A few years ago I became fascinated with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and read all the profiles I could find online for all the different types. After learning my own type (INTP), I found I had the ability to type my family and friends. When I meet people now, I instinctively want to type them, to understand them. What I’ve learned is that people who have characteristics I despise end up also having characteristics that I envy, and I’ve gained a sense that there is a balance of good and evil in everybody.
Admittedly, my own fiction has always had a tendency to stray off the character-driven path in search of other things, but acknowledging this (as a?) flaw led me to search for different ways to develop my characters. All my characters tend to be me, my personality, not talking very much, or only when necessary. I’m not the kind of person to ramble in conversation. So I asked me, who are other people? What are they like? How do I write from inside their heads?
One day I took two random and opposite types, INFJ and ESTP, and threw them in a stuck elevator. I found that I instantly cared deeply about these characters, more than any other character I’d written. Before writing anything, I saw exactly where their conflict was and what they needed to do to resolve it or not resolve it. The potential for story exploded. I ended up not writing anything because it was such a new way of looking at writing for me. I still, and probably always will, prefer to search for content and structure in fiction outside of that which we’re accustomed to reading and experiencing (i.e., outside of people’s heads), but I’ll probably take another at crack this kind of exercise in the future.
Anyone ever tried using established personality traits to develop characters in their fiction? What was your experience?
Darby Larson is the editor of Abjective.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.