Psychology and Polarizing: The Big Five

For longtime readers of this blog, you’ve probably guessed that creating compelling and challenging characters whose attitudes and personalities not only are different with each other, but clash in interesting ways is a chief focus in my attempts to improve my own writing. As far back as Story Toolkit Podcast’s episode on Out of Gas I’ve been fascinated with polarizing characters. I’ve already written four posts on different ways to polarize your cast:

Polarizing Your Cast
Virtue and Vice in Polarization
Dimension X (with apologies to the OTR), and
Dimensions in Stereo

Here come some more ideas. From the Very Well Mind: Five Big Personality Traits identifies one of the ways psychology identifies the traits that define us. There are others, and I’ll explore those as well. Please go to the article for full details as to what “The Five” actually mean and where they come from. Go revisit my earlier posts if you want to understand more about “polarizing”.

Let me quickly identify from the article what the five are you can use to help create interesting and conflicting characters. Keep in mind that the high and low identifiers are equally powerful. If you focus on your character having a low “openness”, that’s as important as creating a character that is identified as being high in that trait. Regardless, the most important thing to keep in mind is this- like all writing tools, they are tools and not rules. They are ways to work effectively with characters but should not be considered the only way. Onwards!

This trait features characteristics such as imagination and insight, and those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests. People who are high in this trait tend to be more adventurous and creative. People low in this trait are often much more traditional and may struggle with abstract thinking. People who are high on the openness continuum are typically:

  • Very creative
  • Open to trying new things
  • Focused on tackling new challenges
  • Happy to think about abstract concepts

Those who are low on this trait:

  • Dislike change
  • Do not enjoy new things
  • Resist new ideas
  • Not very imaginative
  • Dislikes abstract or theoretical concepts

Standard features of this dimension include high levels of thoughtfulness, with good impulse control and goal-directed behaviors. Highly conscientiousness tend to be organized and mindful of details. Those who are high on the conscientiousness continuum also tend to:

  • Spend time preparing
  • Finish important tasks right away
  • Pay attention to details
  • Enjoy having a set schedule

People who are low in this trait tend to:

  • Dislike structure and schedules
  • Make messes and not take care of things
  • Fail to return things or put them back where they belong
  • Procrastinate important tasks
  • Fail to complete the things they are supposed to do

Extraversion is characterized by excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness, and high amounts of emotional expressiveness. People who are high in extraversion are outgoing and tend to gain energy in social situations. People who are low in extraversion (or introverted) tend to be more reserved and have to expend energy in social settings. People who rate high on extraversion tend to:

  • Enjoy being the centre of attention
  • Like to start conversations
  • Enjoy meeting new people
  • Have a wide social circle of friends and acquaintances
  • Find it easy to make new friends
  • Feel energized when they are around other people
  • Say things before they think about them

People who rate low on extraversion tend to:

  • Prefer solitude
  • Feel exhausted when they have to socialize a lot
  • Find it difficult to start conversations
  • Dislike making small talk
  • Carefully think things through before they speak
  • Dislike being the centre of attention

This personality dimension includes attributes such as trust, altruism, kindness, affection, and other prosocial behaviours. People who are high in agreeableness tend to be more cooperative while those low in this trait tend to be more competitive and even manipulative. People who are high in the trait of agreeableness tend to:

  • Have a great deal of interest in other people
  • Care about others
  • Feel empathy and concern for other people
  • Enjoy helping and contributing to the happiness of other people

Those who are low in this trait tend to:

  • Take little interest in others
  • Don’t care about how other people feel
  • Have little interest in other people’s problems
  • Insult and belittle others

Neuroticism is a trait characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. Individuals who are high in this trait tend to experience mood swings, anxiety, irritability and sadness. Those low in this trait tend to be more stable and emotionally resilient. Individuals who are high in neuroticism tend to:

  • Experience a lot of stress
  • Worry about many different things
  • Get upset easily
  • Experience dramatic shifts in mood
  • Feel anxious

Those who are low in this trait are typically:

  • Emotionally stable
  • Deal well with stress
  • Rarely feel sad or depressed
  • Don’t worry much
  • Very relaxed

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