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Matilda Butler is our guest blogger today, as we prepare for her Member Teleseminar presentation Friday, November 16 11 AM PST. In this post, she reveals secrets about how you can create believable and accurate character portraits in your memoir drawing upon social science to explain personality types.

Who Was that Masked Man? A Test Reveals All

Matilda Butler, Co-Founder Women’s Memoirs

The Lone Ranger was never unmasked. That worked for the radio and later television series. But as memoir writers we can’t get by with that. Actually, we need to do more than just unmask the people in our stories. We need to dig into the main characters (and yes, real people are characters too) and reveal as much about us and them as possible. Only then can we write an engaging and credible memoir. Only then can the flat words on the page come to life and produce people we continue to remember long after the last page of the book is read and the covers (or digital file) are closed.

In one of the chapters of our new book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep [http://womensmemoirs.com/the-writers-store/books/], my co-author, Kendra Bonnett, and I go into detail about each of five levels of character development — identity, physical description, demographic factors, psychographic attributes, and personality/habits/quirks. We turn to the social sciences to show you new ways to develop finely etched characters. We even give you numerous tests you can use to learn more about yourself and others in your memoir.

Rather than summarizing that information, let me share one specific detail involved in going deep into character that will help you unlock insights that will add to the richness of your memoir — that will help your readers care about the people in your stories. This detail, personality, just may hold surprises for you. It did for me.

Whether or not you have taken a personality test, almost everyone knows of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®). Katherine Cook Briggs (1875-1968) was interested in human development and in 1923 read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types that had been published two years earlier. Shortly afterwards, she shared her thoughts with her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980). This mother-daughter team spent the rest of their lives devoted to making Jungian insights accessible by creating and validating what became 16 personality types.

Before looking at these types, there’s an interesting side note about Isabel Briggs Myers that will interest you as a writer. During the early years of her work on personality types, Isabel became interested in fiction and wrote a mystery called Murder Yet to Come that was published in 1929. The book won the national Detective Murder Mystery Contest, beating out an early Ellery Queen (the pseudonym of Brooklyn cousins) mystery. Why is this of interest to writers? Isabel created her characters based specifically on the personality types she understood through her research.

We probably wouldn’t know about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator if it weren’t for World War II. In unprecedented numbers, women were moving into the workplace and the mother-daughter team saw that their research could help women identify the type of wartime work that suited their personalities. Today, more than 2 million people take the MBTI annually. The test’s 16 personality types are based on combinations of four pairs of elements:

Extroversion versus Introversion — how a person gets energy

Sensing versus Intuiting — how a person gets information

Thinking versus Feeling — how a person makes decisions

Judging versus Perceiving — how a person manages her/his lifestyle

These natural preferences (or dichotomies) are not meant to be judgmental; there is no right or wrong. They only help to catalogue and measure our natural predilections for thinking and acting. By identifying a person’s preference between each of the dichotomies, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assigns one of 16 personality types (ESTJ, ESTP, ESFJ, ESFP, ISTJ, ISFJ, etc.)

When you join this Friday’s teleseminar, I’ll give you an example of how delving into personality types has both informed my memoir writing and also helped me better understand my life partner. His behaviors over the years puzzled me. Now I know what’s going on. I even understand why we feel differently at the end of a party.

Try this out for yourself

The MBTI® is a for-fee test. Because we are using personality tests to better understand the people we write about, there is no need for the official test. I have taken a number of the free tests and feel several are excellent. I’ve chosen one to share with you. It is based on Myers-Briggs-type questions and will provide you with information that may lead to insights. For this exercise, I suggest you take the test twice — once as yourself and once as a second major character in your memoir. This means that over time you may take these tests multiple times since you need to take it for all the major people in your memoir. Since you know the four pairs of elements, you might think you could just specify the personality type without taking the tests. However, the items in the tests help you to think about situations that you and others operate within.

The test is a 36 item test called the Mental Muscle Diagram Indicator™. Each item is a pair of statements with a six point scale. Some of the statement pairs will cause you to think seriously about your choice. You might even think you can’t decide. But just indicate how close you are to the statement you agree with the most. I like this test because you are using a scale for each item rather than a binary yes/no response. After you take the test, you are told how strong you are on each factor and your likely personality type. There is a box where you can buy a report that will provide more details. This is not necessary as the results in the free online report will give you all that you need for developing the description of yourself and others in your memoir. In addition to getting your personality type, the website also provides information on what the types mean so it’s a good learning tool.


When our students use these tests, they often comment how much they have learned. After a class last month, one student went home and had a long discussion with her husband about their different approaches to decision making. She sent an email thanking me for the insights.


1. Take the test listed above and write down your personality type.

2. Write some of your behaviors that illustrate your personality type. Don’t hurry this step. Go deep.

  1. Take the test a second time trying to be “in the skin” of the other person. Write down the personality type.
  2. Write some of that person’s behaviors that illustrate the personality type. Again, don’t hurry. As you begin to write you may recall additional behaviors.

Let me conclude with a Eudora Welty quote that shows her take on character description. I think she’d like using personality tests not only for ourselves but also when we let ourselves be another person. She wrote:

“Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.”


 Photo: Lone Ranger fan club

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