Sunday, September 15, 2013

Personality Assessment and Writing

People have pondering about the nature of personality and temperament for millennia. I don't have children of my own, but my friends and relatives who do have all commented that it amazes them how quickly babies start to show signs of their individuality. Some are fussy, some are quiet. Some are cuddlers, some are more aloof. Some are shy, some are sociable. Some are highly organized and seek structure, others are more free flowing. Of course, many (probably most) people fall somewhere in between on many traits.

There have been many ways people have tried, largely unsuccessfully, to assess personality in people up front: phrenology, Rorschach ink blot tests,  handwriting analysis, humoral personality theories. It would be so handy if there was a way of simply and easily predicting what kind of education, career, social life, partner, hobbies, lifestyle etc. that would best suit an individual. In fact, some employers require prospective workers to take tests, such as the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, in order to determine if they are suited for a particular job.

The problem with personality assessment is that it is attempting to quantify or compartmentalize something that falls along a continuum. Once you coin a term, like introversion, creativity, intelligence, leadership, it takes on a life of its own. People assume it is a unitary and immutable trait. Most of the more scientific versions of personality tests, like Myers-Briggs, tend to rely on dichotomies. They ask either or (or yes no) questions. Some of the fancier versions have scales where you can use a number to indicate how strongly a particular statement applies (or doesn't apply to you). They then assign percentages for given traits.

But even so, many of the ways a person can respond to a question are highly situational. One of the "standard" personality survey questions focuses on whether or not one prefers to plan things in advance or just jump in. How I personally choose to answer this question may depend on what aspect of my life I am thinking about at the time. As a writer, I'm pretty much a pantser. I work best with a minimal (or no) outline. But if I'm planning a vacation, I'm not going to just buy an airplane ticket to some far-away place the day before, hop on, and hope I can find lodging and see all the interesting sights when I get there. So if I'm thinking of writing when I answer this question, I'll likely say I'm not a planner. But if I'm thinking about travel, lab work, or something where the consequences of not planning may result in my endangering myself or misspending a lot of money, I'm a lot less spontaneous.

For most life decisions, I like to do my homework, research the pros and cons of different courses of actions, get my ducks in a row. But when it comes time to make the final decision (which I've set up and structured), once I've narrowed everything down, I often go with my gut.

So one can see the dangers associated with trying to hem a person into a certain temperament or personality. There's no reason why a person can't be thinking in one situation and feeling in another. Or even be both at the same time. Even introversion and extroversion, which people tend to strongly self identify with (most of the writers I know claim to be introverted), can be situational. I'm pretty sure I trend towards introversion, and seem to be getting more so as I get older. But I still need contact with people sometimes. And I actually enjoy parties and social chitchat if I can get myself into the correct frame of mind first. In fact, I often tend to talk too much and too enthusiastically about things.

I teach for a living, which means I need to interact with people and be the center of attention on a regular basis. If someone told me I shouldn't teach because I score as a moderate introvert on a personality test, then well, I'd be out of a job. Honestly, aside from writing (which few earn a living at), I can't think of many careers that don't entail interaction with people on a regular basis.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, writers create characters, and the best characters are complicated, multilayered and conflicted. They have personalities, quirks, wants and needs. Sometimes these things conflict with one another , both within and between characters. If they didn't, it would make for a dull story.

I think personality surveys should be taken with a grain (or entire shaker) of salt. But I  still thought it would be fun to run myself and my novel's four major characters through an online Myers-Briggs survey to see where they came out. Since I am taking it multiple times (answering for each of my characters), I decided not to use one of the services that asks for contact information so they can send a detailed report. I'm a bit leery of giving my e-mail to strangers online anyway. I sort of assume they're going to try to find a way to get money out of me, or at least target me for advertising or nag me about career counseling. I decided to go with this version, though of course, it may not be the most comprehensive or accurate test.

Myself: INTP

Introverted (I) 56.41% Extroverted (E) 43.59%
Intuitive (N) 54.05% Sensing (S) 45.95%
Thinking (T) 52.63% Feeling (F) 47.37%
Perceiving (P) 61.29% Judging (J) 38.71%

This is consistent with results I've gotten on other tests, except I flop back and forth on the thinking/feeling axis a lot. But this version does show me as being very close to the middle of the T/F "dichotomy."

My Protagonist (current name Jarrod): INFP

Introverted (I) 83.87% Extroverted (E) 16.13%
Intuitive (N) 52.63% Sensing (S) 47.37%
Feeling (F) 57.14% Thinking (T) 42.86%
Perceiving (P) 56.25% Judging (J) 43.75%

This actually sums him up well. He's moody, even melancholic at times, and rather idealistic. He's a softie, though he thinks of it as a weakness. He doesn't give his trust easily and will tend to mull things over, almost to the point of paralysis, but then make explosive and irrevocable decisions based more on his feelings than logic.

My Secondary Protagonist (Tesk): ISTJ

Introverted (I) 58.82% Extroverted (E) 41.18%
Sensing (S) 54.05% Intuitive (N) 45.95%
Thinking (T) 52.78% Feeling (F) 47.22%
Judging (J) 53.33% Perceiving (P) 46.67%

An interesting outcome. As I see the character, she's introverted, though less so than Jarrod. So this is pretty accurate. She does tend to value logic and evidence over hunches and emotions, though part of her arc as a character is to learn to trust her gut in at least some situations and to stop thinking of her softer emotions as a weakness. She is actually a very kind, compassionate person, though she's afraid this means she'll be taken advantage of and that it will affect her objectivity as a healer and force her to be more of a caregiver than someone who discovers new treatments for disease.

The third pov character (Ruu): ENFP

Extroverted (E) 58.33% Introverted (I) 41.67%
Intuitive (N) 52.78% Sensing (S) 47.22%
Feeling (F) 59.38% Thinking (T) 40.63%
Perceiving (P) 55.88% Judging (J) 44.12%

Ruu is more outgoing than either Jarrod or Tesk, so the E rings true to me. He looks like an even split between intuitive and sensing, like my other two characters. He is more spontaneous and go with your gut than Tesk is, though he's more okay with that aspect of himself than Jarrod is. His main conflict in the story is his loyalty to his guild and his own desire to redeem himself so he can return home. But then his guild asks him to step outside his sense of what is right. This really is the core conflict all three of my sympathetic characters face in one way or another.

The antagonist (Danior): ESTJ

Extroverted (E) 64.52% Introverted (I) 35.48%
Sensing (S) 68.75% Intuitive (N) 31.25%
Thinking (T) 85.71% Feeling (F) 14.29%
Judging (J) 70.59% Perceiving (P) 29.41%

He is supposed to be Jarrod's mirror, so his turning out to be the opposite on all axis is rather predictable. They were best friends once, because their various traits complemented one another. Like Jarrod, Dan is a very fearful person. Unlike Jarrod, he's not terribly introspective, and he avoids thinking about things that make him uncomfortable or unhappy. So he's not really aware of his own fear much of the time, and when he is, his reaction is to defeat what makes him afraid, rather than understand where it's coming from. He is a leader, rather charismatic and an organizer, or he wouldn't be able to lead the umbral circle. It's important to note that his less than admirable qualities do not stem from his personality traits so much as his personality traits determine how his less admirable qualities will manifest.

This is something to think about when interpreting a Myers-Briggs result. All of the 16 basic "personalities" are described in terms of strengths. This may be why people will so proudly proclaim that they're an ESTJ or whatever. It's popular to (retroactively, I'd guess) designate historic or literary figures as one of the 16, so it can be exciting to find out you're "the same" as Marie Curie, or Lincoln, or Samuel Clemens, or whomever. Interesting that no really wants to know which personality type Stalin, or Aaron Burr, or John Hinckley Jr. Might be.

Some personality tests put things differently. I took a big five test, which asked some similar questions as the Myers-Briggs, but scored them differently. It basically told me I have a lousy personality, or at least, it emphasized the potential negatives that come with my alleged personality traits, rather than the potential positives. It didn't make me feel too good, even though I don't take these things too seriously.

May be why the Myers-Briggs test is so popular.

Someone asked me today whether or not I thought using a test like this might be beneficial for someone who is coming up with characters for a novel they're about to start writing. I wouldn't myself, since I'm a pantser (my messy, disorganized nature) and tend to "discover" things about people as I write about them. But like anything else in writing, if it works for you, then go for it.


  1. Just attempted one of the visual intelligence tests on this site. Couldn't answer a single question. In fact couldn't understand the questions. Must have an IQ of zero.
    My characters presumably suffer from the same problem.

  2. And that illustrates a problem with IQ tests. There's a technique associated with taking them, and prior experience with tests of that type (or cultural contexts that are related) will influence whether or not the person "gets" the technique.

  3. I also do this for all my main characters! I use PLEASE UNDERSTAND ME II by David Keirsey as my guide, rather than giving them quizzes. Possibly this is the J in me, although I'm also basically a pantser.