Photo by Stephan Vanfleteren/Panos
It’s not only writer’s intuition. Use personality psychology to create just the right blend of surprise and believability
by Kira-Anne Pelican
Photo by Stephan Vanfleteren/Panos
is a writer, educator and script consultant, specialising in helping writers develop more compelling films and TV series through insights from evidence-based psychology. She is the author of The Science of Writing Characters (2020). She lives in London.
Edited by Christian Jarrett
It’s first thing in the morning, I’ve plenty to do but I can’t stop thinking about Nicole Kidman’s character from the American TV series I watched last night, The Undoing. It’s a psychological thriller, and Kidman was mesmerising. When written well, characters seize our attention and compel us to engage. They stay in our minds long after we’ve closed the pages of our novel, binge-watched the entire box set, or exited the auditorium. We mull over their relationships, wonder if they did the right thing, and ponder how they might behave in different scenarios. But why is it that some characters are more compelling than others?
Perhaps you’re a writer struggling to create your own captivating characters. Or maybe you’re an avid consumer of novels, films and TV dramas and you’re intrigued that made-up people can cast such a spell on you. Either way, I believe that scientific psychology can offer a fresh, illuminating perspective and I’m going to show you how.
Many books that discuss the craft of writing fiction suggest that the best approach towards creating engaging characters is by ensuring that they are believable, complex and flawed. Suggestions typically include drawing on personal observation, giving the main character conflicting conscious and unconscious goals, and developing an interesting character backstory. One of the most influential books of this genre is Aspects of the Novel (1927) by the English author E M Forster. In it, he argued that the most engaging characters move us emotionally because they feel real, and continue to surprise us as we turn the pages of the text. Describing these complex characters as ‘round’, Forster included as prime examples Madame Bovary, the romantic heroine from Gustave Flaubert’s novel of the same name, as well as characters written by Jane Austen.
By contrast, Forster proposed that ‘flat’ characters have just two or three pronounced character traits, can be summarised by a single sentence, and are incapable of moving us in any way other than through humour. When confined to secondary roles, these flat characters support the main story without distracting the reader. However, to Forster, the most compelling characters capture the full complexity of being human. They also transform and surprise us in believable ways.
Along with Forster, many other writerly guides offer similar advice about the importance of creating complexity in characters – but what is ‘complexity’ in this context, and how do we go about creating characters who are at once surprising but psychologically credible? As a psychology graduate-turned-writer, these questions intrigued me during my doctoral research. Early in my writing career, I received notes on one of my screenplays from a respected script consultant. They were full of excellent observations and useful suggestions, except on the area of character. I was in full agreement that my character needed more complexity and was missing something, but these comments alone were too vague to be useful. What I needed was to better understand what complexity means in a character, and with that to recognise what specifically was missing from my character and how to go about fixing it.
Although some literary critics have resisted the idea that fictional characters are anything more than textual constructions (ie, a writer’s device or tool), an alternative approach – and one that I find far more useful for practitioners – is to treat them as akin to real people. Since most writers intend for their fictional characters to be proxies of their human counterparts, it arguably makes sense to examine and understand their characters through many of the same scientific models used by psychologists to understand real people. More specifically, the field of personality psychology is likely to be especially illuminating because writers characterise their fictional personae by describing their thoughts, feelings, motivations and behaviours – the exact same set of factors that psychologists see as making up personality.
The most widely supported scientific model of personality is the ‘Big Five’. The approach originated with the US psychologists Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal, and was further developed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae and others. These pioneers built on the idea that the attributes of personality that we consider to be most important must be encoded in everyday language. They used factor analysis on personality survey data to reveal five broad semantic groupings among the words that we use to describe each other, and these have become the Big Five traits or personality dimensions: extraversion-introversion, agreeableness-disagreeableness, neuroticism-emotional stability, conscientiousness-unconscientiousness, and openness to experience-closed to experience. The idea is that these dimensions are independent of each other, so the degree to which a person rates on one dimension has no bearing on how they rate on any other dimension.
By applying this framework to our understanding of what roundedness means in relation to fictional characters, we gain an immensely useful approach for fictional character analysis and problem solving. This five-factor model allows writers to examine whether they’ve characterised their fictional personae across all five dimensions of personality, and whether they’ve achieved this consistently enough through their text to create the sense of another being. In addition, the Big Five model illuminates the way that people typically transform throughout their lives – writers can use this knowledge to create more believable character transformations in fiction, and consumers of fiction might find it intriguing to reflect on the evolution of their favourite characters in the context of what’s known about real-life personality change.
The Big Five model also gives us insights into why some characters are more compelling than others. In reality, the range of scores across all personality dimensions are normally distributed in a population (similar to height or weight), and so the majority of people that we meet are moderately extraverted, moderately agreeable, moderately conscientious, moderately neurotic and moderately open to experience. They’re likely to make less of an impression because they’re rather average. By contrast, people are more likely to stand out from the crowd if they score towards the extremes of at least one or two of the dimensions. Such characters are compelling because they’re unlike the majority of people we meet every day. Whether real or imagined, we’re more likely to remember these individuals, precisely because they’re different.
Audit your character on the Big Five dimensions
When meeting someone for the first time, often the first personality dimension to make an impression on us is extraversion. Extraverts are outward-facing and gain energy from their social interactions. Full of life, they seize the limelight and compel us to watch. They’re generally warm, gregarious, active, assertive and upbeat characters who are drawn to excitement. Fictional examples are plentiful – from Becky Sharp, the cynical social climber from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1847-48), through the inventor-cum-superhero Tony Stark from the Marvel Cinematic Universe film franchise (2008-). At the other end of this spectrum, introverts are more serious in nature, and gain energy from spending quiet time alone or in the company of close friends or family. While extraverts use big, assertive actions and extensive dialogue to grab our attention, introverts can be equally compelling precisely because they reveal so little. Written well, they’ll leave the reader wanting to discover more about them. Take, for example, Mr Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet’s aloof romantic interest from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), or Little/Chiron/Black, the highly sympathetic son of a crack addict from the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight (2016).
A second dimension that we pick up rapidly in others is agreeableness. People who are agreeable are typically kind, trusting, cooperative, straightforward, humble and tenderminded – qualities that we generally like in others. We repeatedly see these traits in sympathetic characters such as Samwell Tarly, steward on the Night Watch in George R R Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-), and the female lead in Woody Allen’s romantic comedy Annie Hall (1977). By contrast, disagreeable people are typically more selfish, opinionated, suspicious, competitive, arrogant and sometimes devious. Unsurprisingly, antagonists will usually score highly on disagreeableness. However, some subtraits associated with disagreeableness are also useful in creating strong protagonists. Think about the leading character Mildred Hayes from the BAFTA Award-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). Blunt, single-minded and without any concern for who she’s going to offend on her way, Hayes wins over our sympathies when we learn that she’s fighting for justice for her daughter who was raped and murdered. Strength of character often comes from the determination to fight for what’s right and a refusal to compromise.
A third dimension, neuroticism, relates to the way that we experience the world emotionally. People who score higher on neuroticism tend to be more sensitive to life’s ups and downs. They’re typically more prone to anxiety, anger-hostility and depression. They feel more vulnerable, self-conscious and impulsive. In fictional characters, these qualities are often ideal for dramas that focus on the protagonist’s internal journey. Take, for example, the character of the faded Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson from the Academy Award-winning drama Birdman (2014), whose narrative is driven by his emotional vulnerability and desperate need for critical recognition. At the other end of the spectrum are emotionally stable characters who behave as though they can handle anything that the world throws at them. For this reason, the vast majority of action heroes and heroines rate highly on emotional stability.
On a fourth dimension, people who rate highly on conscientiousness are driven by a sense of duty and responsibility. They tend to feel competent; they’re cautious, deliberate thinkers; they’re organised, self-disciplined and goal-driven. As fictional examples, we can call upon characters ranging from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to the chemistry teacher-turned-drug manufacturer Walter White from the Emmy Award-winning TV series Breaking Bad (2008-13). While being goal-driven, or high on achievement-striving, is useful for many genre protagonists, there are plenty of equally engaging characters at the other end of this dimension. Unconscientious characters tend to be more spontaneous and free-spirited. In a world where we’re taught to be responsible and dutiful, their complete lack of responsibility is often fascinating. As examples, take Ignatius J Reilly, the eccentric and philosophical protagonist from John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) or John Bennett, the man who refuses to grow up in the American feature comedy Ted (2012).
The final Big Five dimension is openness to experience. People who are open to experience tend to be imaginative; they love trying new things and they’re intellectually curious. They’re interested in different ideas and values, and they typically enjoy the arts and culture. Examples include the middle-aged stockbroker Charles Strickland from W Somerset Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence (1919), who leaves his family to become an artist. At the other end of this dimension, people who are closed to experience tend to be narrow-minded and closed to new ideas. They instead prefer the down-to-earth, familiar, traditional and close-to-home. Examples from fiction include the no-nonsense governess Miss Pross from Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and the matriarch Violet Crawley from the British TV drama Downton Abbey (2010-15). Pit a character who is open to experience against another who is closed to experience, and sparks will fly.
Applying the Big Five model to Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace Fraser, the clinical psychologist in private practice from the TV series The Undoing (2020), her most compelling qualities relate to her introversion, conscientiousness and emotional stability. The character’s deep interiority is intriguing, and together with her strength of character and emotional vulnerability, there is an unpredictability to her behaviour that’s compelling to watch. We’re given the sense that she might be holding secrets, and keeping important decisions to herself. Combined with her high conscientiousness, it’s evident that she’s wrestling with a sense of duty to do the right thing by her son, as well as her husband, and that these potentially conflicting motivations are pulling her apart. It’s just a shame that the series’ narrative arc isn’t as good as her characterisation.
Spend time getting to know your character
As a writer, if you aren’t yet experiencing your character clearly in your mind, try drawing on observation from life. Whether or not you’ve consciously drawn your characters from the qualities of people around you, it often helps to return to observation from life when you need more details in the character that you’re developing. That could mean jotting down someone’s mannerisms, speech patterns, particular words that they use or even events that have influenced them. There’s research out there on how the Big Five traits correlate with everyday behaviours – even the way that people walk and their physical presence. For instance, muscular, more physically imposing men tend to score higher in extraversion – you could use these kind of associations to inspire your imagination, for instance to make your portrayals more realistic or more surprising and extraordinary.
Another option is to try casting your character or creating a mood-board of headshots representing the way that you imagine them. Don’t feel restricted to using pictures of actors – images of people that you’ve found online could be equally helpful. Intriguingly, there’s evidence that we can accurately assess every personality dimension apart from conscientiousness from a neutral image of a person’s face; a mood-board of headshots could allow you to visually discover new aspects of their personalities that you had otherwise been struggling to identify.
Take your time. Getting to know your character is generally a process that requires plenty of reflection. Published novelists who took part in a recent study by Durham University in conjunction with the Edinburgh International Book Festival reported that it took time before they started to experience their characters as though they had independent agency and to feel as though they were coming alive in their minds. For some writers, this might not happen until halfway through their first draft.
Consider how your readers will emotionally engage with your character
Some characters are compelling because we sympathise with their predicament or elements of their backstory. For example, one of the characters already mentioned, Mildred Hayes from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, gains our sympathy when we learn that she’s fighting for justice for her daughter who was murdered. Research suggests that this is more likely to happen if we judge a character to be good, or at least the best in a bad bunch. We might also admire some of their qualities: personality traits related to being high in agreeability are generally liked by others, as are humour and intelligence. If we like a character, we’re more inclined to root for them and to empathise with their situation. The more we empathise with a character, the stronger the emotions we typically feel in response to their experiences. However, we can also connect with characters for other reasons than liking them, for instance if we find them intriguing. These characters might be impulsive, behave in unpredictable or particularly risky ways. Alternatively, they might tell lies or hold secrets that disturb and fascinate us. If your character offers none of the above, then it’s unlikely that they’ll hold the reader’s interest for very long.
If your character transforms, ensure that this transformation is believable
Although our personalities are generally considered to be stable and consistent, longitudinal research that followed the same individuals over decades has shown that our traits tend to mature throughout life. An average person will become a little more emotionally stable and agreeable through life, their conscientiousness will peak in mid-life, and their extraversion and openness to experience will decline the older they become. These are averaged effects, so many individuals will buck the trend, however it might be useful to know about the general patterns when portraying a character across an entire lifetime. Indeed, we often see similar character arcs in fiction, although they’re usually condensed into a shorter time period.
Just as in real life, readers will also expect characters to be transformed by emotionally intense life events, whether they’re positive or negative, because such events provide people with a sense of meaning and identity. Returning to the example of the character Mildred Hayes, the murder of her daughter motivates her single-minded quest for justice and provides her with a reason for living. While particularly traumatic events leave many people deeply scarred, others can thrive after experiencing a very stressful event. In The Theory of Everything (2014), the biographical film about the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, there’s the suggestion that his diagnosis with motor neurone disease leads his character to seize every moment and live life to its fullest. It could be said that, after receiving the terminal illness diagnosis, this character experiences post-traumatic growth, in which people report finding new meaning in their lives and having closer, more fulfilling relationships.
High points in our lives also have the possibility of changing us for the better. In the children’s classic novel The Secret Garden (1911) by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the life of the 10-year-old protagonist Mary is vastly enriched by her discovery of the eponymous garden. It opens her eyes to the world and the feelings of others around her. Research suggests that it’s the emotional intensity of these life events, both good and bad, that has the power to transform us. So, when writers feature such powerful life experiences in their narratives, they aren’t only dramatic but also believable precipitants of character change.
As E M Forster noted, the most compelling characters aren’t just round or dimensional, they surprise us in believable ways. The Big Five dimensions of personality describe the consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that we experience when we’re feeling at our most ‘authentic’, but in reality of course the majority of people exhibit fairly wide variations in their behaviour that often appear to be contradictory and even incompatible.
So, while our traits will play out over the longer term, our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are also influenced by our moods and emotions, our social context and our internal goals. Much of the consistency that we experience in our own and other people’s behaviour – that is, what we see as our and their personality – is situation-dependent. Extraverts who are usually the life and soul of the party when they’re in social situations might well be quiet and reflective when work requires, or when they’re upset or in a bad mood. Introverts who are usually most comfortable in the company of a close friend, might surprise themselves at a party by regaling stories and dancing the night away. However, acting out-of-character for any length of time can be exhausting and rarely happens in real life in the absence of a major personality change, so while we’ll fully believe your fictional character’s counter-dispositional behaviour for a scene or two if it makes sense given your character’s social or emotional context, it won’t be believable without sufficient justification if sustained for too long (events that might realistically cause a longer-term personality change include brain injury, psychological trauma or a major life event, such as a radical career change).
Some of the most interesting out-of-character behaviour happens when we’re in danger. For a fictional example, take the world-class hacker-turned-investigator Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series (2005-19) and its film adaptation The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009/2011). In her most authentic state, Salander is characterised as being introverted and submissive but, when physically threatened, she becomes not only extraordinarily aggressive but also sadistic. Essential to making this behaviour believable is that it makes sense given the contexts and her traumatic backstory as a rape survivor. Equally important is that Salander consistently acts in this way every time she faces a potential male aggressor. We understand her actions as part of her behavioural repertoire. There is realistic consistency in the way that her traits interact with her situation.
The most engaging characters draw on these most fascinating elements of our human nature and continue to reveal truths that we rarely contemplate. They give us deeper insights about ourselves and the huge variety of ways that we might behave in situations that we’ve never had to encounter. We read, watch and engage with characters not only to be moved and entertained, but to also learn. How might we react in that situation? What would we do? What insights can we take away from studying that kind of character more closely that could be useful to us if we were to encounter someone similar in our own lives? How might that situation feel? How would we cope? Whom should we trust? The most entrancing characters lead us away from our own experiences and offer others so tangible that we willingly suspend our own realities to enter into their writers’ fantasies. And that reminds me, there’s a show that I really need to get back to, and characters of my own that I need to write.
Audit your character on the Big Five dimensions using this free personality test.
Weigh up your character’s virtues and vices on the light and dark triads of personality. While most people tip more towards the light, the more believable characters will have an even mix of good and bad qualities.
Read more about the Edinburgh International Book Festival/Durham University research into how published authors experience their characters as having independent agency, then try some of the character-development exercises used in this study.
Create more believable character transformations by listening to this podcast with the psychologist Wiebke Bleidorn about how our personalities change over time.
Discover more psychological tools to help your character development in my book The Science of Writing Characters: Using Psychology to Create Compelling Fictional Characters (2020). It includes chapters on creating characters using the Big Five dimensions, how personality influences dialogue, creating secondary characters with dynamic relationships, character transformation, motivations and emotions.
Learn more about the neuroscience behind writing characters and developing plotlines in Paul Joseph Gulino and Connie Shears’s fascinating book The Science of Screenwriting: The Neuroscience Behind Storytelling Strategies (2018).
If your interests are more aligned with psychoanalytic approaches to character development, then read William Indick’s insightful book Psychology for Screenwriters (2004), which is equally applicable to novelists.
Look out for the book Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change (May 2021) by the Psyche editor Christian Jarrett for further revelations about how your characters can transform.