Characters: Personality

As a psychology graduate, being given a window into the inner workings of a character’s mind is one of the best parts of reading fiction. The golden rule, “show, don’t tell,” holds true – and being shown a character’s unique personality through their thoughts, words and actions is a gratifying experience – especially when you can relate to the character, or know someone just like them.

I remember learning about the Big Five Personality Traits from a clinical psychologist lecturing at my university in London. Even now I sometimes find myself thinking about someone I’ve met, in real life or fiction, ans where they fit on those five dimensions. I could be wrong with my educated guesses, as sometimes a person’s inner world is very different to the way they appear to conduct themselves e.g. the introvert who drinks alcohol to be more sociable or assertive, the neurotic who meditates daily to better control her hostility or stop her withdrawing from threatening situations, etc.

So with my characters, playing with those personality dimensions, giving the development of each trait a backstory and throwing in a few red herrings is great fun. There is no good or bad in terms of personality, but being high in a particular trait can make specific situations easier or harder due to how the character instinctively reacts e.g. criticism to a character high in neuroticism, is like a paper cut would be to a haemophiliac.

Below I’ve listed the five traits and their aspects, with a short description of each one and how sometimes, all is not as it seems.

Openness to Experience: Openness and Intellect

These characters like to learn new things, try new experiences, can be insightful, imaginative and have a wide variety of interests.

If they score low in intellect however (this is different to IQ – author sighs in relief) those interests will more likely be practical in nature as philosophical or complicated ideas are less appealing.

People tend to be more open to new experiences when they’re in a new place, with new people, like on holiday – which says a lot about the reinforcing nature of family and old friends on personality. We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, says Tim Ferriss, so allot that time wisely! Who are my character’s family/friends? Who is bringing my character’s average down…or is she the dead weight?

Conscientiousness: Industriousness and Orderliness

The characters scoring high on this trait are conscientious, reliable and prompt. They are generally organised, tidy, methodical, and thorough. Not bad traits for a professional hitman or surgeon.

Ask a child to tidy their room, or polish their shoes, or do homework and you are trying to instil the behaviours of this trait. But if they don’t understand WHY those tasks are important, or they understand why but those reasons just aren’t that important to them, they won’t become a habit. The behaviours don’t match their SELF-IDENTITY, so the habits won’t stick and you end up with a lazy or messy character.

A moderately conscientious person, with high neuroticism is the perfect storm when it comes to procrastination – useful to know. Increasing conscientiousness and reducing neuroticism, could be a potential cure?

Extraversion: Enthusiasm and Assertiveness

Extraverts become energised by interacting with others, while introverts get their energy from within themselves and find socialising draining. Extraverts are frequently energetic, enthusiastic, talkative, and assertive.

That doesn’t mean introverts can’t display all of the above…but it generally requires some chemical enhancement or extreme event. Parrots can ride mini-bicycles, but not if left to their own devices. Give me cosiness or camping over crowded pub any day.

Agreeableness: Compassion and Politeness

Those characters who act in a friendly, cooperative, or compassionate way would score highly in agreeableness. Whereas scoring low in this trait can make the character seem distant, unkind, cold and lacking empathy.

As with all of the other traits, agreeable people may not be so in every situation, and in certain situations scoring too highly on this trait could put you at a disadvantage. We all read and see characters who are too compassionate and polite, only to have their good nature taken advantage of.

Neuroticism: Withdrawal and Volatility

That moody, tense character who frequently experiences negative emotions and lacks emotional stability is the embodiment of the word, neurotic. Those with low scores of neuroticism would be unlikely to withdraw from anxiety producing situations and less prone to emotional outbursts.

I’ve blogged about 4D people before, and a high degree of neuroticism will definitely make a character more likely to fit this description. They may be a drain in real life, but neurotic characters are fantastic because there is so much going on – in their head, if nowhere else.

Plot vs Character?

“There are no extraordinary men… just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.” – Admiral William Halsey

People. Not just men. People. He was speaking to the navy back in the day, so he’s forgiven. Either way, I don’t think that I agree fully with the statement. Here comes my tangent…hear me out…

We find ourselves in our current circumstances (plot) because of how we have behaved (character) in the past.

If we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances it is rare (possible, but rare) that we were acting in an ordinary way. It’s our past decisions and actions which have led to these present and future consequences.

I would argue therefore that extraordinary people do exist. They are the select few who decide and act in such a way so as to arrive at those extraordinary circumstances. Signing up for the navy or any military service in the first place is an extraordinary act. Continuing to work on the front line throughout this pandemic, is an extraordinary act. Homeschooling children with no background in teaching yourself? Continuing to provide necessary services and products in some evolved format? Habitually act in a certain way, and shouldn’t you earn the title of an extraordinary person?

I get that he may have just been trying to calm the nerves of his men, who were faced with overwhelming odds. I understand that reassuring them, that their leaders and their enemies were ordinary too, could have made those odds seem better. But there are a lot of professionals in the world at the moment, who I see as anything but ordinary.

Whilst I agree that ordinary people can be thrown into dramatic situations – and then either rise to the occasion, or not – most will not. They will let fear get the better of them, they will feel the overwhelm and run away, they will procrastinate. They will fail, confirming their ordinariness (anyway…that would be a crappy story. Rocky gets beaten – no rematch. Marty get stuck in 1955 – messes up everything…next!).

So plot and character are linked inextricably, but I do spend a lot of time of the character part. Not just because I enjoy the process, getting to know these “people”, but also because you can’t rush these things. Flat characters are the worst. It’s very easy to pigeonhole your character – especially using occupational stereotypes e.g. “Oh, she’s a rocket scientist, so she must be good at maths, and think about nothing but the physics involved 24/7.” That could be the case, but the professionals I’ve met are multifaceted. Flawed. Doctors who smoke. Divorced marriage counsellors. Bald hairdressers. For all we know, our rocket scientist took the job because it paid well enough to fund her drug habit and all the science, she doesn’t understand – it’s just her job five days a week. There is more to life. There is more to her. Even those lucky enough to do their dream job, will have elements that they would rather delegate – and these elements are far more interesting.

I have delayed writing anything useful for long enough…I’m off to meditate in the hope of becoming a little less neurotic, and I may reward myself afterwards, inadvertently making myself a little more extroverted.

Step 5: Write Character Sketches

Step 5 instructs us Snowflake practitioners to write a few paragraphs (up to a page) on the main characters, including their backstory, story goals, values and ambitions, etc.

I find this part so interesting, which should be no surprise as a psychology graduate. I am going to be spending a lot of time with these characters, so unlike the cardboard characters in Netflix’s Top Boy (it might just be the terrible actors playing them), I want them to be believable, multi-dimensional and fun to be around. I inevitably started to brainstorm what that would entail and ended up on a google-sponsored tangent instead.

4D People

I read that K-Pop culture has invented a slang term 4D, to refer to a person who is strange, eccentric or has a big personality. It’s supposed to be a compliment, not a derogatory comment. But for years I’ve had my own meaning for a 4D person, that’s not so positive. In fact, I do everything I can to keep these people at a firm distance in real life – even before that was in vogue – but as a reader, I do enjoy these characters.

4D people are those individuals perpetually drawn towards Drama, Disease, Divorce and Debt. They will be totally oblivious to the fact that they are a 4D person, so there’s no point in telling them or even blogging about it. They have probably blogged about it in the past themselves and not even realised who they were writing about (too meta?).

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Drama

Make no mistake. It is ALWAYS about them. Victim one minute, hero the next – but their challenges far outweigh anyone else’s. They have the unenviable ability to start a fight in an empty room. They use Machiavellian methods to stir shit up, but only if it would cause them to lose favour to be seen throwing the first punch. They are predictably unpredictable, and to keep your sanity it’s best to laugh and marvel at their endlessly inventive ways of starting shit.

The opposite is the character who won’t take the bait. They can chuckle to themselves and shake their head, or roll their eyes and sigh, because they hold a “live and let live” attitude and they are firm on their decision not to be drawn in to the person’s shitshow. Life is too short my friend, it will offer enough drama of its own, without you inviting/creating more. The second character may be a bit less entertaining on the page or the screen however, so God bless those drama queens.

Disease

Whether it’s karma from a previous life, a genetic predisposition or sheer bad luck – if we are lucky to live long enough, we’re going to end up with some illness or other. A cheery thought, I know – but there are actually people out there, who are rubbing their hands together and hoping for that very thing – like I hope for a lottery win. The NHS website describes Munchausen’s syndrome (Factitious Disorder) as a psychological disorder where someone pretends to be ill or deliberately produces symptoms of illness in themselves. They might actually be ill – but they bring it on themselves. Their aim is to assume the “sick role” so that people care for them and they are the centre of attention. I try and keep the posts to 1000 words, so I can’t even begin to go into the how fucked up that is….and Munchausen’s by proxy? Don’t even get me started.

The opposite is someone who does their best to guard their own mental-emotional health, to sleep right, eat right and exercise. When they are concerned about their health, they go and see the doctor (after a terrifying morning on WebMD, we’ve all done it) and don’t trouble everyone else with their ailments until they’ve actually been diagnosed. They take the doctor’s advice and complete their treatment, they don’t see-saw between doing so and throwing caution to the wind – “well, you only live once”. They don’t have to say, “I’m a fighter,” because they show it with their continued efforts to get and stay well. They do not run, screaming from the burning building, only to start another fire outside.

A vegan, teetotal marathon runner may not sound like someone you would want to be sat next to at a party – but given the choice between them and Sick Note? Let’s talk tofu recipes. On the page however, at a distance, those characteristics might well make it into the DNA of one of my characters.

Divorce

This is not necessarily marital divorce, but could be any strained relationship resulting in arguments, separation or lack of communication. People can have short-term falling outs, but these are generally over situational specific disputes, as opposed to ever-present personality conflicts.

It’s the difference between an argument caused by a momentary misinterpretation of someone’s intent, versus the long standing feud caused by them being so different in terms of their values, beliefs and behaviours, that people realise it’s better to keep their distance. They are not part of the same tribe.

Apparently there are lots of different types of toxic people, which again, make great fictional characters – but you wouldn’t want them as a room mate or partner. But we love to read about or watch them from the safety of our sofa, where they can’t penetrate our own like bubble of Hugge. We hope.

Debt

“Neither a lender nor borrower be.” – William Shakespeare

You will see these people win the jackpot on Friday, only to ask you if they can borrow a fiver the following Monday. They live beyond their means and any pay rises are accompanied by an increase in spending on excessively expensive possessions or ENC (pronounced, en-see, stands for emperor’s new clothes) experiences – you know the kind? You went, you thought it was shite, but you dare not say so to all of your friends who loved it, because you don’t want to seem uncultured or like a Neanderthal. Just smile for the selfie.

Money is a charged topic. Give a character an issue with handling their money (think, Snatch, Frankie Four Fingers) and you automatically have tension. It’s a car crash waiting to happen. Do I want someone like this as my accountant? No. But do I want to watch or read about a gambler getting further and further into debt to pay off his other debts…it would be a tense read, but it will keep me turning the pages.

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He Who Fights With Monsters…

“…might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” – Fredrich Nietzsche

Basically you start to become like the people you associate with and think about the most. Tim Ferriss says something similar, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” So I shall be watching myself as I write about the dodgier of my characters – wary of any changes to my usual thinking or behaviour.

I am currently rereading James Clear’s Atomic Habits and he argues that a key component of changing your habits comes down to changing your identity. I’m nearly 40 years old, but I don’t believe my identity is fixed (as in stable, not repaired) – although it’s human nature for other people to want it to be.

I believe that change is possible. Improvement is possible. I hope that my characters change and grow throughout this novel – from this starting point I’m writing – and that some of those 4D characters are just 3D by the end.