Psychology in Writing: Neuroticism

emotion icon

emotion icon (Photo credit: Łukasz Strachanowski)

The “Big Five” theory of personality is an attempt to capture different aspects of a person’s personality five super-factors that groupings of the identified personality traits fall.  The five super-factors are: Neuroticism, which address emotional stability; Extraversion, which addresses how an individual interacts with others; Openness to experience, which address how the individual interacts with the world around them; Agreeableness, which address a person’s temperament or ability to work with others; and Conscientiousness, which addresses individual drive or self-discipline. The most popular theory of the “Big Five” identifies six further sub-factors that make up each super-factor.  The sub-factors capture the nuances that make each person different.  The personality traits exist without judgment, they are not good or bad, they exist to help understand how an individual, based on their personality type, functions in their world.

The first super factor is Neuroticism, which unfortunately tends to carry a negative connotation when used colloquially.  When discussing personality traits it refers to how emotionally stable a person is.  The six sub-factors that make up Neuroticisms super-factor are bi-polar scales, with individuals usually falling somewhere in the spectrum between the two ends. The sub-factors are Calm-Worrying, Even-tempered-Temperamental, Self-satisfied-Self-pitying, Comfortable-Self-conscious, Unemotional-Emotional, Hardy-Vulnerable.  Those who are high in Neuroticism tend to be more susceptible to negative feelings and find the world more threatening than those low on Neuroticism.  Those who are low on Neuroticism tend to be more emotionally stable and less reactive to the world around them.

In therapy I use a person’s personality traits to help the client understand how they interact with and perceive the world around them.  As a writer understanding a character’s personality traits helps add depth to the character, and also helps us as writers understand how a character might react in a particular situation, or how two characters with different personality traits may interact with each other.  Think about how an unemotional versus emotional character would interact with each other, versus two highly emotional characters.  How would a character who is even-tempered versus temperamental deal with disappointment, such a losing a fight or not getting a promotion?  The afore mentioned traits are just a dichotomous examples, think about what a multi-layered character would look like, such as one who is calm, even-tempered, but self-pitying, self-conscious, while remaining unemotional.  Understanding a character’s complex personality can make her/him seem more like a real person.

Understanding character personality can also help us make sure that we’re writing a character consistently.  If a character is unemotional for a large part of our story, what changed that s/he is emotional in a particular scene?  Alternatively, if a character is the rock of the group, what would make him/her become unstable?  As a writer, we can either correct our writing of the character to match her/his personality throughout the story or explain why a particular event is so significant as to move a character from her/his typical interactional patterns.  These examples encompass just one of the super factor traits, later I’ll discuss the other traits to create characters that our readers can deeply experience due to the realism we infuse in the character.

Writing prompt:  Take this short version of a personality assessment in the mindset of one of your characters, then based on the score in Neuroticism and on the sub factors, write an interaction with another character or their response to a particular situation.


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