Need a new character development technique? Consider the Big Five Personality Test.

Two weekends ago, my husband and I installed six garden boxes along the side of our house. To prepare for installation, I spent seven hours hacking away at the red clay that potters dream of, though my husband hacked and dug for much longer. The work was exhausting, but it was also deeply satisfying to see everything in its place. Now we can dream of the vegetables to come.

Sometimes building our characters is equally difficult. We hack away at attributes, hoping to unearth the kind of raw material that engages readers. But where do you start?

In my March 8, 2022 newsletter, we looked at the four qualities all characters need and a fun game you could play with them. This week, I want to introduce you to a psychological test that might make your digging days a little easier. It’s called the Big Five Personality Test.

Here are the Big Five Personality Traits the test measures:
Openness: Openness to new ideas and experiences
Conscientiousness: Level of drive (goal orientation), organization, and ability to forego immediate gratification
Extroversion: Need for outside stimulation and engagement with others 
Agreeableness: Willingness to prioritize the needs of others over their own
Neuroticism: Sensitivity to stress and negative emotional triggers

You can access a free version of the test by clicking here. When taking it, you might consider traits like neuroticism to be negative, and others, like agreeableness, to be positive. But all traits exist along a continuum.

For example, characters who score high in agreeableness might have a lot of empathy, but their desires to serve others could make them saccharine people pleasers who constantly meddle. 

Someone with a lot of extroversion could be extremely power hungry, which makes them compromise their values. On the other hand, someone who scores high on neuroticism might seem stressed out, but their perpetual state of high alert could ultimately help them sniff out danger, and as a result, save the day.

Once you know your Big-Five traits, you can ask yourself which ones serve as an Ability, Weakness, Passion, or Foible. This can become an organizing principal for your character development that helps you learn more about what your character might want (think dramatic need) or what conflicts might serve as your character’s Achilles heel (think conflict, plot twists, and dramatic tension).

If you’re working on a memoir or personal essay, this information might help you better understand who you are and how you operate within your story.

But in sharing this with you, I’m not suggesting you become an armchair psychologist. The assessment isn’t designed to treat you or any of your characters, whether living, dead, or fictional. Instead, consider it a tool of awakening that can help you think more flexibly and compassionately about the characters you’ve created. 
Our gardening box project.

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