Creating a character is more than choosing a name and physical details. Who they are and how they act plays a much stronger role in how a novel unfolds. There are dozens of ways to develop the inner depths of a character, and one way is by understanding their personality.
Psychologists over the last sixty years have broken personality down into five traits that determine a person's personality, which influences how that person interacts with the world. These traits can be beneficial to determining how your character might interact with your story world.
The Big Five Personality Traits
Openness/Intellect: Levels of curiosity and creativity, imagination and independence, how one responds to new experiences.
How this might work for you: When faced with new experiences, consider how your character would react, respond, and feel about it.
A curious and imaginative person might question things, or want to figure things out, while someone with limited intelligence or creativity might be content to accept things as they are and not wonder why. How open your character is to the world around them can help you decide how far they might go to find an answer or solve a problem.
- Do they question the world around them?
- Do they want to know why, even if the reason is hard to understand or even find?
- Do they accept the way things are or what people tell them?
- Do they dream or wonder about things?
- Do they want to do things on their terms or just follow along?
For flaws, someone who isn’t afraid of asking a lot of questions might not know where the polite line is on what not to ask or say.
- Are they pushy in how they search for answers?
- Do they rarely show an interest in another character?
- Do they not try to understand things that don’t make sense?
- Are they happy doing what others tell them?
- Does their imagination run away with them and cause problems?
(Here's more on five ways to get to know your character)
Conscientiousness: Levels of organization and work ethic, self discipline and ambition, planning vs. spontaneity.
How this might work for you: This can help determine how hard a character might work to achieve a goal and how good they are at doing it. An organized person might create a well-thought out plan before acting, while an impulsive character might dive in without thinking.
- How organized is the character?
- How self-motivated are they to act?
- How much effort will they put in to achieve a goal?
- Do they plan or react?
- Can they be depended on?
- How ambitious are they?
For flaws, an unorganized character might miss important clues, lose critical information, or have to retrace steps along the way. A lack of ambition might create a need for outside forces to shove them into action, or they’ll only act when the situation becomes dire.
- Are they careless?
- Do they not think things through?
- Does it take forever for them to finish tasks?
- Are they too focused on things to the detriment of others?
Extraversion: Levels of sociability and enthusiasm, assertiveness and talkativeness.
How this might work for you: This can help determine how comfortable your character feels around people.
An extraverted character might be chatty and gregarious at a party, while a shyer character might have troubles in crowded situations. It can also determine how they choose to solve their problems—one type might eagerly seek out help and enjoy the camaraderie, while another might feel asking for help is more terrifying than the problem they’re facing.
- Is your character outgoing or reserved?
- How large is their circle of friends?
- What types of social situations are they comfortable with?
- Are they energized by people or drained?
- How assertive are they?
- How positive are they?
For flaws, social awkwardness or too much enthusiasm could put your character in difficult situations or cause trouble with the people they need to help them.
- What situations bring out the worst in them?
- What social gaffs do they regularly make, or fear they'll make?
- Do they inspire others or drain them?
- Do the make bad decisions during stressful social interactions?
(Here's more on five essential questions to ask your protagonist)
Agreeableness: Levels of friendliness and kindness, cooperative and trusting, how well-tempered someone is.
How this might work for you: This can help determine how nice your character is, and how they regard the people around them.
Backstory and upbringing can have a big influence here, as someone who was always lied to as a child is likely to grow up not trusting others. If you want your character to have troubles playing nice with others for plot or character growth reasons, this could be a good spot to figure out what happened in their past to make them that way.
- How are their relationships with other characters?
- How easily do they make new friends or allies?
- How compassionate are they?
- Are they willing to work with others?
- Are they inherently trusting of people they don't know?
- Are they helpful or do they worry about themselves first?
For flaws, an untrusting character could misread intentions or expect the worst from everyone around them. Someone who is less than friendly might have trouble getting anyone to help them.
- Are they suspicious in nature?
- Do they expect people to let them down?
- Are they bad tempered?
- Do they detached themselves from situations?
- Do they constantly check up to make sure things are being done correctly?
Neuroticism/Emotional Stability: Levels of calmness and tranquility, confidence and sensitivity.
How this might work for you: This can help determine how emotionally stable a character is and how they'll react when the unexpected happens.
A confident a character might risk a lot for what they want, while someone who's less sure might hedge their bets or play it safe. If they're calm, they might handle unexpected events with aplomb, while a more excitable character might freak out when events change.
- How excitable is your character?
- How confident are they?
- How do they handle the unexpected?
- How emotional are they overall?
- How do they react when problems occur?
For flaws, someone who never gets excited might not truly appreciate a miraculous event, or a lack of confidence might be the very thing keeping them from being happy.
- Are they overly sensitive?
- Are they not sensitive enough and lack compassion?
- Do they second-guess everything?
- Do they freak out easily?
- Are they quick to anger?
These traits offer an endless supply of options, and there's no right or wrong answers when creating a character. Sometimes contradictions in personalities can create some wonderful quirks, such as the adventurous archaeologist who happens to be afraid of snakes.
Depending on your creation process, you might consider these traits before you start a novel, or refer to them during the first draft as your characters encounter problems. You might also think about questions that apply to your specific story that might play a much stronger role, such as a character with trust issues might need to learn to trust someone to get what they want. Try creating your own template of basic questions to ask that fit your style and the types of characters you like to write about.
Looking at the basic building blocks of personality can help you turn your characters into real people, with all the strengths and weakness that brings.
ETA: Just for fun, pop on over to Pub(lishing) Crawl, where I've created a character-creation game based on these traits.
How do you determine a character's personality?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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