If you’ve ever felt like you’re stuck in a writing rut because your characters are blending together, the conflict has stalled, or you're just not sure how to show a character's true colors, your psychological makeup may be getting in your story’s way.
Put simply, stories need conflict, and to make that conflict convincing the writer must be able to see why two people would wholeheartedly believe completely different things.
Meanwhile, the writer's psyche is doing what human psyches do — anything and everything to simplify difficult issues into black-and-white, one-sided terms. The sole purpose of defense mechanisms like denial (ignoring a problem) and rationalization (finding a reason that something not-ok you did is ok) is to keep us in agreement with ourselves.
So how can you make conflict between characters convincing when your psyche is working so hard to keep you from seeing things from multiple perspectives?
The solution has two parts.
First, Writer, you must know yourself. Only then can you see when you are unintentionally contaminating your characters with your beliefs and attitudes.
Second, you must know how your characters are different from yourself — and allow yourself to write about people who believe things that are very different from you, even if it’s a little uncomfortable. (And if you're doing it right, from time to time it should be uncomfortable, because through your antagonist you'll be arguing for something you don't believe.)
The good news is, there are some easy-to-use tools to help you do these two things.
Psychological professionals use psychological tests to identify thinking and behavioral patterns because particular thoughts, ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors tend to consistently cluster together. Diagnoses are simply thinking and behavior patterns that tend to cause problems. The categories (aka diagnoses) allow professionals to quickly communicate which pattern they’re dealing with, and identify treatments.
Writers can use some of the same tools psychologists do to explore and understand personality patterns among characters. We’ll look at two tools, often called instruments, here briefly. We'll explore their use in more depth in another article.
The Myers-Briggs Type Instrument (MBTI) and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (similar enough that they’re often confused with one another) are probably the most familiar to people, since they’re often given during corporate and teambuilding seminars. Both are based on Carl Jung’s “psychological types:”
When you take a test like the MBTI or the Keirsey, you end up with a code like ESTP or INFJ that indicates your preferred approach to dealing with people, work, and ideas.
In Please Understand Me II, Keirsey offers information on each temperament type’s:
Thanks to the popularity of this approach, you can easily find free online tests (some better than others). The Humanmetrics version at is good, or you can take the official Keirsey at or buy a copy of Keirsey’s book, Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence. The downside of any approach other than borrowing or buying Keirsey’s book is that you’re going to get a lot of information from a lot of different sources, some of which isn’t very reliable.
Unfortunately, the official website doesn’t look like it’s been redesigned since 1997, and the information is poorly organized; however, it does use famous people as "case examples" of the different personality types.
The MBTI and the Keirsey are easy to find and familiar enough that most people will be able to get good basic results.
However, they're most typically used to help people figure out what kinds of jobs they’ll be good at, so you’re going to run into a lot of vocational information. If you decide to delve into Keirsey’s book, you’ll get an overwhelming amount of information in paragraph format, probably enough to keep you from writing anything for quite some time to come.
A more direct approach, and one that is inspired more directly by archetypes, is the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI).
Carol Pearson, who has written a number of books expanding on modern archetypal theory — her focus is on using archetypes to influence and improve people’s lives — decided to develop an instrument similar to the MBTI to help people identify archetypal influences in their lives. She teamed up with psychologist Hugh Marr to create the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI).
Like the MBTI, the PMAI is intended to increase understanding and communication among people. The PMAI is unique in that it overlaps with narrative theory, a psychological approach that suggests that we live “storied lives.” In other words, our choices, beliefs, and behaviors are guided by the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the world. Because we all tell ourselves slightly different stories, we all see the world in slightly different ways.
The PMAI is easier to use than the MBTI and Keirsey, especially for writers, because after you identify strong personality tendencies (“archetypes”), you can look each one up to find concise bullet points that will help you build or elaborate on your character, including
If you've used books like Victoria Lynn Schmidt's 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters or Tami Cowden and Caro LeFevre's The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines, you'll find Pearson and Marr's workbook, What Story Are You Living?: A Workbook and Guide to Interpreting Results from the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator a great companion.
If you want to get detail at the level of the Keirsey, you can -- just get a copy of Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World, which describes the different archetypal personalities in far greater depth.
Because Pearson and Marr are also interested in people's "archetypal journeys," they provide you with information on what growth and change look like in certain personality archetypes.
The PMAI is less readily available and therefore not free. However, it is also more carefully policed, which means you’re not going to get a lot of confusing, contradictory information from different sources.
Your first task is to take the instrument you’ve chosen as yourself. This will be your baseline, or the results against which you will compare any others. With the PMAI in particular, you can use your results to identify what kind of story you’re living.
Then, next time you sit down to write, get out a fresh copy of the instrument you've chosen and take it as your main protagonist. Take another as your main antagonist. And so on. You may find it easier to take breaks between the instruments, or even to take them on different days.
Then compare results.
Don’t be afraid to play around with different possibilities suggested by your results!