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.