In Profiling Your Characters, part 1 I briefly explained the Five-Factor Personality Model as described in the book “Making Sense of People: Decoding the Mysteries of Personality” by Samuel Barondes. Now I want to show how it can be applied to characters in our stories.
Profiling a Personality
An informal assessment of someone’s personality (yourself or someone else) can be done simply by considering the traits listed in my previous post and rating each on a low-medium-high scale. But profiling tools provide a more accurate assessment by asking a series of questions that have been precisely worded, organized and statistically tested to avoid various forms of bias (e.g. some people tend to answer yes too easily, so essentially the same question is typically asked twice with the opposite sense to detect this).
There are several commercial profiling tools based on the five-factor model. But the most interesting one for our purposes is a free one, the IPIP-NEO Short Form maintained by Dr. John Johnson at Penn State University. This test consists of 120 short phrases, each of which you are asked to rank on a scale of of “Very Inaccurate”, “Moderately Inaccurate”, “Neither Accurate Nor Inaccurate”, “Moderately Accurate” or “Very Accurate”. At the end it gives you a ranking on each factor and each trait within that factor, both on a numeric 0-99 scale and a textual description based on a low-medium-high ranking.
I encourage you to try this test on yourself to get a feel for it.
An Example Profile
To help you see what the results are like, here are my numeric results:
EXTRAVERSION...............5 ..Friendliness.............7 ..Gregariousness...........11 ..Assertiveness............2 ..Activity Level...........86 ..Excitement-Seeking.......20 ..Cheerfulness.............0 AGREEABLENESS..............18 ..Trust....................4 ..Morality.................16 ..Altruism.................41 ..Cooperation..............42 ..Modesty..................12 ..Sympathy.................79 CONSCIENTIOUSNESS..........70 ..Self-Efficacy............62 ..Orderliness..............85 ..Dutifulness..............42 ..Achievement-Striving.....21 ..Self-Discipline..........49 ..Cautiousness.............92 NEUROTICISM................88 ..Anxiety..................97 ..Anger....................70 ..Depression...............98 ..Self-Consciousness.......86 ..Immoderation.............12 ..Vulnerability............89OPENNESS TO EXPERIENCE.....60 ..Imagination..............90 ..Artistic Interests.......63 ..Emotionality.............75 ..Adventurousness..........23 ..Intellect................84 ..Liberalism...............10
You can see that I am very introverted (but quite active), not all that agreeable (but very sympathetic), very conscientious (but not very good at striving to achieve my goals), very neurotic (yet good at moderation), fairly open to experience (especially on imagination, but low on adventurousness and liberalism).
The text is more informative for many of these. I won’t include it all, because it’s far too long, but here is the description for Openness:
Openness to Experience describes a dimension of cognitive style that distinguishes imaginative, creative people from down-to-earth, conventional people. Open people are intellectually curious, appreciative of art, and sensitive to beauty. They tend to be, compared to closed people, more aware of their feelings. They tend to think and act in individualistic and nonconforming ways. Intellectuals typically score high on Openness to Experience; consequently, this factor has also been called Culture or Intellect. Nonetheless, Intellect is probably best regarded as one aspect of openness to experience. Scores on Openness to Experience are only modestly related to years of education and scores on standard intelligent tests.
Another characteristic of the open cognitive style is a facility for thinking in symbols and abstractions far removed from concrete experience. Depending on the individual’s specific intellectual abilities, this symbolic cognition may take the form of mathematical, logical, or geometric thinking, artistic and metaphorical use of language, music composition or performance, or one of the many visual or performing arts. People with low scores on openness to experience tend to have narrow, common interests. They prefer the plain, straightforward, and obvious over the complex, ambiguous, and subtle. They may regard the arts and sciences with suspicion, regarding these endeavors as abstruse or of no practical use. Closed people prefer familiarity over novelty; they are conservative and resistant to change.
Openness is often presented as healthier or more mature by psychologists, who are often themselves open to experience. However, open and closed styles of thinking are useful in different environments. The intellectual style of the open person may serve a professor well, but research has shown that closed thinking is related to superior job performance in police work, sales, and a number of service occupations. Your score on Openness to Experience is average, indicating you enjoy tradition but are willing to try new things. Your thinking is neither simple nor complex. To others you appear to be a well-educated person but not an intellectual.
- Imagination. To imaginative individuals, the real world is often too plain and ordinary. High scorers on this scale use fantasy as a way of creating a richer, more interesting world. Low scorers are on this scale are more oriented to facts than fantasy. Your level of imagination is high.
- Artistic Interests. High scorers on this scale love beauty, both in art and in nature. They become easily involved and absorbed in artistic and natural events. They are not necessarily artistically trained nor talented, although many will be. The defining features of this scale are interest in, and appreciation of natural and artificial beauty. Low scorers lack aesthetic sensitivity and interest in the arts. Your level of artistic interests is average.
- Emotionality. Persons high on Emotionality have good access to and awareness of their own feelings. Low scorers are less aware of their feelings and tend not to express their emotions openly. Your level of emotionality is high.
- Adventurousness. High scorers on adventurousness are eager to try new activities, travel to foreign lands, and experience different things. They ﬁnd familiarity and routine boring, and will take a new route home just because it is different. Low scorers tend to feel uncomfortable with change and prefer familiar routines. Your level of adventurousness is low.
- Intellect. Intellect and artistic interests are the two most important, central aspects of openness to experience. High scorers on Intellect love to play with ideas. They are open-minded to new and unusual ideas, and like to debate intellectual issues. They enjoy riddles, puzzles, and brain teasers. Low scorers on Intellect prefer dealing with either people or things rather than ideas. They regard intellectual exercises as a waste of time. Intellect should not be equated with intelligence. Intellect is an intellectual style, not an intellectual ability, although high scorers on Intellect score slightly higher than low-Intellect individuals on standardized intelligence tests. Your level of intellect is high.
- Liberalism. Psychological liberalism refers to a readiness to challenge authority, convention, and traditional values. In its most extreme form, psychological liberalism can even represent outright hostility toward rules, sympathy for law-breakers, and love of ambiguity, chaos, and disorder. Psychological conservatives prefer the security and stability brought by conformity to tradition. Psychological liberalism and conservatism are not identical to political aﬃliation, but certainly incline individuals toward certain political parties. Your level of liberalism is low.
Reading through the whole report, there are a few things I would rate myself somewhat differently on. For example, I think I’m more adventurous than the test shows. I do enjoy trying new things (if they’re not dangerous), and I do enjoy visiting other countries and learning about other cultures. Yet I do like my daily routines and tend to balk when they are disrupted. But overall, the profile is quite accurate and gives a good overview of my personality.
Remember that the trait names can be a bit deceiving. As they point out in the text, my low morality score doesn’t indicate that I’m an immoral person. Rather, it indicates that I feel the need to be guarded in social situations, less willing to reveal the whole truth about myself.
Profiling Your Characters
Now we’ve seen how to profile ourselves using the free online test. The point of Barondes book is that we can also profile people we know by doing the test and answering the questions by how we see that person. The result won’t be entirely accurate, and will depend on how well we know the person. But it should gives us a good overall understanding of their personality, which should help in our relationship to them. It may clarify why they act in certain ways and help us to deal with them understandingly.
We can apply this to our characters by imagining them in specific situations, seeing how they would react, and using that imagined reaction to answer the test questions. This will give us a profile of their personality that we can use to understand their behavior better. This should help us to have them behave consistently throughout our stories.
I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m planning to when I get time. When I do I’ll post it.
What do you think? Would this help you understand your characters better?
- Can Increasing Cognitive Ability Make Older Adults More Open to New Experiences? (drvitelli.typepad.com)
- The Psychology Behind Why Creative People Cluster (theatlanticcities.com)
- Structure of childhood temperaments (the-mouse-trap.com)
- Quote: On intellect (craigconsidinetcd.wordpress.com)
- Contemplation on Intellect (dranilj1.wordpress.com)
- Study: Personality Type Drives Facebook Usage More Than Originally Thought (readwriteweb.com)
- Five-Factor Model of Personality and Job Satisfaction: A Meta-Analysis (honeyboy777.wordpress.com)
- Marketing Is More Effective When Targeted to Personality Profiles (scienceblog.com)
- Does Personality explain the link between Belief and Health? (joromo.com)