Reverse Engineering Character Development
Unravel the characters you know and love – and spin them into your own unique version using the Myers-Briggs personality types
It’s a risky stance among a creative crowd, but according to Mark Twain, there is no such thing as a new idea.
“We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” – Mark Twain.
But whether you buy into that sentiment or not, there’s no shame in using the band of characters you know and love as a jump-off point, as you create your own.
Using the Myers-Briggs Personality Test for Character Development
Stepping into the psychology and the behaviors that drive fictional characters can be both fun and tedious – not to mention a test of your own mental ‘acting’ abilities.
Created by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers during WWII, the Myers–Briggs Personality Test is an introspective self-report questionnaire designed to indicate psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.
Using the Myers-Briggs personality types to design your characters can take the guesswork out of how they may behave in the same or similar circumstances, essentially providing a comprehensive analysis of what motivates and influences them as they move through the world.
In fact, many writers and animators have been using Myers-Briggs as a tool for character creation for a while now.
How to Reverse Engineer a Character
1. Find a real person or a fictional character who is similar to your vision
When you visit the Myers-Briggs Personality Types page, clicking through and learning about each one can be an eye-opening and inspirational exercise for character development. Each type has a list of real-life influential and fictional people who fit the same bill. For example, see which Myers-Briggs Personality Albert Einstein was.
Whether you want an charismatic and edgy ‘Commander’ like Chef Gordon Ramsay, a dark player like Professor Moriarty to ‘Architect’ your plot twists, or a classic ‘Protagonist’ like Jennifer Lawrence to take the lead – there is a myriad of characters to discover.
2. Review their strengths and weaknesses to gain insight into their persona
As you explore each personality type, take your character research one step deeper by viewing their strengths and weaknesses.
These attributes can help reveal not only where your own character might shine, but what situations will bring them the greatest challenges.
This exploration can help you add incredible tension and suspense into your script.
When you’re writing, you’ll have a sense of how to set the greatest obstacles, both external and internal, to build the drama and set audiences on a path of asking ‘how will they get out of this one?’ Meanwhile, you’ll be able to create an authentic character response to conflict, complete with strengths and blindspots that affect exactly how the character overcomes their barriers.
3. Explore the depth of your character by seeing how they’d behave in different contexts
One other beautiful piece of the Myers-Briggs personality descriptions online, is that they explore how each character operates in friendship, romantic relationships, as parents and at work.
With this knowledge you can uncover different facets of your character as well as place him or her in situations that enrich their personalities – or add tension to their ‘lives.’
For instance, you can think through how an ‘Entrepreneur’ like Bruce Willis might behave if his friends abandoned his invitation to a spirited game of basketball in lieu of starting a knitting circle… Or how an order-installing, chaos-loathing ‘Executive’ like Judge Judy would react if she discovered that her long-lost sister had reappeared in the middle of the night, leaving a baby on her doorstep.
Okay, so maybe those ideas are a little off the wall, but your creativity will be greater than mine!
What to do if Your Character is Stuck
If you’re stuck at a plot point, or even at the beginning of sketching out the individuals who will be integral to your storyline, this great 7-minute video by Extra Credits shows how animators and scriptwriters can use Myers-Briggs to move forward.