Almost every weekday, I take part in a two-hour online writing group. We share ideas, our writing process, and even bits of our lives. This morning, one member mentioned she uses the Myers-Briggs Personality Test to help develop her characters.
In my former life, helping students find their career paths, I incorporated the personality test into my curriculum. It was one of my (and my students’) favorite lessons. So, it quite intrigued me to learn my writing pal, Marnie, used the test to improve character development in her writing.
After a quick discussion, we muted ourselves and went off camera to write independently for the ensuing 45 minutes. I couldn’t help myself… I went down the “rabbit hole!” I typed in the URL—www.16personalities.com. (Yes, I know it by heart!) and answered the 30 questions as I imagined my great-grandfather, Sigmund Lichtenthal, might have.
I can hear you saying, “Well, that’s not very valid. How do you know what he would have thought?” You may be right. But, after researching the man for over five years, I am fairly confident I have a good grasp of his personality.
Family history writers often develop a genuine sense of the ancestors we craft stories around. Was I accurately portraying the arrogant Sigmund Lichtenthal, the protagonist in my forthcoming book, Nothing Really Bad Will Happen? What would the test results reveal?
Turns out, I’ve done a darn good job of bringing out my great-grandfather’s personality in my writing. (Pats self on back.) Assuming I answered the questions accurately, Sigmund is an ISTJ. One of the most common of the 16 personality types, ISTJs… do more than their share to keep society on a sturdy, stable foundation. In their families and their communities… often earn respect for their reliability, their practicality, and their ability to stay grounded and logical, even in the most stressful situations.
I read the description of the ISTJ carefully, thinking about my portrayal of Sigmund. Were his actions in the story consistent with his personality? Several words stood out.
The good: direct, strong-willed, responsible, practical
The bad: stubborn, insensitive, judgmental
I especially appreciated the description of the ISTJ’s parenting style: All the loyalty, devotion and structure are of little use when the children need the warmth of emotional support. While ISTJs can be sensitive towards those they care about in their own way, it’s hard for younger children and especially adolescents to recognize this tough love for the love that it is.
That explained the strained relationships between Sigmund and his two children.
And this gem: The facts are the facts. ISTJs resist any new idea that isn’t supported by them. This factual decision-making process also makes it difficult for people with the ISTJ personality type to accept that they were wrong about something.
Perhaps the most striking of all is this description: ISTJs believe things work best with clearly defined rules, but this makes them reluctant to bend those rules or try new things, even when the downside is minimal. Truly unstructured environments leave them all but paralyzed. ISTJs believe in laws and traditions, and expect the same from others. They’re not comfortable breaking laws or going against the rules.
Is that what was behind Sigmund’s refusal to leave Vienna in 1938, when many Jews saw the writing on the wall and began applying for emigration? First, all the laws changed. Sigmund followed all the new regulations to the letter, putting his entire family at risk of becoming trapped in Nazi Europe. Then there was lawlessness. But Sigmund clung to the rules, almost costing him and his wife their lives.
After working through all the information, I feel even more confident I have done Sigmund justice with my portrayal. Even more important, I am more appreciative of the choices he made. That is, after all, the purpose of understanding personality types.
I did a quick search using the phrase: “Using the Myers-Briggs to develop character.” What a surprise to learn the test was actually developed by an aspiring author (Katherine Cook Briggs), who was searching for a way to better explore and understand her characters. A little more digging revealed many authors use the personality test to actually create their characters. Fascinating!
Thank you, Marnie Elmer, for providing us another item for our toolbox. I know this is one I will pick up and use often!
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