Personality Types and Fiction Writing: How to Use the 16-Type System to Create Real Characters
From the epic science-fiction space drama to the coffeeshop meet-cute in New York City; from the stuffy country detective to the next great American roadtrip hero, our novels, scripts, and short stories are defined by their characters. Fiction is known for its sign posts—the fairytale Happily Ever After, the satisfying conclusion to the WhoDunIt, the dismantling of fascist political regimes, the lesson learned, the day won. It is individual characters, heroes and heroines, villains, antagonists and protagonists, meddling mothers and wise children, who set these stories apart, who make us continue to return to our favorite genres, despite knowing how the stories will end.
So how do we create unique, fully-rounded, individual characters that are capable of defining a book, capable of making a reader continue to turn the page, even when they already know what will be coming?
Personality typing can help.
When it comes to creating characters, there are many schools of thought. Some authors enjoy making character sheets, questions about childhood memories, favorite foods, how many tattoos they have. As a journalist, my instincts lean toward characters interviews, getting to know a hero or heroine by the way they respond to questions from me—or from each other.
And yet, there is no sense in reinventing the wheel. Will knowing a character’s favorite type of cookie truly make or break our next book? Unless they’re a bakery owner, it probably won’t even come up in conversation. But knowing how a person will respond to a situation, whether they’ll lash out, bottle up, laugh it off, or cry alone in their room later—that will absolutely change how a story is told. And that’s just one way in which personality typing can make all the difference.
Here are just a few reasons to consider typing your characters, and how it will help you to create a better story every time.
You know how the character will react
I’m an Extravert. My partner of six years is an Introvert. When I’m inconvenienced by something, I need to rant about it, get it off my chest, maybe find a solution, and move on. When he is, he tends to go into himself. For him, time alone is the best way to handle frustrating events. For me, time alone is pretty much the worst available option.
You should have a sense of how your characters will react—to both the good events that take place in your story and the bad ones. Will they overreact to minor inconveniences but take charge when the going gets rough? Do they cry, shout, shoot first, or logic their way out? When you have a sense of your character’s personality, you can put them in new-to-them situations and already know what they will do. Not only will this help with the outline and writing process, but it will also make for a better book because….
Your character arcs are intentional and your characterization is consistent
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where a character behaves in a way so antithetical to how they’ve behaved thus far that they’re no longer recognizable? *Cough, popular high-fantasy show with disappointing finale, cough*.
When a character does something that goes against the way they’ve been behaving up until that point, there has to be a reason for it. Maybe they’ve fallen in love. Maybe they realize that family is more important than money. These are common character arcs that we see often. But, in order to do them right, we need to have a good sense of the character before these epic changes and we need to see that the change is intentional.
Personality typing can serve as an excellent barometer for keeping your character in character. A loner hero who has sworn to never love again isn’t going to start happily saving damsels in distress. A career-driven business woman isn’t going to start skipping work and partying at all hours of the night. Of course, these are extreme examples, but personality typing can help to keep your characters within their general outline and from there, you can color in your specifics to fit your own book.
They can also help to guide you on the character’s arc journey, so it feels real and consistent with the character we’ve gotten to know and not like a show suddenly had to wrap up eight seasons of stories in just six episodes.
Goal, motivation and conflict—from scene to scene
Each scene of your book needs to have a purpose, just like each character in your book needs to have a purpose. One of the best ways to make each individual scene valuable is to look at a character’s GMC: goal, motivation and conflict. What do they want? Why do they want it? What is standing in the way of them getting it?
Sometimes these elements are large—the heroine wants to expose corrupt government because it’s oppressing her family, but the propagandizing and fear the government instills in its people stands in her way.
Sometimes these elements are smaller— our hero wants to return home to see his family but his car breaks down.
When you know the GMC of the character in your scene, it makes the scene 1) much easier and more efficient to write and 2) much more consistent with your characterization thus far. Is your character driven by greed, justice, self-interest, love? Is your character after something for the greater good, for their circle of friends, or just for laughs? These individual goals, motivations, and conflicts will ultimately tie into your character’s evolving arc, but they will also help you to develop a consistent, well-rounded character on a smaller scale, as well as a larger one.
Getting to like you—getting to hope you like me
Knowing our individual characters is foundational to writing a good story, but unless you’re trying some unique, abstract way of storytelling, they will likely interact at least once over the course of your book. And personality typing can make a huge difference when it comes to putting your characters into shared scenes, uncomfortable situations, and moments of joy.
As I’ve said to my partner on numerous occasions, I would not want to date myself—and I’m sure many people feel the same way! What is it that makes your character romantically or platonically compatible or incompatible? What elements from their parents did a brother/sister team inherit or not inherit? Does one character joke when another character panics?
When you know the type of character you’re writing, it makes developing individual relationships easier, more effective, and more genuine. Put those characters in a scene where they’re under pressure and see how they respond—and how they respond to each other’s responses. It’s the:
“I love you” “I know” versus “Where shall I go? What shall I do?” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Use your words
When we talk about how characters interact, we have to talk about dialogue—and there’s nowhere that personality typing shows up more than in how and what we say (and don’t). Princess Bride is the ideal example. This film is based on how one character is holding out his true feelings, disguising them in a simple statement that the heroine eventually sees for what it is. Rather than saying “I love you,” he merely says, “As you wish.”
Is your character a flirt, a rogue, rude, or standoffish? Do they try to charm their way out of every situation or do they cause a fuss? I recently had to write a story without swear words—and let me say, you really don’t know how much you swear until you’re not allowed to do it.
The Navy SEAL is going to have a different verbal response than the retired country librarian, but it goes further than that. Is the SEAL an All-American hero type or is he jaded by years of service? Those finer points of his personality—and your country librarian who may have been raised by coal miners and thus swears with fervor—will all contribute to a more real, unique feeling character whether they’re speaking, acting, or interacting.
Is this a complete guide to why using character types can greatly impact your next story? Far from it. But I hope it will serve as a jumping off point for learning about who your characters really are, how they react to the world around them, and how they interact with each other. Don’t be afraid to mix and match personality types, either. I often bring in some information from horoscopes and even from the Hogwarts Houses (I’m a Ravenclaw, in case that comes as a surprise to anyone after reading this article). The point is, when you start with a general idea of what motivates your character, how they cope, how they speak, and what they want out of life, you’re already on the right path.
From Ebenezer Scrooge to Lady MacBeth, from Katniss Everdeen to Sansa Stark, characters drive the story. The more real, familiar, and individual your characters feel to the reader, the more important the story will feel and the more invested they will become. Understanding their personality type and what that means for the journey they take is an excellent place to start.