Sunday, November 18, 2018

Characterization: Judging vs. Perceiving

I often refer to Myers-Briggs personality types when I want to understand how real people or fictional characters act and react in certain situations. An individual’s profile is determined based on four poles: (Introvert/Extrovert, Sensing/Intuiting, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving). Each of the four pairs provides insights, but one of the most interesting is Judging versus Perceiving.

The way I find it easiest to understand the dichotomy of this pair is to answer this question:

Do you feel more comfortable after you’ve made a decision (J) or before the decision is made (P)?

Judging people (not to be confused with judgmental people, which this is not) are usually task oriented, put off play until work is done, make lists, are comfortable when decisions are made, and hate having the pressure of looming deadlines so will carefully schedule their work. Sometimes they focus on the goal so heavily they miss (or ignore) new information which could impact them.

Perceivers like to keep their options open. They often don’t make plans and will decide when they must (and sometimes they will miss out because they didn’t decide). They tend to work in bursts of energy, often becoming more energized as a deadline nears.

My better half, Jan, is a big-time J. I am normally a strong P with the distinction that when a decision needs to be made, I make it and move on. Until that point, my theory is why not collect as much data as you can? (Pure P thinking.) Jan, of course, is going crazy while I check out “just one more thing.”

One reason we read novels is to learn how characters act under stress. Stress can be physical (someone’s trying to kidnap me!) and those confrontations can rev our endorphins in sympathy with the character. But if the only stress is action-oriented, most readers soon become bored (unless we channel our inner teenage boy). Mental stress comes in all shapes and sizes and can hold our interest throughout a novel.

Jan and I are currently looking at a major decision, and I can attest to the building tension when a J and a P must jointly make a decision (assuming neither one is the type who rolls over and capitulates with “whatever you want, dear).

It’s also interesting to see what happens when the author forces a P character to make a decision before they can gather what the P thinks is enough data. After they have been forced to make it, how long will they rehash their decision before they accept it? What form does their regret take? What happens in their dreams?

Or consider the mental punishment of not allowing a J who has decided what should be done to enact it. Or what happens when against advice (probably from a P) that they should consider other information before deciding, they go ahead, only to discover they have made a huge error?

As an author, I find satisfaction in torturing my characters and seeing if they grow stronger or crumble under the stress. As a reader, I want to know what’s going to happen.

In real life, it’s not quite as enjoyable, but it’s easier for me to cope when I can reflect on everyone’s style and how that drives the way they see the world.


  1. In B school I learned to gather reliable data within a mandated time constraint and make the best possible decision based on the information available. I do this in my personal and writing life, but, when the opportunity presents itself, seize an opportunity.

    An interesting way of considering my protagonist's dilemma!

  2. My dad often got frustrated at tentative drivers, telling them in exasperation, "Do something, even if it's wrong." (Not that they could hear him, of course. I do it, too. Same exact words.) Classic J. I never realized that until now.

  3. I'm always surprised that when I do the Myers-Briggs test I'm classified as a J. When I shop I'm always looking for more options - classic P. Maybe I'm a small "j"?

  4. I test as a P, but to tell the truth, I feel like much of life just happens, and while we may think we have a lot of control (like when we make major decisions) in reality we just end up with another version of what outside forces determine.

  5. Classic J here. Years of dealing with Court deadlines have enforced that whether I liked it or not! I think that's why I delight in having at least one P in each novel usually a sidekick, but I never realized it until I read your post just now.

    What fun, and what an opportunity to kick up the conflict. Thanks, Jim.

  6. I love the story, Barb.

    If you do the full MB testing, there are 5 ssubsets within the P/J category. I am strong P in 3 and strong J in 2. I can and will make decisions within any deadline and move on afterwards, but if there is more time, I'm dragging my feet because you never know what might turn up in the meantime.