How to use Myers Briggs to Develop Complex Characters

Myers-Briggs? What does the personality test you took in Psychology1 have to do with writing? More than you’ve likely considered. If your novel includes people—and I’m hoping it does—let me explain.

It’s not enough to have a mysterious protagonist with a dark secret. Or a sidekick with a goofy sense of humor. Real people have more nuance than your run-of-the-mill stereotypes, and your characters should, too.

Building complex characters requires a deep understanding of human behavior and psychology. So unless you plan on moonlighting as a therapist-in-training, it’s best to lean on tried and true personality methods—like the ever-popular Myers-Briggs test.

What is Myers-Briggs?

According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a self-reported questionnaire aimed at revealing how people perceive their environment, take in information, and make decisions. The test assesses personality traits based on four dichotomies:

A good plot is nothing without an ensemble of multifaceted fictional people to root for (and against). You could conjure up the most mind-blowing plot twists, invent the wildest set of circumstances, and set the stage for the cruelest heartbreak, but without well-developed characters to navigate through it all, your story will fall flat.

  • Introversion (I) vs Extroversion (E): How individuals derive energy, either from within themselves or from external sources.
  • Sensing (S) vs Intuition (N): How people gather and interpret information, relying on concrete facts or abstract ideas.
  • Thinking (T) vs Feeling (F): How individuals make decisions, using logic or emotions.
  • Judging (J) vs Perceiving (P): How people approach the outside world, being open to new experiences or seeking closure.

Each of these dichotomies has two possible outcomes, which results in 16 unique combinations that make up the Myers-Briggs personality types.

The 16 Types

Without diving too deep into the specifics of each type, here is a brief overview of the most common traits associated with each type—and the well-known characters that exemplify them.

ISTJ

Organized to a fault, ISTJs value order, tradition, and logic above all else. Their responsible nature makes them natural leaders, but they may come off as rigid or inflexible.

Example: Nesta Archeron from A Court of Thorns and Roses

ISFJ

If you could boil down the ISFJ into one defining quality, it would be their innate sense of duty. Whatever it is they perceive as their responsibility, they will see it through no matter what.

Example: Grover Underwood from Percy Jackso and the Olympians

INFJ

Just because INFJs are quiet doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention. Observant and experts at reading the room, when they do offer up their intuitive insights, it’s usually spot on.

Example: Henry Strauss from The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

INTJ

If you’re looking for the next big innovation, ask an INTJ. This intellectual type is always looking to solve the next big problem—usually on their own. While they’re not fans of everyone,  they’re deeply loyal to those few they do let in.

Example: Eleanor Oliphant in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

ISTP

There’s nothing ISTPs love more than troubleshooting and solving problems. They are masters of their craft but may struggle with expressing emotions or connecting with others.

Example: Simon Bassett from Bridgerton

ISFP

Going with the flow is the ISFP’s mantra. They’re as flexible and adventurous as they come—which is why they’re prone to disorganization and a little chaos. But hey, it’s all a part of their charm.

Example: Celine from The Color Purple

INFP

If you catch someone at a party staring dreamily out the window, chances are, they’re an INFP.  Idealistic and creative, they’re all about the potential for greatness in everyone and everything.

Example: Lara Jean Covey in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

INTP

No one craves to understand how the universe works quite like the INTP. Always in their heads, always chasing their curiosities, they’re happiest when fully immersed in their own philosophical musings.

Example: Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time

ESTP

ESTPs are the life of the party, always looking for new adventures and experiences. They may seem reckless at times, but they’re also incredibly skilled at thinking on their feet.

Example: Blue from This is How You Lose the Time War)

ESFP

If you’re in need of a good time, call up an ESFP. They’re the social butterflies of the MBTI world and give off a warm, playful energy that’s downright contagious. They’d rather engage with the world around them than judge it.

Example: Daisy Jones from Daisy Jones & The Six

ENTP

A true visionary, the ENTP is always seeking new information and challenging the status quo. They’re quick on their feet and have no problem stomping over tradition to get to the next big idea.

Example: Will Herondale from The Infernal Devices

ESTJ

Pragmatic and straightforward, ESTJs excel at delegating tasks and making decisions quickly. You’ll often find them at the head of the table, making sure everything is running smoothly.

Example: Eleanor Young from Crazy Rich Asians

ESFJ

It’s all business for ESFJs, who like to live by their own moral code (spoiler alert: they’d like it if you could live by it, too). They tend to put loyalty at the top of their list, they’re openly affectionate with those they love.

Example: Guinevere Beck from You

ENFP

Novelty is the ENFP’s kryptonite, and “new” is their favorite word. You best believe these natural-born optimists are the first to say yes to that spontaneous trip—responsibilities be damned.

Example: Julian from Cemetery Boys

ENTJ

Decisive, strategic, and determined, ENTJs are natural leaders who know how to get things done. Their assertiveness can sometimes be intimidating, but it’s all part of their visionary charm.

Example: Evelyn Hugo from The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

ENFJ

These altruistic folk are all about big ideas and making the world a better place. They’re natural leaders (and often intellectuals) who thrive in collaborative environments where they can make a difference.

Example: Arthur Parnassus from The House in the Cerulean Sea

How to Use it

Luckily, you don’t have to put every single one of your characters through the multi-page Myers-Briggs test to get a sense of who they are. But you can use these traits as a jumping-off point when it comes to understanding your characters’ motivations, strengths and weaknesses, and how they interact with others.

Myers-Briggs

Start by:

  • Identifying which type each character best aligns with. I’d grab a book that offers a deeper look into the types (like Gifts Differing by Isabel Briggs Myers and Peter B. Myers) or check out some online resources like 16personalities.com.
  • Test their consistency. When we don’t have a grasp on our characters’ motivations, their actions may feel inconsistent to the reader. Once you have their type nailed down, it’ll be easier to filter their actions through that lens and ensure they’re staying true to themselves.
  • Use it as a starting point for character arcs. The best use for MBTI is understanding the inner conflict and potential growth of each character. Knowing their weaknesses can help you construct a satisfying arc that allows them to overcome those flaws.

Remember, like any personality test, MBTI is not a definitive label for your characters. It’s simply another tool to help you understand and develop them into well-rounded, believable individuals within your story.

And if you need help fleshing out your characters even more, check out our book coaching services. I offer 1:1 coaching for writers of all genres and skill levels that can help you bring your characters (and story) to life.

Click here to learn more.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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