Tuesday, June 2, 2020

From the Writer's Studio: Character Design and the Myers-Briggs (Personality) Type Indicator

Hello everyone and welcome back to the enigma that is the Gauntlet of Balthazar for yet another installment of the "From the Writer's Studio" feature, and a look at the origin, design, and evolution of fictional characters that appear primarily in screenplays, and their relationship to the Myers-Briggs (Personality) Type Indicator test, commonly called the MBTI.

For those of you who are unaware, the MBTI, unlike thousands of contemporary social media "quizzes" and "tests", asks the user fairly impartial questions about how they perceive themselves, how they interact with the world, and what they consider their place in it is.

While many political compass tests can possess bias based on who authored the questions, and Mensa's testing system is heavily based on impartial math problems, the Myers-Briggs test is both very concrete while it is still considered pseudo-scientific, as a part of field of psychology...formerly a school of philosophy, and not medicine.

This is, I think, is a pretty straight-forward and common sense article, but it does require a few disclaimers - so here it goes.


Firstly, the explanation. According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator page on Wikipedia: "The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is an introspective self report questionnaire indicating differing psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. The original versions of the MBTI were constructed by two Americans, Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. The MBTI is based on the conceptual theory proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who had speculated that people experience the world using four principal psychological functions – sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking – and that one of these four functions is dominant for a person most of the time. The four categories are Introversion / Extraversion, Sensing / Intuition, Thinking / Feeling, Judging / Perception. Each person is said to have one preferred quality from each category, producing 16 unique types".

Secondly, if you are a fiction novelist, writer and / or screenwriter, (either beginning, or polished), I can't encourage you enough to not to attempt to design a character or characters by using the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator as a template. This is not a refutation of the usefulness or validity of the MBTI, quite the contrary, but I believe that the attributes of the system should only be applied and played-into after the initial creative design of a character has already been well-established in your mind and "on paper".

Thirdly, I must confess that I personally feel that I "channel" characters and stories from "somewhere else" (i.e. "inspiration - don't let this freak you out"), but in a very practical way, characters materialize in order to fill a gap in a story-line, or to fill a niche in a character ensemble, as well as augmenting other characters by their relationship to them. This is no different than the addition of a new color, or mix of colors, in order to advance the palette of a fine art painter. Regardless, even if the painting turns out to be black and white, the "blueprint" of the canvas is what gives the forthcoming painting its form and direction. Therefore, I believe that your work will benefit if you respect the spark of creation and run with your initial sense of who the person that you've just created is.


Sadly, many writers often start by describing the surface attributes of a characters "credentials" rather than by pondering their operative psychological dynamic and / or personality type. Here's a test to see if you have been guilty of this crime. Example: If you end up talking to someone about a character in one of your scripts or novels and they ask you, "So, what's she like?" and you reply by citing their job title (i.e. "She's a secretary") and have a hard time going deeper, then you already know that you haven't thought the character out enough, yet. It's fine to create a bio-list of the basic information about a character, but to me, it's much more important to understand the psychology and psychological motivations of the character.

The next mistake many writers make, after the above shortfall, which we can call, "a surface gloss", is by inserting personality tropes, rather than actual motivations that interplay with their character and play out in regard to their character arc withing the overall story arc. I would call that phenomena "superimposed attribution", but it could equally be called "stereotyping". The inclusion of these elements are often powered by external and transitory notions and extra-literary political polemic, which speak volumes for a period (and maybe your career), but in the long run, will not age well.

Never forget, what is today's hot button issue is tomorrows cringe.

If you introduced a new character into your story or script, and you started off by saying something like, "I want this character to be a strong, empowered woman", rather than creating a strong character who just so happens to be a strong, empowered woman (get the distinction?), you are guilty of this and will probably end up with a cardboard character and virtue-signalling mess on your hands. In other words: A non-person. There are of course ways to remedy this issue, but you will have to ask to yourself some serious questions about your work and the character you've created.

The questions you should ask are: In what way is she strong? What event, or events forced her to gain this attribute? If she is empowered, then in what ways was she previously dis-empowered? Is this a stereotype of empowerment, or is it a real journey...part of her back-story and character arc? And lastly, are her attributes of empowerment and strength the same thing, are they related, or are they separate elements? I mean, just writing a female character who can open a pickle jar for herself and constantly touts her capabilities, but possesses only the slightest discernible motivations or story arc and contributes the barest minimum to the overall plot, is at best tiresome to ingest, and at worst is a colossal waste of reading or viewing time. I would argue that creating this sort of cardboard character actually does a disservice to women, and is flat-out sexist, even if the initial intention was pro-female. Frankly, I feel the best way to write and design characters is in an egalitarian manner, but that's just me.


Once you grasp the niche your character occupies in your script or novel, as well as possessing an intimate understanding of who he or she is as a person, the character's dialogue you craft will not only give form to their identity and attributes, but you will learn from the character where they fall on the MBTI scale.

For example, if your character is obsessed with looking out for another character because they remind him or her of their dead sibling, then their dialogue should not only betray this motivation, but in the way it's crafted you will see if the character is an introvert or extrovert, an intuitive or sensitive, a thinker or feeler, or if their interaction with the world is based on their perceptions or by their judgement.

If your character's motivations, thoughts, feelings, (and their MBTI) are not expressed through their words and actions, and require internal explanation or are meant to be inferred, then you have flat-out failed, (at least as far as screenplay writing goes), and will be told this by anyone who knows anything about scripts. There's no other way to look at it.

For me, once I know a character intimately, their dialogue flows very naturally and it becomes very quickly impossible to place dialogue in their mouths that they as a person would just not say. I would almost say that the dialogue then "writes itself", but hey, I have to take some credit for it.

Obviously, the Myer-Briggs Personality Type Indicator is not a scale that is sealed in concrete or laminated, and all of the attributes are distributed in gradients, and play against one another, and so someone can be very extroverted...for an introvert, or vice versa, etc., etc.

You get the idea. 


In the world of MBTI aficionados there is a long-established premise that many cinematic villains are INTJ's - which is my personality type according to the test (Yikes!). This of course makes a lot of sense because, unlike a simple story antagonist, the villain (who is essentially a "hyper-antagonist"), usually possesses a well-thought-out grand plan. Villains need to be intuitive so they can see the big picture, they need to be a thinker but could be feelers (if they're damaged), and they invariably trust their ability to form judgements over perceiving the peripherals. So there's your N, your T and your J. This means the biggest variable for villains is usually the introvert / extrovert element.

So let's look at some examples (kind of whatever struck me) of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains and their MBTI.

1. The world's first literary hero-protagonist, Gilgamesh; depicted in various ancient Mesopotamian texts about four-thousand years ago, is a rambunctious part-God city-state King who selfishly abuses his power, and who is metallic to working in the best interest of his people. Through the evolution of his lengthy story-arc he comes to know true friendship, becomes an introspective seeker of wisdom, experiences personal loss, comes to embrace selflessness, and ends up being a better King and a better man for it.

While Gilgamesh does change over time, he is at his core an extrovert (to the point of almost being confrontational), and is never presented at balking at being at the center of attention. He is likewise a sensitive, not an intuitive, and even when he has questions, he seeks others to supply the answer for him. He is however decisive in action, (a useful attribute for a character that self-initiates elaborate quests) and therefore this probably stems from his emotions rather than a methodical and thought out agenda. Gilgamesh also has no problem forming an opinion of others or situations, and this attribute is clearly more dominant that his overall perceptiveness. Thus, Gilgamesh, unless I'm mistaken, is an ESFJ.

2. Now, as I said before, someone can be a very extroverted introvert, but it's just as likely that a villain could be an introverted extrovert. For example, a consummate "showman" like Superman's arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, is clearly an extrovert (in addition to displaying some elements of psychosis and dips in sociopath inclination), so by my estimation Lex Luthor reads as an ENTJ, unless I'm mistaken.

3. Rick Blaine, the protagonist of classic film Casablanca, is certainly an introvert. He is a man of few words, and overtly limits his connections to others, allowing only those he trusts, loves, or respects into his stand-offish world. Because Rick appears to others as an "exclusive club", people around him attempt to gain his favor or respect, and infer or ponder his myriad unspoken sympathies, while he insists that he is completely neutral and non-partisan.

He is clearly far more of a MBTI intuitive than he is a sensitive, and this is proved by the fact that he is keenly aware of patterns and relationships occurring around him. Due to the fact that he is both introverted and intuitive he often sympathetically aids others covertly, all the while feigning impartiality.

On the other hand Rick is deeply feeling (or else he wouldn't be so damaged) and he appears as the consummate MBTI perceiver - capable of extreme spontaneity, like selling his cafe, changing his mind at the last minute and not getting on that plane with Ilsa, or teaming up with Renault for an uncertain new future.

Thus, Rick Blaine is an INFP, unless I'm missing something.

4. William Shakespeare's doomed Danish protagonist "Hamlet" is certainly a classic introvert - so much so that he even attempts to out his uncle's guilt by having a troupe of paid performers imply it through his choice of the play they enact rather than confront him directly and inditing him for the murder of his father. This is a reflection of the fact that Hamlet overthinks everything - and this renders him incapable of truly taking action. This probably stems from the fact that he is a MBTI ultra-sensitive. While he comfortably casts judgement on his seemingly wicked uncle, he is nonetheless hopelessly lost in his own perceptions, and his feelings versus his thoughts end up creating a recurring psychological loop. Based on all of these elements I would argue that Hamlet; Prince of Denmark, is an ISTP, or possibly an ISTJ.

5. To me the villain displaying the most elaborate plan of all time is perhaps Chancellor / Emperor Palpatine of the Star Wars franchise. His over-arching scheme is holistic, intuitive, adaptive, insidious, and highly manipulative. Obviously he is depicted as the epitome of evil in the franchise, and is almost a caricature of it, but if you think about his plan, he relies heavily on his perceptions (including "force visions") in order to choose what path his plan might need to take in order to fulfill his dream of the demise of the Jedi and to cleverly take single-handed control of the galaxy.

Therefore, I submit that Chancellor / Emperor Palpatine is an INTP, and not an INTJ - more at home in the shadows, but forced to be a public figure for the benefit of his end goal. And while he readily passes judgement on the Jedi - deeming them the bad guys in his struggle, his seeming personal hatred and interest in cold revenge is actually based in a much more antiseptic belief in Sith doctrinal supremacy.


As you see from the smattering of established characters from film and literature I surveyed, you can ponder the MBTI of other notable fictional characters as well as your own, and it will help you to put them in deeper perspective. This will help you in re-writes and especially if the character appears in an episodic project, where you are developing them over a long time and within a larger story-arc.

Once again, I advise against using the MBTI scale as a part of a character design template, but rather to see it as an useful analytical tool to apply to your characters after you've received them from wherever they come from, and have already put the work in developing them.

Till next time.

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