Creating a character? Get out your writer’s toolbox because it’s time to build the basis of a personality. What with? A little bit of psychology. Specifically, trait theory.
According to trait theorists, your personality is composed of a pattern of thoughts, emotions and behaviours, otherwise known as personality traits.
Traits are particularly useful when designing characters, giving you a simple way to craft the core of your cast and understand their actions in a variety of situations. Once you have the bones of your character's personality in place, it becomes that much easier to flesh them out, give them depth and make them as unique as you know them to be.
The important thing to understand about personality traits is that they’re relatively stable aspects of your personality. No matter what situation you’re in, or what point you’re at in your life, these traits don’t change (although the degree to which they show up in your behaviour will depend on the situation). Think of them as the foundation of your character, something to later build on.
One way used to categorise these traits is the five-factor model of personality. It organises traits into five dimensions, known as ‘supertraits’, or the ‘Big Five’, and can be easily remembered using a neat little acronym: OCEAN. It stands for…
Are you open to new experiences? Imaginative? Do you appreciate art and adventure and intellectual curiosity? If so, you’re probably high in the openness to experience trait. At the other end of the spectrum we have the more practical thinkers, who prefer familiar experiences to novel ones.
People high in conscientiousness are self-disciplined and organised, determined and prefer planned events to spontaneity. Those who score low in conscientiousness are easily distracted (by shiny objects or food or both if you happen to be eating edible gold or— Wait, where was I?). Oh, and they tend to be more careless too.
You can probably guess what people high in this trait are like—sociable, talkative, optimistic and assertive. They’re comfortable with being the centre of attention, making parties and social gatherings their playground. Introverts, on the other hand, are much more reserved and independent, preferring their own company and inner contemplation.
If you’re a compassionate and trusting individual then your agreeableness score will be high. Sympathy and forgiveness are second nature and cooperating with others is something you enjoy. For those of a more suspicious and antagonistic ilk, low scores in agreeableness are likely to follow.
Those with high scores in neuroticism display more emotional instability. Negative feelings like anxiety, anger and envy are common features of this, with susceptibility to stress and mood swings being high. For the low scorers, calmness and emotional stability are more the norm.
The five-factor model isn’t the only way to view personality traits. An alternative is the HEXACO personality inventory. This includes the five supertraits included in the five-factor model and adds one further supertrait to the list:
High scorers here obey rules and don’t manipulate others to further themselves. Wealth, luxury and social status are of little importance to them. In contrast, people low in the honesty-humility trait will be quite happy to manipulate others and ignore rules to get what they want—usually status or material goods.
It’s important to note that each of these supertraits has two poles, very high in the trait and very low in it. For example, extreme extraversion and extreme introversion. You and your characters (along with everyone else) will fall somewhere along the continuum between these two. Therefore, though you may have two characters who lean towards extraversion, they won’t be extraverted to the same degree. One may be closer to an extreme than the other, which gives you lots of room to create a diverse and interesting cast.
Enjoying this post? Then you’ll also like Design a Personality: Is Your Character Optimistic or Pessimistic?
Try It Yourself
So those are the main personality traits (plus an additional one) put forward by the five-factor model of personality. Maybe you’ve already recognised a few in yourself or people you know. Maybe you’ve compared your own characters’ personalities to them or thought, ‘That’d be a great trait to give to Bartholomew the Brave or that dastardly Lord Darkthorne.’
But how to get a more accurate read on your characters’ personality traits? Fill out a personality test from the perspective of your characters. Depending on what you want to find out, you could try:
The Five Factor Personality Inventory
This test measures the first five supertraits listed above, forming the acronym OCEAN. You can complete this personality test from the perspective of your characters here.
Important: If you’re filling out the Five Factor Personality Test, please, please, please make sure you answer the question ‘Can your answers be (anonymously) logged and used for research?’ at the end of the test with ‘No—do not use my data’. Otherwise the researchers will be using fabricated data in their study (in other words, not good). Thank you.
The HEXACO Personality Inventory
This personality test includes the sixth trait, honesty-humility, along with the other Big Five. You can complete this personality test from the perspective of your characters here.
Character creation causing you problems? @Writerology shares how psychology can help you build a solid personality.
And now for the part you’ve all been waiting for! Let’s see how those personality traits can bring your stories to life.
Applying Theory to Fiction
The most obvious application is to use these traits to form the basis of your characters’ personalities. By working out what traits they’re high in, you can then have them behave in a way that suits their personality, rather than sculpting a personality to suit the behaviours you want them to show (this makes for some much more interesting, organic and eventful storytelling).
As K. M. Weiland so succinctly puts it in her Crafting Unforgettable Characters e-book, people are defined by their career choices. Choosing a job for your characters tells the writer and the reader so much about them. Knowing your characters’ personality traits can make selecting a career so much easier.
If you already have a job in mind and want your character to be well-suited to it, choose traits that match that career path. If you already have a character and want to find their perfect job, match their traits to an ideal occupation. Having specific traits is very important in certain careers (like pilots, pediatricians and politicians) so keep this in mind when choosing a trade.
However, if you’re looking to create some conflict through a mismatch of career and character, then knowing their personality traits can help with finding them the perfect Job from Hell.
Don’t know what career is your character’s true calling (or living nightmare)? Try one of the many tests online that match personality traits to jobs. You can find a few different ones here.
That First Meeting
Personality traits are particularly useful when people meet for the first time. If your character encounters strangers, she can’t say whether they behave in a certain way all the time or only in some cases. Instead, her judgements about them will tend to be based on their observable traits, such as those mentioned above. She’ll probably consider these traits to be stable across different situations too.
For example, the first time she meets the mysterious male protagonist, she won’t know he turns on his glib tongue only when under pressure; she’ll think he’s like that all the time.
When your characters meet new people, try to colour their opinions of them with these non-conditional traits. Then, when they get to know them better, these first impressions will be replaced by a more accurate understanding of the individual, painting a portrait of their ‘personal concerns’.
Speaking of... this is all covered in detail in the next Design a Personality post: Giving Depth and Flexibility to Your Characters. Go check it out, my friend! You won’t regret it.
Oh, but before you do…
Would you like to become a member of the Storycrafters’ Circle, receive exclusive content by email and gain access to the subscriber-only Writerology archives? Join the party here >>