The Psychology of Personality – Bringing your Characters to Life

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From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

When you meet someone for the first time you may notice certain things about them: how they look, how they speak, what they say. These are the things we see and hear that tell us something about the person and help us form an impression of what makes them tick. But what sits behind this? 

Psychologists who study personality have identified 5 key ‘traits’  that can distinguish one person from another. Traits are the building blocks of personality; fairly consistent ways of thinking and behaving that can help us describe a person.

These traits have been named The Big Five: 

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

Recent research has suggested a sixth:

  • Honesty-humility.

We are all somewhere on the continuum for each of these traits. Some of us are at the extremes of high or low. Others somewhere in the middle, without a strong preference varying our responses depending on the circumstance. 

We can use these qualities to help us think about ourselves and the characters we create in our fictional works. Let’s look at each trait in turn. (You may wish to tick off the descriptors that describe your protagonist as you read.)


People who are high on this trait are curious and enjoy exploring new experiences and ideas – think Sherlock Holmes or Alice in Wonderland. They ask questions and show a wide range of interests. At the other end of the continuum are those who are less interested in new ideas and cope less well with change, taking security from the familiar. At the extreme think of Miss Haversham in ‘Great Expectations’.

Creative, artistic, inventiveWide range of interestsEnjoys change and varietyOpen-minded, questioningCurious, inquisitiveIntellectual, philosophicalSeeks new experiencesUnconventional, originalDown-to-earth; groundedFocused range of interestsFinds it hard to adaptSet ways of thinkingTakes things at face valueLiteral, factualLikes stability and routineConventional, traditional


Those high on conscientiousness will be reliable, doing what they promise when they say they will. They are organised and good time-managers. Think Mary Poppins. At the other end of this quality, the low scorers are unreliable, fail to meet their commitments and let others down. Think Billy Liar.

Organised, orderedPlans aheadDependable, conscientiousSelf-disciplined, persistentThorough, attends to detailsNeat, tidyPunctual, reliableDisorganised, unstructuredLives in the moment, impulsiveDoesn’t do as promisedDistracted, inattentiveCareless, overlooks detailsMessy, misplaces thingsLate, misses deadlines

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books