Confession: I hate personality tests. And so I have never taken one.
Some of you will have seen my Facebook post last month in which I mentioned I’d taken a personality test (a free version based on the Myers-Briggs system) despite years of prejudice against them. I promised a blog post explaining what happened and how it related to my writing. So, here it is.
First off, why did I hate them before?
Basically, because the possible negatives made it sound like something I didn’t want to waste my time on. There ARE huge potential pitfalls. For example, if you take the test, find out your “type,” and then begin shaping your life decisions solely around that knowledge, that’s a huge problem. Not only could the test be wrong, (maybe you answered a few questions incorrectly, didn’t understand the question, or whatever) but also, I do know someone who is adamant their type has changed over time from extrovert to introvert. Of course,the personality type gurus will say your type doesn’t really change, but rather, certain environmental factors can bring out different traits, or you can take the test incorrectly, etc, etc, etc.
I have no idea which is correct. I’m only saying that IF it is possible for your personality type to change some over time, then it is a really bad idea to base major, life-altering decisions on the test.
But even IF your true type can never change, and even IF you are “typed” correctly. There are still a lot of pitfalls to watch out for. For starters, it is one thing to use the descriptions of your type to help you understand why you have certain strengths and weaknesses, and where you need to work on improvement. It it quite another thing to use your personality type as an excuse NOT to work on areas that need improvement.
I.e. Using the Myers-Briggs 4-letter system: “I can’t help it that I’m cold, ruthless, impatient and stubborn. I’m an ENTJ. That’s just how we are.” or “It’s not my fault I’m unreliable and can’t hold to long-term commitments and plans. All ISFP’s have that problem!”
Sorry. That’s no excuse. If you have a character weakness, don’t wave your letters at me. Get your act together!
And no matter if you are “typed” correctly or not, this is not a system you should use to determine whether or not you can be friends with someone, whether or not you should marry someone, etc. It was designed to help understand WHY certain people act certain ways (and by extension, get along with certain people) not to tell people TO behave certain ways and get along with certain people. You don’t have to choose who to be around (or join an online group) based on the four letters a test claims describe you. The idea is to understand how and why people function the way they do, not give them a horoscope to start planning their life around. (I highly recommend avoiding horoscopes all together, just in case you were wondering).
So please. Don’t start trying to “type” all your friends. And most emphatically DO NOT choose your spouse based on a personality test. (Yes, people try to do that). If you enjoy someone, you work well together, are equally yoked, and believe you can mutually help each other in life, don’t take a personality test. Just get married.
Ok. So now you know why I avoided personality tests like the plague for years and years. But why did I suddenly decided to take one?
Well, I found a use for it.
When you are writing characters in a story, you don’t want them to seem, well, like characters. You want them to seem like real people. Consequently, you want them to feel multi-dimensional. Deep. Not like cardboard cutouts you pasted onto the page. You need to delve inside them and make them feel authentic. The problem is, the most instinctive way to probe the depths of a character and figure out what motivates them is to dive deep inside yourself and figure out what motivates YOU. After all, you know yourself far better than you know anyone else.
The danger of course is that if you aren’t careful, all your deepest characters will end up with personalities that are…well…a lot like the author. Looking back over my last completed manuscript I saw that that was definitely the case with my main character. Then I started pondering a future main character I’ve recently been thinking about for a novel down the road (the novel I came up with in my sleep, for those of you who remember that Facebook post). And guess what? Same deal. An awful lot like me.
Now of course, there’s nothing WRONG with writing a character like yourself. A character like the author might be very interesting. For a few novels. But I don’t want EVERY main character in EVERY novel I write to end up being a slightly different version of myself.
Problem is, unlike some, I do not instinctively understand what motivates other people. Or more precisely, other Types. When someone’s priorities, interests, and goals are very different from mine, I often find I’m sitting there thinking something like, “Why in the world does she find it so difficult to make decisions and keep commitments? Doesn’t she have any self-discipline at all?” or “Why does he always want to be with people? Can’t he entertain himself for five minutes?”
(Yeah, so now some of your are trying to figure out my personality type, aren’t you? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.)
But, I found a solution. The Myers-Briggs personality types. If you don’t know what that is and have been slightly confused by the letters I was talking about above, I’ll just briefly explain it as a a system that divides personalities into 16 broad “types.” It’s based on the idea that people tend toward one of two “poles” in 4 different areas. They are either introverted (I) or extroverted (E), gain and process information more through intuition (N) or observation (S), make decisions/cope with emotions based more on feeling (F) or thinking (T), and approach work and planning more through judging (J) or prospecting (P ).
Interestingly, the concept was first developed and published for general use in 1944 (the same year my current book opens). With the men away during the war, many women were entering the work force for the first time. Briggs and Myers hoped to help them find occupations that were “most comfortable and effective” for them, by testing their personalities so that they could find jobs to match. I didn’t realize Myers-Briggs dated back to the exact time I’m currently writing about, when I first took the test, but it’s kind of a fun little detail, now that I know!
Now of course the whole thing IS just a theory. A way of categorizing the rather fluid substance of personality. And it’s not without its critics. There are those who consider it almost totally useless and/or unscientific. However, I personally have found it somewhat helpful.
Being a very analytical person, I do not naturally sympathize with friend’s emotions. I want them to make sense. I want them to explain to me, in a logical fashion, why they want/say/think/feel what they do. The trouble is, those who are less analytical than I am do not naturally function that way. You might say they don’t natively “speak my language.” Ah, but there’s a solution! I don’t actually have to hear it from their own lips. If someone ELSE can explain to me in a logical fashion why my friends behave as they do, I suddenly have a great deal more sympathy for them. And that’s where reading through some of the Myers-Briggs personality Type descriptions has come in handy. Now I can READ what goes on behind the scenes in those puzzling friends, and our differences make a lot more sense.
But it’s in the area of my writing that I’m really interested to see what I can do with this. Now that I understand better the mechanics inside other people’s brains, I think I’ll be able to do a much better job getting inside the heads of my characters without turning them all into slightly disguised versions of me.
Which is good. Because in the biographical novel I’m currently writing, neither of the characters is exactly like me. (Neither are introverts, for instance. Aha, now you’ve got one of my letters!)
As an experiment, I asked two of Fred and Lily’s children to separately take the test “for” their parents. Of course, you can never fully know what goes on inside someone else’s head. But I thought that having them both try this separately and tell me the results would at least give me a ball-park to work with.
When I compared their answers, the results were pretty telling. BOTH typed Fred as an ENFP (so chances are he really was one). And for Lily they got results that were only one letter different. ESFP or ESFJ. If I had to pick one, listening to their stories and considering which of the children were most like each parent, I would guess that ESFJ is probably correct.
So, now I have another tool in my tool-box as I’m trying to get inside the thoughts of Lily and Fred and write their story as authentically as possible. Not only do I have the written descriptions of the personality types to help me understand what they might have been thinking and feeling in certain situations, but I can also consider what other people of the same type (who I actually know personally) might do, and deduce from there. I actually have two friends who have been typed the same as Fred (handy). And I strongly suspect, going on description, that one of my siblings is ESFJ, as I’m guessing Lily was. So. I know who to talk to if I’m trying to understand those types on a deeper level.
And now. Finally. What type am I?
I considered not taking the test, and simply using the descriptions for character building, without ever assigning one to myself. But, partly out of interest to see how well the system seemed to work, and partly out of sheer curiosity, I ended up taking it. The result?
BAM! Atomic bomb.
When I read the description of my “type,” (INTJ), I was pretty impressed. Not only was it very accurate, but it actually helped me understand why I behave in certain ways/like certain things. And since one of my characteristic traits is that I “want people to make sense,” the fact that those four letters helped ME make more sense, to myself, was highly satisfying. Not only did I understand better why I had certain strengths and weaknesses, but I understood why I’d had trouble understanding certain other people in the past! So yeah. It was kind of revolutionary.
One of the rarest types, especially for women, (only about 1% of women are my type) INTJ’ are introverted, intuitive, prefer thinking over feeling, and judging over prospecting. Oh boy do I prefer thinking. I read someone describe being an INTJ female as having a man’s mind and emotions trapped in a woman’s desires and dreams. And I can definitely identify with that. Because, at least stereo-typically, men are more rational and women are more emotional. And I’ve always leaned toward the rational crowd. In fact, I’ve had quite a few female friends kind of look at me like I was from outer-space or something when I tried to explain to them that I almost NEVER make ANY decisions based on emotion. They just couldn’t quite figure me out.
I could go on and describe all the aspects of this personality that differentiate it, but this post really wasn’t written to explain my personality to the world. So I think I’ll stop here. Only adding that I supposedly share a personality type with some folks I’d rather not (like Vladimir Putin, for instance; yikes!), but also with some rather famous authors, like C.S. Lewis and Jane Austen, as well as K.M. Weiland, who’s blog and books on writing have been hugely helpful to me. So I guess I’m in pretty good company, as far writers go.
Now. I guess I’ll go scrutinize and evaluate Fred and Lily’s personalities like I was studying for an exam.
Because after all, INTJ’s don’t feel their way into other people’s heads. They THINK their way into them! 😉
If you’ve read this far, congratulations! Because this was a looooooong post.
What do you think of personality typing? Do you like it or hate it? Do you think it could be useful for authors developing characters? Comment below and tell me your opinion!