Character Psych 101: Using the Big Five personality traits to create unique characters

There are some pretty common personality types in young adult fiction. The sassy heroine. The loud best friend. The brooding bad boy. The stuck-up mean girl. As types, they get boring. They’re familiar. They don’t offer any surprise. And surprise is where you get readers, who are sick of the same old thing. “But I want a brooding bad boy!” you say. “But my heroine has to be sassy!” you say. Well, thankfully, there’s a great way to make two sassy heroines (or two brooding bad boys) that are clearly, obviously different, unique, and realistic people.

Let’s talk about personality

In psychology, a common form of personality typing is the NEO-PI. This includes five major traits (Openness to Experience - O, Neuroticism - N, Extraversion - E, Conscientiousness - C, and Agreeableness - A). Every person in the world can be classified by these five traits. Some people are high on Extraversion but low on Agreeableness. This person will be outgoing but very prickly. A person high on Extraversion and high on Agreeableness would be outgoing and also friendly and warm. So you see, even with two people who are extraverts, their standing on the other traits make them different from each other.

If you find yourself making the same characters over and over, try playing around with personality traits. You have five big traits to work with. Rate your character one each trait. Are they high N, low E, low A, high C, and low O? Think about what kind of person that would be. They’d be pretty angry and insecure, shy loners, prickly and not very nice, super dutiful and orderly, and super resistant to change. Now reverse those traits and think of that kind of person.

But wait—there’s more!

Not enough detail for you? Fear not! You can divide each of the Big Five traits into smaller sub-traits, or facets. These facets allow you look at very fine-grained differences in personality. So, take a peek at the chart below and look at the Extraversion section and its facets. Now imagine two people. Both are high on Extraversion. But one is high warmth, high talkativeness, low assertiveness, low activity, low excitement seeking, and high positive emotions. The other is low warmth, high talkativeness, high assertiveness, high activity, high excitement-seeking, and low positive emotions. Think about how these two people would be very different—even though they’re both extraverts!

So next time you’re stuck on making characters, or making characters unique, check out the NEO. Do a little mixing and matching and see what you come up with. Your brooding bad boy doesn’t have to be the same brooding bad boy as everyone else’s.

Neuroticism Extraversion Openness Agreeableness Conscientiousness
Angry HostilityTalkativenessAestheticsStraightforwardnessOrder
Self-ConsciousnessActivityActionsComplianceAchievement striving
ImpulsivenessExcitement SeekingIdeasModestySelf-discipline
VulnerabilityPositive emotionsValuesTender-mindednessDeliberation

Not sure what the facets mean? This nifty Neo Facets Key tells you what kinds of descriptions go into each facet.
 (Positively keyed means that if you say ‘yes’, you get a point. Negatively keyed means that if you say ‘no’, you get a point.)
[Or, another way: someone who says 'yes' to the positively keyed items will be high on the facet.  Someone who says 'yes' to the negatively keyed items will be low on the facet.] 


How do some familiar characters (or your own characters) fit onto the NEO?

How do you create your characters and choose their personality?

How do you make your characters different from other characters?


  1. Very interesting post, thank you. Have a great week.

  2. I actually have my characters take a variety of psychology tests. I've used the Hartman's Color Code test, Optimist-Pessimist test, Introvert-extrovert test, multiple intelligence test and a values test. It gives me an idea of whether or not they have the personality I was going for.

    1. That's a great idea! Do you have links on those? I'd love to add them to this post. It's a good idea because sometimes characters don't come off how you think they do, and you'd have no idea otherwise.

    2. Actually, I'm such a nerd I kept my paper tests from the psychology class I took in highschool and I work off those. I'm sure they can't be too hard to find though . . .

    3. That's awesome! Probably not. Thanks for the links. (: I love stuff like the PAI, MMPI, and all that, but they're not easy to find online.