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A well rounded, developed character feels real. They feel like someone you would meet at school, at work, or at the coffee shop. They could be your family member or part of your circle of friends. But how do you develop such a realistic character? How do you go beyond basic characteristics such as hair and eye color, job preference, and favorite color? In this post, I’m going to show you a tool based in science and psychology that I use to create my characters.
Non-modifiable features such as ethnicity, age, and physical characteristics (hair color, skin color, eye color, etc.) are important to character development only to a certain extent. While these features might give a reader a clue regarding the character’s background or culture, they are not certain. Families and cultures are diverse. Being part of a certain nationality doesn't determine personality (unless you're writing a stereotype--which I highly suggest you don't).
So, what will? Their personality. In fact, there is nothing more important that the quirks and baseline emotions that make up your person. If you have the character’s personality down, then certain things such as job preference, favorite color, favorite tv show, will flow together naturally.
When I have a character in mind, I will often take an online personality test to see where they line up. There are several out there to choose from. Myers Briggs is probably the most famous personality tests, but I don’t usually start there. I use the Big 5.
The Big 5 tests a person in the following 5 areas: consciousness, neuroticism (or negative emotion), openness, extroversion, and agreeableness. Now, when you look at this list, there are certain negative or positive connotations associated with each of these characteristics. When the data is analyzed, however, that’s not always the case.
For example, people extremely high in Conscientiousness (characterized by people who are always busy or are very orderly) can become too orderly. This can give rise to certain conditions such as anorexia. This is, of course, not to say that all people suffering from anorexia are high in Conscientiousness or vice versa, but the personality type that is common among people with this disease is Conscientiousness.
All of the big 5 personality traits are like this. They are a spectrum, and each are associated with pros and cons.
Conscientiousness is broken down into two categories: orderliness and industriousness. People high in orderliness have a higher sensitivity to disgust. Cleanliness is next to godliness. They often see the world as black and white, geometrical in shape, and everything in it has its own box. These are your perfectionists. Now this is not always bad, but you can see where it could go a little off the rails. With people extremely high in conscientiousness, anything perceived to be wrong or flawed must be removed or eradicated—or starved.
On the opposite side of this spectrum would be an individual unbothered by messes or disorder. It’s like the just don’t see the mess. Or they see the mess, but are not bothered by it.
In industriousness, your character has trouble sitting still and relaxing. They are always doing something—almost as if they have an aversion to inactivity. These people will often say they ‘just have to stay busy.’ The overly industrious person rarely relaxes and can wear their bodies down through constant stress.
That being said, persons with high levels of conscientiousness often find success due to their hard work. Their perfectionism and constant activities increase the odds that their ventures will turn out. Most people lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum—neither unaware of messes nor overly concerned with them.
The most interesting part about these personality traits is that they are modifiable. A person can train themselves to become more conscientious over time. Often this can be done through forming a schedule and sticking to it, setting goals for oneself and working to meet them, and create habits conducive to accomplishing more work.
As an example, I’m going to talk about one of my characters who is very high in conscientiousness. In my novel SURVIVING MIDAS, my character Jared is a seventeen-year-old slave working on a drug farm. He has very little in terms of personal items, but each of them have a place and are always neat and tidy. His high levels of industriousness have not gone unnoticed by his captors. He's not particularly interested in their endeavors but his conscientious nature makes him good a this job by default. Because of this, he is given more responsibility than the others.
So that’s a very unusual setting for a character with high levels of conscientiousness. Notice that I didn’t say he had excellent hygiene—because his current life doesn’t allow him this luxury. But his personality still shows up in other ways throughout the story.
So where do your characters line up in the conscientiousness spectrum? Tell me about them in the comments below.
RW Hague is a registered nurse with over eight years of experience within the medical field. Using her medical expertise, she writes stories that are gritty and compelling.