Personality Theory in Fiction Writing III: Boundaries and Breaking the Rules

In part two of this series, we discussed how personality type theory can guide character development. Now we’d like to explore some possibilities for taking characters beyond or outside of the typical behavior of their type. Although the boundaries of our 16 personality types are wide, no author wants to feel limited by the definition of a given personality type.

Sometimes, the most compelling moments in a story happen when characters face a decision of whether or not to act against their own natures. When inconsistency is desirable for drama or plot, or is otherwise unavoidable, authors may want to understand or justify how a fictional character can seemingly act outside their personality type.

There are several ways that an author can create some flexibility in a character’s likely behavior. Authors don’t need to restrain plot ideas to avoid conflicts with a character’s personality type, but they may want to create additional frameworks that allow plot points to “fit” the character. Here are some ideas, along with examples.

Brief Foray/Sweeping It Under the Rug

Sometimes an author simply needs a character to do something minor that may be hard to explain within their personality type. If it is brief and fits with the flow of events, authors need not worry too much about it, especially if it’s paired with something interesting that redirects the readers’ attention.

Example: The author wants a parent character (an Assertive Consul, ESFJ-A) to ruin the dinner they’re cooking, so that their family will instead go out to a restaurant where an important event takes place. The scene involves the family laughing about and bonding over the situation, and the parent’s dismay over the uncharacteristic mishap humanizes the character. The author has thus far painted the parent character as utterly reliable and focused – someone who doesn’t make mistakes or become distracted. But in this case, the author simply has the character burn dinner anyway, writes some warmly humorous dialogue about it, and then moves on.

Driven by Feeling/Explaining the Departure

Characters can be highly flexible when driven by deep desire or emotion. In cases where a character does something notable that seems outside their personality type, authors can explain it as being the result of an intense need or an in-the-moment reaction. It may be a good idea to add dialogue or description detailing the feelings of the character, possibly including their own recognition of their unusual behavior.

Example: The author wants a deeply isolated, disaffected character (a Turbulent Virtuoso, ISTP-T) to save a child from drowning in raging floodwaters, with the resulting public exposure forming the basis of the main plot. The author paces events rapidly, so that the otherwise misanthropic character simply reacts to the life-threatening circumstances. Later, the character explains, “I just had to do something.”
Example: A police officer (a Turbulent Advocate, INFJ-T) with solid ethics steals money from an evidence room because his wife requires expensive medical treatments – atypical behavior explained by great emotional need. Later, the character rationalizes, “I love her so much, I just had to find a way to pay the bills.”

Outside Pressure/Just Following Orders

When it comes to behavior that is very odd for a character’s personality type, authors should use caution. Some things are extremely unlikely – such as a coldly logical character suddenly “seeing the light” and engaging emotionally with the world. In real life, major changes tend to require extensive personal development, and in fiction, they require a lot of explanation. However, such unlikely character actions might be prompted by powerful external forces.

Characters might do things inconsistent with their personality type simply because they have no choice, but authors can still make them react to their actions in ways that are consistent with their type. Perhaps a character suffers recrimination, experiences denial or moodiness, or engages in soul-searching introspection as a result of their actions. Indeed, having a character cope with their own “off” behavior can add a compelling dimension of internal conflict.

Example: A correctional officer (a Turbulent Protagonist, ENFJ-T) at a prison facility must act tough and mean to do her job safely. But she feels great compassion for the inmates and fantasizes about working as a counselor instead. The professional requirement that she act against her personality type creates internal conflict that adds interesting depth and perhaps even drives the plot – maybe she decides to take night classes toward a degree to become a counselor.

Beyond Personality Types: Aliens, Demons, and Ghosts, Oh My!

Obviously, our personality type theory was developed using research data collected from humans and might not apply in the same way to alien races, interdimensional beings, and the like as it does to human characters. But one reason to use type theory for such otherworldly characters is that it will make them more relatable to human readers.

While personality typing might still be useful for nonhuman characters, the rules of type theory can be ignored at the author’s whim, and traits can be taken to extremes or even used individually as building blocks, so that personality theory becomes a wild playground. The usefulness of personality traits as a tool to compose the behavior of nonhuman characters is immense and full of imaginative potential.

Example: A sci-fi author creating human characters in a future earth scenario could use personality type theory to define them perhaps as highly evolved and showing a perfect balance among all the traits, or perhaps as having clumped into just a few extreme types to suit specific demands in a polarized future society. For instance, a highly ordered and advanced – but bland – society could be composed entirely of Assertive Sentinels. A Turbulent Diplomat time traveler might make serious (and entertaining) waves when visiting such a society.
Example: Alien races could be defined using just one or two personality traits, so that their behavior – however inhuman – is still engineered for consistency. A purely logical race, for instance, may suffer from narrow vision, as if they are all Thinking and Judging types with no balance.
Example: In the case of incorporeal or ghostly characters, authors could give them supernatural powers that can be expressed as single personality traits taken to the extreme, such as reading emotions psychically and acting as if they have a hyperactive Feeling trait.

Hopefully by this point, personality type theory seems more like a life jacket than a straitjacket, lending support and buoyancy to fictional characters rather than restricting them. Remember, there are just 16 types to cover all the people in the world, so some variability will always exist.

Further Reading

Check out other parts of our Fiction Writing series:

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing I: Making Characters Personal

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing II: Employing Type Theory

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing IV: The Depths of Evil – “Bad Guys”

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing V: Writing for Readers’ Personality Types

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing VI: Broadening Appeal

7 months ago
Great article once again. Sometimes as writers we have to think outside the box with our characters, even when it means they must act against type. Case in point: I took the quiz for a character who didn’t seem fully fleshed out. His result was ISFJ-T. This confused me, since the character was in a ragtag band of freedom fighters. Why would a Sentinel be fighting against tradition and society? It made me work backwards to why he was there. Before he was a freedom fighter and outlaw, he was a soldier, raised in the proud military tradition of his family. He was assigned to protect a small encampment of people from a different culture than his own. There he grew fond of its people, who were traditional and family-oriented like he was. But one night after heavy drinking his fellow soldiers carried out an atrocity against the very people they had sworn to protect. This ISFJ was horrified and tried to stop them. In the end his actions left one of his comrades dead. For this he was to be shot for insubordination, until the freedom fighters staged a daring rescue. From then on, they were his new family, and his loyalty shifted to them. Still, he feels guilty about what he did, even though he also knows it was the right thing to do. Sometimes emotional upset can also make people act out of character. In the same story, an ENTJ-T, otherwise a very dynamic and driven young man, confines himself to his room for months on end after a devastating failure. The goal he set for himself since early childhood now l seemed unobtainable. He neglects his interests. He turns down social engagements, spending hours staring into space and trying to figure out what went wrong. With time and therapy, and some encouragement from an ENTP friend, he is able to pull himself together. He forms a new goal and goes about the long process of obtaining it, more determined than ever... to the detriment of my main character. After all, he’s the villain in this story. ;) Can’t wait for the next article! Antagonists are the most fun to create.
7 months ago
I'm looking forward to read a story like that! And I wholeheartedly agree, antagonists are the most fun to create! Antagonists and rule breakers are usually my favourite characters, both in my own and in other people's works! Perhaps similarity really creates liking. After all, I'm an INTJ, and the Architect profile clearly states that many villains and misunderstood heroes are modeled on this type! In fact, I often question myself whether growing up reading and re-reading books featuring my favourite villains and misunderstood heroes shaped me for who I am at least to some degree.
7 months ago
The bit about alien species was very helpful--Thanks!
7 months ago
All of my otherworldly characters are iNtuitive Judgers. I don't know why it ended up that way, but it fits the plot.
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