Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Character Personality Systems

I like a lot of structure when I write, so perhaps it's not surprising that I latched onto the idea of using personality systems to develop characters. Like story structure, using personality systems can be a starting point to developing a story, or a place to seek inspiration if you're stuck. Also like story structure, there is danger in getting stuck in a rut, making story elements feel rigid and unoriginal if you stick religiously to the system. However, if used well, personality systems can be a powerful tool in creating dynamic characters.

Personality systems predict patterns of behavior, and how certain people might react in any given scenario. They divide the complexity of people into groups for easier consideration. Whether or not they hold true in real life is beyond the scope of this post. 

I'd like to discuss seven reasons for using personality systems in your writing, and then I'll go into examples of the most popular systems and how they might be useful. Keep in mind that this is a very basic overview of information that can quickly become complex. If you want to study these further, excellent! Go ahead. If you're not looking to invest that time right now, be ware of falling into rabbit holes.

Seven Reasons to Use Personality Systems
1. Create Consistent Characters
Personalities tend to remain constant even when people change. Using a personality system can help you determine if this character is acting consistent or "in character". I find it especially useful when writing about a character at different times and ages.

2. Discover Conflict
Which characters are least likely to get along? How might they clash? Personality systems may help you find an answer.

3. Brainstorming Motivation
Each personality type has a different motivation, which can help you to get ideas for what really drives each character. This is especially useful for villains, in making sure that they are dynamic and relatable.

4. Ease and Speed
Creating a story is hard. There are a lot of facets to discover, in any genre, from characters to setting to plot to theme. Starting with a personality system can free up brainpower for other parts of the process. 

5. Include a variety of characters
Using a system can help you to make sure that not all of your characters are mirrors of you, for instance. If you write a lot of stories, you may need help making sure that you have a wide variety. 

6. Keep Track of A Large Number of Characters
Especially if you're writing a series or a large work, you may struggle to keep track of everyone, and if you struggle, so will your readers. 

7. Comparisons
With personality systems, you can compare your own characters to ones from popular works. I especially like The Personality Database for this.

Now that we have an idea of why and how we might want to use these systems, here are a few of the more popular ones and how they might be useful:


Have you ever heard someone introduce themselves as an INFJ or ESTP? Those letters come from the Myers-Brigg personality system, which deals with how you perceive and interact with the world around you. Myers and Briss were a mother-daughter team who adapted the philosophies of Carl Jung into a more readable form. Interestingly enough, the daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, was a mystery writer.

According to the Myers-Brigg website,“Seemingly random variation in the behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment.”

Myers Brigg takes four different traits, and assigns people one of two possible options, as follows:

I vs. E: Introvert v. Extrovert (social interactions)

N vs. S: Introspective vs. Sensing: (information and observation)

F vs. T: Feeling vs. Thinking. (decision-making) 

P vs. J: Perceiving vs. Judging: (structure)

Bonus: A vs T: Assertive vs. Turbulent (handling stress)

An introvert who absorbs information as they receive it, who bases their decisions more on feelings than thoughts, and who is open to change, would use the letters INFP.

From what I've seen from informal surveys on social media, around 75% of writers are Introverted, while maybe 90% are Introspective over Sensing.

When I was developing my character Perrin Andres, the main character of The Seventh Clan, I used the Myers Brigg personality system. I knew that he needed to be introverted, because he would need to be comfortable spending long times alone. He'd be Sensing instead of Introspective, because I wanted the story to have a survival-type feel. He had to be Feeling, because he is motivated by his empathy for others. I also wanted him to be open to change, so that led to Perceiving over Judging. That makes him ISFP. I ran that type through the Personality Database, and found that Perrin shares a personality type with Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender, Harry Potter, Eragon, and Tyson the cyclops. It looks like, as a young man protagonist of a YA fantasy novel, Perrin is in good company.


The Myers & Briggs Foundation - MBTI® Basics  

Free personality test, type descriptions, relationship and career advice | 16Personalities 

5 Ways to Use Myers-Briggs for Characters - Helping Writers Become Authors

Myers–Briggs / Useful Notes - TV Tropes


The enneagram system breaks people into nine different types, and establishes how they relate to one another. This is the system that I use most often.

"Unlike Myers-Briggs, which is a “neutral” system focused primarily on the differing ways people take in and use information, the Enneagram is often called an “ego-transcendence tool.” Sounds all lofty and new-agey, but it’s really just code for “this-is-gonna-hit-you-where-it-hurts.”
--KM Weiland, 5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters - Helping Writers Become Authors

“It is unique amongst personality tests in that it doesn't try to pigeonhole you based on who you happen to be at this very second; it accounts for personal evolution, both in the past and in the future, and gives suggestions for how to improve… Your greatest weakness is your greatest strength pushed too far.  

The Enneagram / Useful Notes - TV Tropes

Here are the nine types, represented by Disney princesses:
Type 1 is the reformer, desiring to be good and afraid of being wrong. Type 1s tend to see the world in black and white and can be perfectionistic. In Frozen 1, Elsa is afraid of being a monster.

Type 2 is the helper, desiring to be loved and afraid of being unwanted. Type 2s tend to put others before themselves, and can be influenced by others' opinions. Anna from Frozen and Snow White are examples.

Type 3 is the Achiever, desiring to be valuable and afraid of being worthless. Type 3s are ambitious and goal-oriented. Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is an excellent example, as she works hard to reach her goal of opening a restaurant.

Type 4 is the Individualist, desiring to be themselves and afraid of being insignificant. They are often artists, eager to define who they are and represent it to others. Moana wins by first understanding who she is, and then teaching her antagonist to do so as well. Belle feels insignificant in her village and needs to find an adventurous life that fits her better.

Type 5 is the Investigator, desiring to be competent and afraid of being helpless. They tend to be intellectual, while they study and research every question. Jane from Tarzan is a Disney example.

Type 6 is the Loyalist, desiring to be secure and afraid of being without guidance. Type 6 can be anxious and is slow to trust, especially themselves. They tend to find something bigger than themselves that they can trust, and then they will hold to it above all. Though Mulan breaks conventions, she believes in honor and her family.

Type 7 is the Enthusiast, desiring to be content and afraid of being deprived. Type 7s love to try everything. They want to experience the world. The term FOMO was pretty much invented for type 7s. Ariel is an example, as she desires to leave the ocean and explore the human world.

Type 8 is the Challenger, desiring to be in control and afraid of being controlled. Type 8s are independent and driven. Merida and Jasmine are examples of Disney princesses with this type.

Type 9 is the Peacemaker, desiring to be at peace (especially at peace with themselves) and afraid of being in conflict. Type 9s are dreamers who see the world in a different way. Pocahontas and Aurora are type 9s.

When I was developing my character Norma Filaura from DreamRovers, I took an enneagram test, answering as though I were her. Her results came back as type 4, which makes sense because she is a teenager with a coming-of-age plot, as she tries to discover who she really is and how she fits into the world around her. The type descriptions from the Enneagram Institue gave me ideas for her desires and fears, healthy and unhealthy behaviors, and how she might relate to other types, including her family members and the antagonists.

DnD Alignments

This system depicts how a character relates to laws and morality. Their alignment with laws ranges from lawful to chaotic, while their morality ranges from good to evil. I particularly liked this chart which uses characters from the Harry Potter series to depict each type:

Love Languages
How do characters show and receive love? This can affect how they get along (or don't) with one another. When I was working on the relationship between Keita and Brian in Keita's Wings, they used every love language at one point so that their relationship would appeal to every reader.

As a side note, I've heard the love languages also referred to as love tanks, with the idea being that everyone needs everything on the list, but they have different "minimum quotas", if you will, that need to be met.

The Love Languages are:
Words of Affirmation
Giving Service
Quality Time (aka receiving attention)
Receiving Gifts (including Presence--any physical representation of an intangible idea)
Physical Touch


Many different systems exist. You can try one, or make your own. Want to sort your characters into their Hogwarts House? Have you chosen a birthday so that you can refer to their zodiac? Possibilities abound!

Do you use any of these systems? Do you have a favorite that I didn't cover? Do you want to compare personality types? (for me: INFP-A, type 9, Capricorn, Chinese year of the tiger, Ravenclaw, neutral good, receiving gifts.) Feel free to leave a comment!

Imposter Syndrome and the Enneagram

This weekend, I listened to a talk about overcoming imposter syndrome. The speaker listed five different types of people and how they might experience imposter syndrome. I noticed that their five types lined up with five of the nine enneagram types, so naturally I had to fill out the other four.

Imposter syndrome is when "people doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments and have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as frauds" (thanks, wikipedia!). Artists often talk about it, but this can apply to people in all different walks of life. Neil Gaiman summed it up in an awesome anecdote best told in his own words.

The enneagram is a personality system that divides people into nine different types. I find it useful in character creation, because each type includes a core motivation, as well as a scale for how emotionally healthy people might act. 

I've taken the nine types of the enneagram and broken down how each one might react to imposter syndrome. Each has a Lie that the personality type might believe. You might relate to one type more than others, or you might relate to all of them. I've used "my work" to describe how it applies to imposter syndrome, but your life can also be considered your work, a work in progress.


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