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Tired of One Dimensional Characters?

Pack your Characters with Psychology's Big Five 

By Terry  L. Stawar, Ed.D.


Getting a rejection slip is bad enough, but are you tired of seeing that awful phrase scratched across the bottom-- "characters are too one dimensional"? You have already tried the obvious. You've written comprehensive profiles for each character but still something is missing. You've specified the name, gender, height, weight, eye color, hair color, race, national origin, religion, socio-economic background, language, attire, inner need, outer need, education, intelligence, skills, interest, sexual history, and hobbies. And this is just the convenience store clerk who sells your heroine a Big Gulp in Chapter Sixteen.


Maybe it's time to see to see a psychologist. I recommend Dr. Paul T. Costa, Jr., and Dr. Thomas A. Widiger. The authors of Personality Disorders and the Five-Factor Model of Personality, second ed. (American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.) describes a comprehensive model of personality organization-- the Five Factor Model (FFM), that might be just what the doctor ordered to add depth to your characterizations.


Ever since Freud came on the scene at the turn of the century, authors have used classical psychoanalytic theory as a source for their characters' unconscious motivation (it's hard to go wrong with sex and aggression). However, psychoanalysis came from old fashioned in-depth studies of individual cases, while the FFM is based on extensive empirical research. It is currently the mostly widely accepted model of general personality. Until computer technology made the mathematical technique of factor analysis feasible, complex multi-dimensional models of personality were generally neglected. However, over the past several decades, one factor analysis after another consistently cranks out the same five personality dimensions which appear to be basic to all human and even some animal personality organization. Often called the Big Five, these are fairly broad personality dimensions. By describing actions that reveal all five dimensions of the character's personality, authors stand a much better chance of getting that realistic sense of depth that is often so elusive.


The Big Five Dimensions of Personality




This is the individual's vulnerability to psychological distress. It includes maladaptive coping responses and self-defeating behaviors. Poor frustration tolerance, compulsive behavior, and unrealistic ideas are typically seen in individuals who are high on this dimension. Individuals low on this dimension show resilience and psychological health. They are free from psychiatric symptoms, have good reality contact, and self-management skills. The main facets for this dimension include anxiety, angry hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsivity, and vulnerability.


Extraversion (extroversion?)


This factor refers to the intensity of the need for social stimulation. It includes the capacity for joy and general activity level. Individuals high in this dimension are   sociable, fun-loving, talkative, optimistic, and affectionate. Individuals with low dimension are somber, reserved, independent, and quiet. Such introverts are not depressed or pessimistic, but they don't display the high energy enthusiasm characteristic of extroverts. Facets of this dimension include warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement seeking, positive emotions.


Openness to Experience


This dimension refers to the active seeking out and valuing of experience for its own sake. Curiosity, imagination, flexibility, and tolerance for entertaining unconventional thinking are characteristic of the person high in this dimension. Closed individuals tend to be conservative, rigid and dogmatic. Facets of this dimension include fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, actions, ideas, and values.




This dimension is the degree to which a person has the capacity for positive feelings and relationships. The polar opposite of agreeableness is antagonism. People high in agreeableness are compassionate, good natured, softhearted, trusting, helpful, forgiving, and altruistic. Antagonistic individuals tend to be cynical, rude, abrasive, suspicious, uncooperative, irritable, ruthless, vengeful, and manipulative. The main facets of this dimension are trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, and tendermindedness.




This dimension refers to the tendency to be organized, persistent, and motivated in goal direct activity-- like jobs, relationships, etc. Individuals high in this dimension are described as hard-working, self-directed, goal-orientated, punctual, scrupulous, ambitious, persevering, organized, and reliable. Individuals low in this dimension tend to be careless, unreliable, lazy, negligent, hedonistic, and lax. Competence, order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline, and deliberation are the primary facets.


The Big Five can also be used by writers to enrich characterizations by specifying factor loadings on the main facets for  each characters. Describing these factors can help add consistency and subtlety to your characterizations.


While staying "in character" is important in portraying credible action, in an effective narrative some characters will show change over time. Costa, Widiger, and their colleagues have used the Five Factor Model dimensions to track personality changes of patients during the course of psychotherapy as an outcome measure to demonstrate improvement. You can use them to map out intended personality changes in characters over the course of the narrative in services of the plot.


The sample profile below tracks the changes of character Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. While you may disagree with some of my projected factor loadings, some aspects of Scrooge's personality structure are clearly transformed while others remain essentially the same. At the story's end Scrooge is drawn as less neurotic, more open to experience, more extroverted, and certainly more agreeable than he was initially, although he remains fairly conscientious throughout.


 The FFM dimensions can be a powerful tool for the fiction writer seeking ways to enrich character development.


            Five Factor Model Personality Loadings for Character E. Scrooge and How They

                                    Change over the Course of the Narrative  


                                       (L=Low, M=Moderate, H= High)


FFM Personality Factor       Loadings:           Initial                              Conclusion



            Anxiety                                                L                                          L                        

            Hostility                                              H                                          L

            Depression                                          M                                         L

            Self-Consciousness                              L                                          L

            Impulsivity                                           L                                           M

            Vulnerability                                        L                                           M


            Warmth                                               L                                          H

            Gregariousness                                    L                                          H

            Assertiveness                                      H                                          H

            Activity                                               H                                          H

            Excitement Seeking                             L                                          M

            Positive Emotions                                L                                          H


            Fantasy                                               L                                          M

            Aesthetics                                           L                                          M

            Feelings                                              L                                           H

            Actions                                               H                                          H

            Ideas                                                  L                                           H

            Values                                                L                                           H


            Trust                                                  L                                           H

            Straightforwardness                            H                                          H                    

            Altruism                                             L                                          H

            Compliance                                        L                                          M                    

            Modesty                                            L                                           H

            Tendermindedness                              L                                           M


            Competence                                       H                                          H

            Order                                                 H                                          H

            Dutifulness                                          H                                          H

            Achievement Striving                           H                                          H

            Self-Discipline                                    H                                           H

            Deliberation                                        H                                           H



Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. is a psychologist and writer from Georgetown, Indiana. His most recent book is How to be a Responsible Mother: A Workbook for Offenders (American Correctional Association, 2006). He writes a weekly newspaper column in Southern Indiana which some people think is funny. Although he knows virtually nothing about dogs, he was once nominated for an award by the Dog Writers of America. He is a frequent contributor to Behavioral Healthcare, Funny Times, and other publications.


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