This blog was written for an online creative writing class I ran for WriteOnCon on Feb 4th, 2017. A second blog for Awfully Big Blog Adventure includes the worked example mentioned at the end.
Hi and welcome to this blog about the ‘Big Five’ personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (acronym: OCEAN) – and how they can help fiction writers to create credible character arcs.
Here’s the starting point: after millennia of debate about how many aspects there are to human personality, current psychology has (broadly) settled on five. There are, of course, different opinions, but this blog is about these Big Five.
Taken together, they are the factors that express the myriad permutations of personality.
More important (for fiction writers at least) is the fact that these traits are neither immutable nor binary. People aren’t Open or Not Open, end of story. Each OCEAN trait represents a sliding scale from more to less (or good to bad if we’re being judgmental) and are subject to change in response to MAJOR life events.
To put it another way, personality can evolve in response to profoundly important events which test our fundamental strengths and weaknesses, events so important that they force us to step up to the mark to achieve our most serious objectives – which I reckon is a reasonable definition of a character-based plot.
So, if you’re looking for change in your story (and all the great writing gurus tell us we must), with events that change your protagonist’s underlying personality (making them a better or worse person, more capable or crushed etc.) then OCEAN is a great starting place.
Just to let you know, this introduction is based on an excellent little reference book called 30-Second Psychology, edited by Christian Jarret. Necessarily, both his book and this summary are sketches. You’ll find lots more about OCEAN on the web; when I was looking, Wikipedia was as good a place as any to begin.
Basically, each of the big five encapsulates aspects of personality that tend to go together. Being sociable, talkative & assertive are all manifestations of extraversion, for example.
So talkative & assertive behaviour by a character will show the reader they’re an extravert, without ever mentioning the word. And since extraversion is linked to leadership, deciding your character is an extravert might also suggest a credible role for them in a group situation.
Clearly, one cannot be slavish about this. Many factors influence personality – family, wealth, culture, belief systems etc. – but I have found that creating a grid of each major character’s OCEAN traits is hugely useful as a descriptive tool, and potentially a prescriptive one as well.
So here are the Big Five.
Factors associated with openness: Curious, original, intellectual, creative, open to new ideas. Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity and variety of experience. This trait features characteristics such as imagination and insight, and those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.
|Character with low-score behaviour
||High score behaviour
|Prefers not to be exposed to alternative moral systems, has narrow interests, down-to-earth attitudes, non-analytical, inartistic
||Enjoy seeing people with new types of haircut, body piercing, curious, imaginative, untraditional
|MY PROTAGONIST IS …
Organised, systematic, punctual, achievement-orientated, dependable. High levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, goal-driven. Tendency to be mindful of details.
|Spur-of-the-minute decision-making, unreliable, hedonistic, careless, lax
|Never late, organised, hardworking, persevering, punctual, self-disciplined, dutiful.
|MY PROTAGONIST IS…
Outgoing, talkative, sociable, enjoying social situations. High energy, positive emotions, urgency, a tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others. Extraversion is the factor most strongly associated with effective leadership.
|Prefers a quiet evening in, reading rather than parties, sober, aloof, unenthusiastic
||Life of the party, active, optimistic, fun-loving, affectionate
|MY PROTAGONIST IS…
Being affable, tolerant, sensitive, trusting, kind & warm. A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic. Only weakly related to leadership.
|Quick to assert own rights with confidence; irritable, manipulative, uncooperative, rude.
||Agrees with other’s opinions, good-natured, forgiving, gullible, helpful
|MY PROTAGONIST IS…
Being anxious, irritable, temperamental, moody. A tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, including anger, anxiety, depression or vulnerability. Sometimes called emotional instability. Tendency towards sadness.
|Not getting irritated by small annoyances, calm, unemotional, hardy, secure, self-satisfied.
||Constantly worrying about little things, insecure, hypochondriacal, feeling inadequate.
|MY PROTAGONIST IS…
Some practical tips
By filling in a third row in each of the five tables, and considering what actions, thoughts & emotions are CONSISTENT WITH THIS BASIC PERSONALITY TRAIT, you’ll hopefully avoid that awful moment when a reader says, ‘But they wouldn’t do that!’
And by seeing what type of character you’ve got in mind, you’ll probably also see which trait would most likely change over time (i.e. during you story), helping you define the sort of events which would achieve that outcome in the most dramatic but also realistic way
An OCEAN-based profile can also act a guide to how a character is likely to react to each new story event, and what actions they would credibly initiate at each stage in their psychological journey.
Making sure these actions & reactions build in a logical progression will increase the authenticity of the overall character arc, grounding even fantastical plots in credible human experience.
Even if your protagonist is a static James Bond type, OCEAN can help identify strengths which can be turned into weaknesses purely for plot purposes. For example, Bond’s relentless determination to kill the baddie (high score on the conscientiousness scale) could land him in ever deeper water. If only he’d stopped to think compassionately for once (Bond’s lack of empathy = a low score for openness) he wouldn’t have accidentally killed the arch-villain’s daughter in a fire fight (job done; she’s just collateral damage) bringing down the wrath of her psychopath father onto MI6 HQ in central London
An editing tool
Let’s say your story is about a burns victim terrified by fire (high score on neuroticism) who must learn to become calmly capable to save his best friend from the flames.
Alternatively, students in a small-town school with little experience of the outside world (low score on openness) learn in their own different ways how to understand the new refugee kids who’ve been moved into their class.
In each case, the OCEAN trait to be explored, challenged and overcome is fairly self-evident.
If you purposively decide this OCEAN-based change IS the story, then you can better judge whether each scene in the central plot and subplot/s is focused on this core trait.
As long as each test/conflict/challenge relates to the chosen core trait, and digs deeper and deeper into it, then the changes wrought by your plot events should, intrinsically, lead to coherent character arcs, ones with authentic emotional progressions and satisfying depth.
Retrofitting an OCEAN character arc.
You don’t have to create an OCEAN table at the outset.
For my First World War debut novel (out with Walker in 2018) I’d already written a plot-based script when I got a development advance to extend the ‘quest’ element and deepen my heroine’s character arc.
The elements I needed were already there in her backstory; I just hadn’t developed them enough. So I looked at each OCEAN trait, and designed new scenes which would take her step-by-step to a more mature place, one where she could – credibly – reverse her deepest feelings about members of her family.
I’ve drawn up a table showing each stage of this progression, based on the Openness trait, including her transitional behaviour, the turning point, and pre- and-post Epiphany stages. I’ll share this on the live chat if people are interested in seeing the process at this level of detail.