Character Development

How to Use Myers-Briggs to Develop Authentic, Compelling Characters in a Screenplay

Here’s everything you need to know so that you can use MBTI to build more three-dimensional characters in your script.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is one of the most popular personality quizzes in pop-culture. And, it doubles as a powerful resource for screenwriters to keep in their character development toolbox.

Here’s everything you need to know so that you can use MBTI to build more three-dimensional characters in your script.

(If you’re already familiar with Myers-Briggs, skip down to the second section of this article.)

What is Myers-Briggs?

Myers-Briggs is a personality assessment based on the work of famed psychologist Carl Jung.

After answering a lengthy questionnaire, test-takers are assigned one of sixteen possible “psychological types,” or personalities. The types are named using a four-letter “code” that characterizes how a person interacts with the world around them.

Although “official” Myers-Briggs assessments cost upwards of $50 and sometimes require going in-person to a testing center, an extremely popular free online option is 16 Personalities.

If you’re a perfectionist and usually prefer to do things by-the-book, don’t stress—unofficial assessments are just as effective.

Isobel Briggs Myers, one of the creators of MBTI, says “It’s up to each person to recognize his or her true preference.” Meaning, if you read your results and they don’t feel right, you should browse the other fifteen options until you find one that connects with you.

What do the letters represent?
You can be either Extroverted (E) or Introverted (I), Sensing (S) or Intuition (N), Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), and Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

Photo from Cognitive Type

Since there is a lot of confusion and overlap between these different categories, we’ve broken them down to their simplest definitions below.

World: Extroverted (E) and Introverted (I)
Colloquially, extroversion and introversion have become synonymous with outgoing and shy, respectively—but that’s not the full picture. A more helpful way to think of these traits is how a person solves problems and the way they get their energy from the world.

If you prefer to talk problems out with others and feel most yourself when you’re surrounded by people, you’re probably Extroverted.

On the other hand, if you prefer to think problems through by reflecting on your own and find yourself most at ease when you’re alone, you’re probably Introverted.

Character Tip:
An extroverted character can still be shy and/or have social anxiety. This creates an inherent conflict—they need social interaction but are simultaneously overwhelmed by it.

Internal Information: Sensors (S) and Intuitives (N)
Sensing and intuition are the two most misunderstood traits in MBTI. They have to do with how you process information internally: what details do you see as the most important and notice first?

If you are a Sensor, then you rely more heavily on the concrete and information you get through your five senses. When making a decision, you turn to hard facts and past experiences—sometimes to the point of missing new possibilities.

If you are an Intuitive, you read between the lines. Instead of looking at a situation for what it is right now, you often will evaluate it within the context of other patterns and or “the big picture.” You like to “go with your gut.”

Judgment: Thinking (T) and Feeling (F)

You probably know off the top of your head if your best friend is Thinking or Feeling. These two traits describe the way we make our decisions and pass judgment on a situation.

If you had to make a tough decision, what would be most natural for you to prioritize?

Thinkers will feel more comfortable when they can reference hard facts, like scientific evidence and data. If you’re a Thinker, you may emphasize fairness and logic.

Feelers, on the other hand, are most comfortable when they can balance the feelings and perspectives of others. They emphasize harmony and community—if you’re a Feeler, you may be told that you “wear your heart on your shirt sleeve.”

External Structure: Judging (J) and Perceiving (P)
Judging and Perceiving represent the flip-side of Sensing and Intuition—they illustrate how you prefer to structure your outer-world. Namely, your schedule and the tasks on your plate.

Someone who is a Judger may prefer to use checklists, have plans set in stone, and be extremely goal-oriented.

But, a person who is a Perceiver may prefer to go with the flow, work in bursts of inspiration, and have flexible schedules.

What do your results mean?
The four letters assigned to you represent your preferences. At the end of the day, everybody will be a little bit of everything—but you rely on some more than others.

Here is a chart depicting one interpretation of all 16 possible outcomes:

Photo from 16 Personalities

16 Personalities gives clarity to these results by dividing them into four categories—Analysts, Diplomats, Sentinels, and Explorers—and then further personifies them with unique characters, like the Protagonist or the Executive. (You can browse all the different possibilities here.)

As a quick cheat-sheet, we’ve put together a spreadsheet with all the basics that you need to know about the 16 different MBTI profiles. It includes:

  • MBTI four-letter codes
  • MBTI names
  • Short descriptions
  • Archetypal story role
  • Famous examples from film and TV

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(Since this is a screenwriting blog, our explanation of MBTI is just scratching the surface. If you love this stuff, visit the Myers-Briggs website to learn more about your type dynamics, including which traits are dominant and how your type may change over time.)

How can you use MBTI in screenwriting?

MBTI was created as a self-reflective tool—that is, as a means for people to better understand and improve upon themselves.

However, as screenwriters, we can use MBTI to help us flesh out more three-dimensional characters. Here are 7 creative ways to do it.

1. Take a free MBTI assessment from your character’s point of view.
To use MBTI as a screenwriting tool, this is where you need to start. Every tip and trick you’ll read about MBTI relies on you knowing what type your characters are—so take the quiz and answer the questions as though you were them!

If you’ve never taken an MBTI assessment before, we’d highly recommend doing it from your own point of view first to familiarize yourself with the question format and style. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to get through it.

The main difference between taking the quiz as yourself and as your character is that, when you take it as “you,” you’re meant to go with your gut—that is, answer the questions instinctually rather than dwelling too much on each response. However, when you complete it as your character, you’re going to want to take it a bit slower.

When actors need to use a different accent, they often will repeat a phrase that helps them get into it. Similarly, get into your character’s headspace by imagining a scene that’s quintessentially them right before you take the quiz. Then, if necessary, close your eyes and visualize how they would respond to each question.

The simple act of thinking through how they would describe themselves and the decisions they’d make is an excellent way to get to know them.

2. Get to know your characters on a deeper level.
Once you take the MBTI assessment as your character, you’ll receive a personality profile that describes personality in great detail. This is an excellent opportunity to get to know who you’re writing about more thoroughly.

Many character development resources ask writers to get inside their character’s heads. But people are complicated, and so it’s practically impossible to flesh out every single facet of their personalities. An MBTI profile will add more depth and nuance and will most certainly address elements of their inner and outer lives that you never even thought of.

There are quite literally thousands of articles written about every personality profile, so take some time to read up on your core characters. You can find details about every aspect of their lives: how they handle relationships, what their goals may be, their most likely career paths, and even what they’d be like as parents.

For example, the rule-breaking, school-skipping titular star of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an ESTP “Entrepreneur.” One tagline of ESTP folks is “Sitting idle, especially in boredom, is the bane of my existence” . . . enough said!

Remember, though: take the results with a grain of salt. Use them as guide rails or a jumping-off point instead of treating them as law.

3. Browse the MBTI results of some of your favorite fictional and real-life people for inspiration.

If you want to figure out why your favorite script is so effective, you break it down. Similarly, if you want to figure out why you find a fictional character or real-world person so compelling, you do a character analysis.

Fortunately, people on the internet have done a lot of the work for you. There are countless resources, blogs, and articles where dedicated folks have evaluated the MBTI of our favorite people—and they’ve even organized it into artistic charts!

Again, don’t forget to snag our handy spreadsheet—it’s a free download and includes examples of famous characters for every MBTI personality type. To see some more examples, you can also browse collection of 15 fan-made charts filled with characters from different fictional worlds and this breakdown of hundreds of famous real-world people.

If you have a character or person you really love, see if you can find their MBTI—and then build your own character using that same foundation.

4. Evaluate your ensemble’s MBTI results to find missed opportunities.
Each of your characters should individuals with their own inner and outer lives. As writers, we value character differences because it creates more interesting dynamics and opportunity for conflict.

When we put our characters in close proximity to each other—like in ensemble pieces—their differences become even more important. Harry Potter would be far less interesting if, instead of our favorite trio, we followed around three Harrys!

In fact, when you look at the wizards’ profiles, you see the brilliance of including Hermione in the trio: Harry is an ISFP “Adventurer” and Ron is an ESFP “Entertainer,” while Hermione is an ESTJ “Executive.” Without Hermione, Harry and Ron would blindly follow their Feeling-Perceiving right into some troll-filled bathrooms, but fortunately, she shows up to get them to stop and Think and form some thoughtful Judgements before acting.

To make sure your characters’ uniqueness extends beyond the surface, take a free MBTI assessment as each of them. Once you have the results, evaluate them side-by-side and make sure you have many different personalities represented.

If you find that all your characters are introverts, for example, you may want to consider shifting one to an extrovert—or, adding a new extroverted character altogether.

5. Check-in with MBTI to keep your characters consistent.
It happens to every writer—it’s hard not to slip into having our characters behave like ourselves or archetypes. The more complex a situation becomes and the more details you’re already juggling, the more difficult it can be to keep each character in their own lane, personality-wise.

If you’re even in doubt, turn back to your character’s MBTI profile for guidance on what they would do when facing a particular challenge. For example, do they panic or stay calm? Or they try to barrel through with brute force or are they able to take a step back and come at it strategically? Do they accept help or insist on going at it alone?

One way to do this is by re-reading their MBTI profile while keeping a particular scene front-of-mind. Look for any inconsistencies between the way they behave and the way MBTI says they would behave.

Inconsistencies can lead to upset fans and confused readers. For example, many Game of Thrones hardcore followers believe Dany, the Mother of Dragons, is an INFP “Mediator.” This type of person is an idealist and are led by their pure intentions with little regard for reward or punishment.

This profile is certainly consistent with the Dany we saw in earlier seasons when she did what she carefully thought through her decisions and ultimately thought was right without regard for how it would affect her reputation. It’s not, however, in-line with the seemingly rage-fueled, spur-of-the-moment incineration of Kings Landing at the series’ end . . . which perhaps explains why so many fans were left in outrage and disbelief.

Of course, as you look for inconsistencies between your own characters and their profiles, seeing differences doesn’t automatically mean you’re wrong. But it does mean that your choice to veer from their typical tendencies should be intentional and not accidental.

6. Stir the pot by giving your character their MBTI-nightmare conflict.
All story is conflict—especially when it comes to screenwriting. Screenwriting, more than perhaps any other form of storytelling—is absolutely ruthless when it comes to which scenes make the cut. If a scene isn’t elevating conflict or showing the character take action towards their objective, it’s left on the cutting room floor.

This is a big reason why Act 2 can be such a disaster area for writers. It’s back-to-back conflict, and at times, it can be difficult to keep upping the stakes.

As you plot your movie, look over your protagonist’s MBTI profile and brainstorm their worst-case scenarios. If they’re an introvert, never give them a break—have them be “on,” moving from one high-energy situation to the next. If they’re an extrovert, isolate them—put all their usual allies out of touch.

Similarly, some MBTI profiles are destined for conflict with one another. A simple way to do this is to introduce a character who is a complete foil (or opposite) to your protagonist by flipping the cognitive functions. For example, if you have a character who is an ISTP, put them in a room with an ENFJ and watch the drama unfold—just like Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope, respectively, from Parks and Recreation.

7. Forge an unforgettable pairing with complimentary MBTI profiles.
Finally, one exciting way to use MBTI is to create a dynamic duo with complementary profiles. If you have two characters working together who are too similar, their existence in your script is redundant. As they say in business, if you and your partner always agree, then one partner is expendable.

Instead, have both of your characters be individuals who bring out the best in one another. In the previous point, we recommend creating a character who is the complete opposite of your own to maximize conflict. This also happens to be the secret formula to all of our favorite buddy-cop pairings.

For example, in the crime comedy show Psych, Shawn is an ENTP “Debater” (with an overdeveloped Sensing ability, thanks to his cop training) while Gus is an ISFJ “Defender.” Their differences mean they tend to butt heads frequently, often with comedic results.

As another example, in Starsky and Hutch, Starsky is an ISTP “Virtuoso” and Hutch is an INFJ “Advocate”—not quite polar opposites, but different enough to accentuate each other’s strengths.

Conclusion
MBTI isn’t the end-all-be-all for character development. But it is a fun and interesting way for screenwriters to get to know their characters better and understand their choices on a deeper level.

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Alexie Basil uses storytelling, screenwriting, and psychology to elevate cutting-edge innovators and share their message with the world.