Using the Big Five Personality Traits for Character Development

Many contemporary psychologists believe there are five primary dimensions to our personalities. In their business, psychological experts refer to the categories as the “Big Five” personality traits. They are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN). You could also list them as conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion (CANOE).

The Big Five has surpassed the Myers-Briggs Personality Test and the Enneagram as currently used, open-source psychological assessment tools. I’ve taken both the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram and found them quite descriptive as I see myself to be. But then, I’m a Libra and Libras tend to agree with pretty much everything.

What got me going on the Big Five, and why it might be useful as a characterization tool for fiction writers, was Jordan Peterson. For those who don’t know of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, the New York Times described him as “The most influential public intellectual in the western world right now”. Dr. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and the author of a wildly successful book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Our daughter bought tickets for my wife and me to see Jordan Peterson live a few weeks ago. I certainly knew who Jordan Peterson is. Although I’ve never read his book, I’ve watched/heard several of his podcasts, and the guy always makes sense to me. I know he’s vilified by the woke progressives, and that pissing them off is precisely what he attempts to accomplish.

Dr. Peterson didn’t invent the Big Five Personality Traits, but he wholeheartedly endorses them. So much so that he offers a short assessment called Understand Myself which produces an individual psychological assessment report on how you fit within the Big Five. It takes about twenty minutes and costs ten bucks. I found it an interesting exercise. So much so that I signed up for his five-hour, seven-module online course for eighty bucks.

It was money well spent. Not to find out that I don’t have a neurotic bone in my body and that I’m quite low on compassion, but to learn that this Big Five psychological breakdown/assessment has great potential as a tool for character building. So much so that I’m already applying it to developing characters in my WIP titled City Of Danger.

What are the OCEAN / CANOE traits and how do they involve secondary supportive psychological categories? Let’s have a quick look.

1. Agreeableness is kindness. It includes attributes like trust, altruism, affection, and other prosocial behaviors. Agreeableness has two subcategories—compassion and politeness.

2. Conscientiousness is thoughtfulness. It’s defined by factors like impulse control and goal-directed behaviors. Conscientiousness has two subcategories—industriousness and orderliness.

3. Extraversion (Extroversion) is sociability. Traits are characterized by measuring excitability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and emotional expressiveness. Extraversion has two subcategories—enthusiasm and assertiveness.

4. Neuroticism involves sadness and emotional instability. It includes things like mood swings, anxiety, and irritability. Neuroticism has two subcategories—withdrawal and volatility.

5. Openness is creativity and intrigue. Being open is being imaginative and having insight. Openness has two subcategories—experience and intellect.

Okay. That’s the CliffsNotes of the Big Five Personality Traits. Now, how did I score from 0 to 100 (low to high) on Jordan Peterson’s Understand Myself test?   Here goes:

Agreeableness—61  Compassion—31  Politeness—85

Conscientiousness—91  Industriousness—97  Orderliness—66

Extraversion—89  Enthusiasm—59  Assertiveness—96

Neuroticism—0  Withdrawal—1  Volatility—1

Openness—95  Experience—95  Intellect—96

Moving on to applying the Big Five to characterization, I took my arch-villain, Klaus Rothel in my City Of Danger project, and ran him through Dr. Peterson’s Understand Myself questionnaire. To my surprise, or maybe not to my surprise, Klaus Rothel has almost the same personality as me. Except for compassion. Klaus scores even worse than me there.

I like the Big Five Personally Trait test for characterization. So much so (yes, I know I’ve overused “so much so” but I like “so much so” and it’s my TKZ blog post turn today so the so-much-sos stay) that I plan to run all my characters in the City Of Danger series through the Big Five test. It really makes you think about who they are, what they think, and how they’ll act.

Kill Zoners—Has anyone out there heard of, or used, the Big Five psychological evaluation for character development or even for getting to know yourself better? Also, how do you go about building fictional characters?

28 thoughts on “Using the Big Five Personality Traits for Character Development

  1. I work in the psych department. Haven’t heard of this but I’ll check it out.

    Very familiar with Myers-Briggs (I’m an ENFP).

    As far as building fictional characters, I just write down whoever shows up.

    • Hi Cynthia! If I remember right, I’m an INTJ. I’ve done M-B 3 times (I think) and always came back with the same thing. I hear you about writing down whoever shows up. Problem with me is there are some really weird people show up like yesterday when I met Steel Plate Jerry.

  2. Excellent post, Gary. I know what it’s like to fall in love with an assessment tool for character development. In corporate leadership, Myers-Briggs was my go-to tool. Later, as a writer, I came across the Enneagram of Personality. After much research and testing, I put my notes together in a package other writers could use. For those who are not familiar with the Enneagram but have an interest, you can snag a free copy here:

  3. Have not heard of the Big Five & will check it out at some point in the future. Decades ago I took the MBTI–assessed as INTJ (emphasis on the “I”). In the grand scheme of life, I never found it helpful. On one hand while I agreed generally with the INTJ description, I have always been bewildered because it says common careers for INTJ’s are in finance, engineering, biomedical, etc. Things that are so NOT in my wheelhouse. I do have a data nerd side, but even then I wouldn’t want to spend an entire day data-nerding. I just want to assess data in my own idiosyncratic way & in limited doses.

    There was a time I might’ve had patience to do this kind of analysis for a character, but at this stage in life, I’m not prone to do so. I figure since personality analysis, while interesting, didn’t end up helping me much in the long run and I’ve just had to wing it, I don’t get too deep into the weeds with it for my characters either. I’m sure there will come a time where I cycle back into this deep analysis mode for both myself and my characters. Life just works out that way.

    • Carl Jung regarded the MBTI as “nothing but a childish parlor game,” saying, “Every individual is an exception to the rule.”
      “These categories all create dichotomies, but the characteristics on either end are either independent from each other, or sometimes even go hand-in-hand.” –Adam Grant
      I’m very familiar with the Enneagram and MBTI, etc., but much prefer to let “the Boys in the Basement,” AKA “The Guardienne,” do their thang and tell me all about my new character. Olivia’s Story✼, mentioned here a few days ago, was based on that approach. When I reached the end of the story, I was surprised to find that Jedediah Jefferson Crabbe’s garbled lyrics for “Amazing Grace” were no mistake, but a key to his character that might not have arisen via the MTBI route..

      ✼ Let me know if you want to see it. It’s 2300 words.

  4. Fascinating, Garry. I’m familiar with Myers-Briggs but hadn’t heard of the Big Five.

    While I don’t initially build characters using such tests, I often go back after writing about them and analyze what type they might be. That leads to tweaks during editing.

    The similarity of your assessment to that of your villain’s is certainly interesting. I think most crime writers have a connection/fascination with the dark side which is why we’re drawn to that genre.

    What happens if someone climbs in a CANOE and paddles out into the OCEAN with you? Asking for a friend… 😉

    • Hey there, Debbie. I never intended to build Klaus Rothel in my own image. That never even entered my thoughts. I just imagined how an evil oligarch would operate and this guy showed up.

      Tell your friend if they’re going out in the ocean in a canoe, ditch the paddles and strap an outboard on it.

  5. Great idea to run characters through a formal personality test, Garry. Although I think I know my characters well, I might get some surprises.

    I’ve taken Myers-Briggs a couple of times. I can’t remember what the results were, but if age brings self-knowledge, then I must know myself pretty well by now.

    It’s amusing that industriousness and orderliness are in the same category.

    My high score on politeness urges me to (truthfully) say, “City of Danger is a great title.” Good luck with the book!

    • I’ll tell ya, Kay. I was surprised at what running my character through the B-5 scoring turned up. It’s going to be interesting with the others, I’m sure. I scored well on the politeness side because I’m Canadian and it’s in our genes. Sorry, I had to bring that up.

  6. As an intuitive and organic writer, I’m not a fan of any type of character formula. I build my character and their one big weakness to fit the story I want to tell.

  7. Fascinating, Garry! (I’m sure Spock would agree . . . )

    When I worked in the medical field and personality tests became a “thing” in the corporate world, I was subjected to them. Over and over. The first few times were interesting, but for some reason, the more I took them the more I looked like a girl with about 37 personalities living inside her. Not helpful.

    I would score high on neuroticism (as many folks these days); hence, my second novel is called No Tomorrows, with a main character who is a lot like me.

    Oh, and BTW, Garry, not surprised at your high score in assertiveness.

    So much so (yes, I know I’ve overused “so much so” but I like “so much so” and it’s my TKZ blog post turn today so the so-much-sos stay).

    Didja think we wouldn’t notice? 🙂

    • They say all first novels are autobiographical, but, truth to tell, all works are autobiography to some degree. Humans have a constant need to project their inmost self. I worked on Tenirax for 10 years before I realized Yo soy Tenirax!

  8. Today has been brought to you by the word so-much-so and the number 5 🙂

    I took the myers-briggs test three times and got three completely different answers. I did run some of my characters through it, but discovered that I needed to know more about them than the results gave me.

    I build my characters around their worldview. My current protagonist believes that she always needs to win, my previous protagonist believed she could only be useful by helping.

    I find that focusing on worldview instead of a personality trait allows me to put my characters in different situations without being stuck on how they’d react. For example, someone who’s just helpful would have no clue what to do when they’re escaping through the jungle and can’t keep up with the others, while if I know why they try to be helpful, I can adapt that easily.

    • I laughed at your first sentence, Azali 🙂

      Worldview. That’s an interesting aspect. What shapes a person’s worldview. Is it nutured, natured, or a combination of both?

      • For the sake of creating character, I believe it’s mostly nurture. You have some personality traits that are innate, but then your experiences make you different than someone else with the same ideals.

  9. Fascinating, Garry. I’ve heard of Myers-Briggs, but never considered running any of my characters through tests. I love who they are and wouldn’t want to be swayed into changing them. Like Marilynn, I rely on intuition to guide me.

    • Thanks, Sue. You know me – I’m always looking for a better mousetrap. Guess that’s why I scored 95 on openness and 1 on withdrawal. But I hear you – just let the characters be who they are,

  10. Let me start by saying that I have a Masters in psych, so trait/behavior inventories are familiar ground. I put a detailed version of the B5 inventory in a spreadsheet back in 2005 and have used it ever since to make sure I understand my characters and how they should behave in situations.

    I have to say that I am surprised at the interest in inventories shown here today in the comments. Some years ago when I tried to explain how useful these kinds of writing aids could be, writers’ eyes glazed over. 😉

    If you’ve ever read Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, you know this is the triad around which characters are built. Another way to look at a character from a psychological perspective is by determining which motivational style they prefer. I bumped into this in a seminar when I was a manager in the corporate world. I understand that the field has expanded from the three styles I learned, but my training suffices.

    The three were: Social – wants to make sure everyone else is in a good place. This person remembers that your kid had a soccer game over the weekend and asks about it Monday morning. Gold star – wants to be recognized as the best of the best. When praising, tell them the team couldn’t manage without them. Order – wants the world to be a better, more organized, more sensible place. This person wants to know how society benefits from the project, and it better, by golly, be a logical explanation.

    QVC and other shopping channels employ motivational styles when they sell products. “Isn’t this a great sweater? Imagine the joy your friend/relative/lover will feel when you give it to them. Or wear it yourself and turn every head at the party. Are you planning to travel? Toss this sweater in a suitcase, shake it out on arrival, and you’re good to go.”

    For writers like myself, who run a bit low on natural understanding of what makes humans tick, psych inventories can help clear the fog so characters are internally interesting and externally consistent.

  11. Years ago I read Dr. Tim LaHaye’s book about the temperaments and took his assessment, which turned out to be exact, according to my husband. It’s easier for me to remember the main four temperaments and the blends than the more recent ones. Sanguine, Choleric, Melancholoy, and Phlegmatic are the main four with Sanguine and Choleric being extroverted and struggle with anger, and the other two introverted temperaments struggle with fear. Sanguines just wanna have fun, Phlegmatics just wanna have naps, Melancholys want everything perfect, and Cholerics want all the power. I turned out to be Melancholy/Phlegmatic.

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