Wednesday, April 20

How personality psychology can help with building fiction characters

There's a lot of good, well-established research on personality which writers could benefit from looking at.

Why?  Well, when creating characters, creative writers are doing something very similar to what a personality psychologist wants to do - create a model of a person's character which will allow accurate predictions of how that character will act in future.  You want to 'know' your characters inside out?  Then why not piggy-back on some of the most useful concepts that psychologists have come up with over the years:

1) Openness to experience

This is one of the 'big five' traits of the five factor model of personality - a model which is widely used in contemporary Psychology research.  Openness, or 'openness to experience' involves being sensitive, imaginative, and intellectually curious.  An open person is willing to try new things, and doesn't dismiss ideas without giving them reasonable consideration.  

In fiction, an open character would be eager to travel to new places and try new foods and activities.  They wouldn't consider their beliefs to be set in stone, but would be willing to discuss and re-examine almost anything.

2) Extraversion v's introversion

Popularised by the research of Jung, these traits lie on either end of a scale.  It is all about how outgoing a person is - is your character a party person, or more of a stay-at-home-with-a-book type?  Or somewhere in the middle?

The differences are quite fundamental, with the brains of introverts and extraverts reacting in different ways (Johnson et al., 1999).  Extraversion can affect the clothes a person wears (Sharma, 1980), and extraverts tend to listen to more upbeat music.  This is a simple but useful consideration when writing about a character.

Extraverts tend to wear more decorative clothes.
Image by Trevor D.
3) Neuroticism

Along with extraversion, neuroticism is one of the three key traits in Hans Eysenck's model of personality, as well as the more recent five factor model.  It relates to how emotionally stable a person is, and how well they deal with daily stressors.

A very similar concept comes up in the self-help classic, 'The Road Less Travelled', in which M. Scott Peck talked about two dysfunctional approaches to problems: blaming yourself too much, or tending to always blame others.  In his view, stability lies in the middle of a scale, with either extreme being problematic.  How do your characters react to difficulties and disagreements?

A person's view of who is to blame will affect
their behaviour in an argument.  Image by Anders V.
4) Psychoticism, or...?

Psychoticism is the third trait of Eysenck's classic theory, and the least well-supported by research.  It was initially intended to describe people who are hostile, aggressive and socially difficult.  More recently, it has been viewed as a lack of two separate traits:

- Agreeableness (v's Machiavellianism)
- Conscientiousness (v's indiscipline)

An agreeable person attempts to cooperate with others and strives for harmony.  These people tend to be optimistic about human nature.  In contrast, someone low in this trait will be usually be selfish and manipulative, and put individual success ahead of group harmony.  Does your character try to help others, or are they basically out for themselves?

A conscientious person is responsible and hard working - this person will probably have a neat desk, too! Research has found that conscientious people tend to have more successful careers (Salgado, 1999). Such a character will find it hard to let go of their aims, and may get very tied up by duty and the need to follow a process through to completion.  Something a writer could also do with :D

Johnson, D. L., Wiebe, J. S., Gold, S. M., Andreasen, N. C. (1999). Cerebral blood flow and personality: A positron emission tomography study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 252–257.
Salgado, J.F. (1997). The five factor model of personality and job performance in the European community. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82(1), 30–43.
Sharma, R. S. (1980). Clothing behaviour, personality, and values: A correlational study. Psychological Studies, 25, 137–142.