Eureka! Nailing epiphanies [BIG FIVE part 2]

I’d planned to start this blog by diving straight into the Big Five personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness & neuroticism (acronym: OCEAN) – and extoll their virtues as the best tools ever for crafting character arcs.

But during a FB discussion about the Big Five earlier this month for WriteOnCon (an online conference well worth catching next time, btw) I remembered why I’d found them so helpful when redrafting my debut novel:

OCEAN had nailed the problem of how to make an epiphany work.

The anatomy of epiphanies had been bugging me ever since James Scott Bell’s Writing Your Story From The Middle persuaded me that a Midpoint Epiphany was a great plotting device. John Yorke’s Into the Woods expands on them at length, but story structure alone didn’t seem enough by itself so I turned to psychology instead.

What are the Big Five?

After millennia of debate about how many aspects there are to human personality, current psychology has (broadly) settled on five categories: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness in fulfilling a task, the multiple facets of extraversion plus all the variations of agreeableness & neuroticism.

Taken together, they express the myriad permutations of personality.

These categories aren’t binary. People aren’t Open or Not Open. Each is a sliding scale from more to less, and encapsulates aspects of personality that tend to go together.

Being sociable, talkative & assertive are manifestations of extraversion, for example, while being systematically late, lax and indifferent indicate a low level of conscientiousness.

Under sufficient stress these traits are mutable, evolving in response to major life events – events so important they make us step up to the mark and decide what we’re prepared to do to achieve our greatest ambitions or defend that which is most dear to us.

Which seems to me a reasonable description of a character-based plot.

There’s loads of stuff about OCEAN on the web (and a bunch of online tests if you don’t mind some random organisation knowing who you are) but here’s a quick summary of each for ease of reference.


Factors associated with openness include curiosity, original thinking, insight & creativity, openness to new & unusual ideas. Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas. Those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.

Examples of low-score behaviour Examples of high-score behaviour
Someone who prefers not to be exposed to alternative moral systems, has limited interests, down-to-earth attitudes, non-analytical, narrow-minded. Enjoy seeing people with new types of haircut, body piercing, curious, imaginative, non-traditional.

Factors associated with conscientiousness: organised, systematic, punctual, achievement-orientated, dependable. High levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, goal-driven. Tendency to be mindful of details.

Low score High score
Spur-of-the-minute decision-making,   unreliable, hedonistic, careless, lax Never late, hardworking, persevering, punctual, self-disciplined, dutiful.

Extraversion: outgoing, talkative, sociable, high energy, positive emotions, urgency, a tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others. Extraversion is the factor most strongly associated with leadership.

Low score High score
Prefers a quiet evening in, reading rather than parties, sober, aloof, unenthusiastic Life of the party, active, optimistic, taking charge,

Agreeableness: affable, tolerant, sensitive, trusting, kind & warm. A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic. Weakly related to leadership.

Low score High score
Quick to assert own rights with confidence; irritable, manipulative, uncooperative, rude. Agrees with other’s opinions, good-natured, forgiving, gullible, helpful

Neuroticism: tendency to be anxious, irritable, temperamental, moody, inclined to experience unpleasant emotions easily, including anger, depression or vulnerability. Sometimes called emotional instability. Tendency towards sadness.

Low score High score
Not getting irritated by small annoyances, calm, unemotional, hardy, secure, self-satisfied. Constantly worrying about little things, insecure, hypochondriac, feeling inadequate.

Constructing a basic profile incorporating these traits seems to me a more efficient way to create realistic, rounded characters than answering one of those long questionnaires about the colour of their favourite t-shirt & the TV shows they watch etc etc.

Better by far to know how open they are to new experiences or if they’re vulnerable and anxious. Not only will this signpost how they’re likely to react to unexpected events but also what actions they might plausibly initiate at each stage in their emotional/psychological journey. And once you know their deepest, repressed fears, you can merrily create the kind of obstacles that will test their underlying weaknesses to the utmost.

Think Snakes On A Plane. Who’d give the air marshal in that film a phobia about spiders?

Retrofitting character arcs

For me, OCEAN really came into its own when I had to rework a First World War coming-of-age script after receiving a development advance. The elements I needed were already in the backstory; I just hadn’t developed them enough.

I decided to take my protagonist step-by-step to a more mature place, one where she could – plausibly – reverse her deepest feelings about members of her family.

SPOILER ALERT: It became clear during the WriteOnCon discussion that people found a worked example helpful to see what on earth I was blethering about. This one is based on an Openness subplot. I hope it’s detailed enough to make sense without giving too much of the story away.

Act 1




Pre-story openness behaviour to be transformed Stubborn loathing of family member X, killed in action during the Battle of Verdun
2 Initial outlook Down-to-earth outlook on life, non-analytical, limited life experience, defensive about her opinions of her family


3 OCEAN traits permitting transformation Openness: a vivid imagination

Agreeableness: capacities for empathy & kindness


4 OCEAN traits preventing transformation Openness: refusal to accept alternative points of views about her brother

Neuroticism: an unconscious desire for a substitute father


Act 2


5 Transitional behaviour Aroused curiosity about the outside world as she starts her journey; fails first test by focusing narrowly on her quest rather than the suffering of others


6 Pre-epiphany behaviour Forced to consider profiteer’s point of view, forced to consider strikers’ PoV; forced to consider the selfishness of her motives.


7 (partial) MIDPOINT EPIPHANY Recognition of her narrow-mindedness, but still can’t bring herself to re-examine her feelings about X


8 Post-epiphany behaviour Observes the world more closely; dawning of true empathy for war-time suffering



Act 3


9 Completion of MIDPOINT EPIPHANY On eve of the ‘final battle’, makes her peace with X


10 Final Openness state In epilogue, evidence of new open attitude to disfigured & disabled soldiers

[This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site for the Scattered Authors’ Society, on February 15th, 2017.]










Author: Rowena House

ROWENA HOUSE spent years as a foreign correspondent in France, Africa and then again in Europe before turning to fiction. Her debut novel, a First World War coming-of-age quest called THE GOOSE ROAD, is published by Walker Books (2018). Her fascination with the Great War, the trenches, and the appalling artillery battles of the Somme and Verdun began at school when studying the war poets, Wilfred Owen in particular. As an adult, she experienced war first-hand as a Reuter’s reporter in Ethiopia, and saw its terrible impact on civilians. Now settled in the English countryside with her husband and son, she holds a Master’s degree in rural economics and another in creative writing, and mentors fiction writers alongside her journalism and storytelling.

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