careless as he was ungroomed. “Dude, I think we can just hop down,” said the American (an Assertive Entrepreneur, ESTP-A), leaning over and setting their shared seat swinging. “Please stop moving. Let’s just wait, please,” said Luca in pained, Swiss-accented English, wishing he had stayed in his studio in Bern. The American just chuckled and kicked his legs back and forth, swinging them even more. “Bro! Relax, bro…”

Knowing that Luca is a sensitive, retiring type helps the author decide how he’d react to a more brazen yet blasé personality type like an Assertive Entrepreneur. Luca is terrified by looming possibilities of danger yet remains polite, whereas the American is confident in his own assessment of the present situation and gives little thought for other people’s concerns over “what-ifs.” With a strong enough sense of the characters’ polarities as laid out in type theory, the interaction virtually writes itself.

Internal Reactions

Deciding how characters feel about events is far easier when following the behavioral roadmap of personality theory, helping an author flesh out their reactions and internal thoughts. This can be a big help with exposition and internal narratives. For instance, let’s consider a story about a middle-aged widower who is tired of being alone and struggling to overcome his isolation.

Example: Christopher (a Turbulent Architect, INTJ-T) didn’t know how to handle the barista flirting with him. Was it professional pragmatism, or did she really find him attractive? Was he imagining her interest? He had experimented with large tips and no tips, but she always gave him special attention that fired long-dormant, boyish hopes. The idea of dating a younger woman gave him pause, and he wondered if he could ever give himself permission to act on his desires. Of course, all his tortured ruminations did not produce anything like social boldness, and his exchange with her that morning was as routine as his coffee order.

Understanding trait-driven internal processes helps the author choose the personality type of their character, and accordingly, describe those internal processes. A Turbulent Architect fits this widower character nicely, since despite having a vivid imagination and inspired desires, this personality type is often reluctant to act, forcing feelings through a filter of rational examination rather than simply expressing them – a tendency that makes romance an interestingly tense story subject.

Autonomy

Fiction writers are limited to some degree by their own personality type, projecting themselves onto their characters and sometimes inadvertently muddying things with their own personalities. Thinking like a vastly different person is challenging, but understanding other personality types can help authors tackle this task deftly. It also enables them to differentiate characters so that they stand out from each other, despite being generated and written by the same mind.

Example: The author (a Turbulent Campaigner, ENFP-T) is composing a dark story about a suburban couple trying to cope with the death of their only child, a teenager who died in a car accident while driving drunk. The author decides that the father is a Turbulent Logistician (ISTJ-T) and researches how that type might deal with such trauma. The author, who would naturally reach out to loved ones for support in a time of grief, realizes that the father character likely suppresses his pain and chooses to write about him falling into a dark well of alcoholism to hide from his emotions.

It can be tough to believably write about characters who seem foreign, but personality theory is like having a tour guide through the strange landscape of a different person’s heart and mind.

Flexible Inspiration

When characters are defined using personality types, the fertile minds of authors can easily see how they might live, inspiring great plot ideas. Conflict or harmony between the styles, methods, and even the long-term goals of characters can become clearer if they have solid personality types. The probable interactions of various types are just a starting point, though, and authors still have great freedom to decide character actions.

Example: Characters with strongly differing types may develop a bond because their opposing traits counterbalance each other, making them a great team. On the other hand, those same types might hate each other simply because they are not mature enough to recognize the value of balanced cooperation over doing things their own way. In turn, characters with extremely similar personality types may harmonize as kindred spirits, or they might suffer major clashes in culture, beliefs, or personal motivation, despite having similar personalities.

Whether characters’ personalities bond them together or pit them against each other, authors can achieve greater depth when the reasons are shaped by personality theory. Of course, just because characters have depth and consistency doesn’t mean that they need to be predictable – and that’s the subject of our next installment.

Join us for part three in this series, “Boundaries and Breaking the Rules,” coming soon!

3 weeks ago
Super helpful!! :)
3 weeks ago
Yay! Thank you so much! Very helpful for using in my writing. :)
3 weeks ago
This is extremely helpful. I definitely need to utilize this in my writing...
4 weeks ago
Books, books, books, I'm coming for ya. *Rubs hands together*
4 weeks ago
Thanks again for these articles! Type theory can explain so much about character goals and how they interact with one another. It’s especially important when you’re writing in first person for a character with a different type than you. How an unhealthy ENTJ-T might rationalize stalking behavior. How an ESTJ-A character might find an INFP-T’s waffling and timidity deeply irritating. How an ENTP and an ENTJ might be the best of friends but then have a deep, very vocal disagreement about life goals (ENTP thinks ENTJ is being too obsessive and obstinate, ENTJ thinks ENTP is being too flippant about the importance of what ENTJ is trying to achieve). How an INFP and an ESTP might be very attracted to one another but also have difficulty communicating without someone’s feelings getting hurt or someone flying off the handle (guess which is which). How an ISTJ-A deals with guilt. I could go on and on. Love it.
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