Using Psychology to Create Memorable Characters

Compelling characters are the backbones of any story. Kira-Anne Pelican, PhD explains why some characters stick in our minds more than others, and what makes a character memorable.
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Using Psychology to Create Memorable Characters

It’s mid-afternoon, I’ve got plenty of work I should be getting on with, but I can’t stop thinking about the main character from the show I was watching last night. Why is that? Why do some characters stick in our minds more than others? What is that makes a character memorable?

Plenty of people tell us they need to be believable.

Others tell us that they need to be complex.

But what actually is complexity in a character?

And how do we go about ensuring that the characters that we’re writing are satisfyingly complex? Is character complexity always solved by just layering in more personality traits? And if so, how many does a character need? Are more traits always better? Or could some traits be more memorable than others?

These are some of the main questions I wanted to answer when I started out researching my book The Science of Writing Characters. Given that psychologists have been studying personality and character for over a century, what insights may they be able to share that could help the writing process?

Plenty, it turns out. And we’ll come to a few of those in just a moment.

First, let’s start with a short character analysis exercise to set the scene.

1) Jot down all the personality traits for the character you’re currently developing. Aim for at least ten.

2) Next, group together any traits that feel as though they could be related. For example, chatty, sociable, warm and friendly are similar enough to group together.

3) Finally, count up how many dimensions of personality you’ve created in your character.

Any less than five, and your character is missing dimensions. On account of that, the more time we spend with them, the less believable they’ll feel.

Why five dimensions you ask?

THE BIG FIVE DIMENSIONS

Back in the 1950s, military psychologists Tupes and Christal made the fascinating discovery that our personality is fully captured by five dimensions. These five dimensions that represent the core of our character describe not only who we are, how other people see us, but also how we’re likely to feel, behave, what we believe in, how we relate to others, and even the style of our speech. Before we go any further, what are these Big Five dimensions as they’re now known, and what have these got to do with the reasons why some characters are more memorable than others?

Extroversion / Introversion

One of the first dimensions we become aware of when we meet new people is the degree to which they engage with the world. While extroverts are outward-facing and gain energy from their social interactions, introverts draw energy instead from spending time alone. They tend to be more serious than upbeat and energetic extroverts and have fewer but closer friendships.

Compare these clips of extroverted Austin Powers ...

with introverted Chiron from Moonlight to get a better idea of how this dimension may be characterized.

Agreeableness / Disagreeableness

Another dimension, that we pick up very quickly when first meeting someone, is the degree to which they’re agreeable, cooperative and thoughtful with others. While agreeable characters are generally likeable and sympathetic, strong characters are often selfish, opinionated and highly disagreeable.

Take a look at the way that the highly agreeable boy scout interacts with the disagreeable widower Carl in the trailer for Up (2009).

Neuroticism / Emotional Stability

This dimension describes how people experience the world emotionally. Emotionally stable protagonists are great for stories filled with plenty of external conflict, while characters who are more emotionally sensitive are best for more inwardly focused dramas in which the character’s internal journey is central.

Compare the way the character of Riggan from Birdman experiences the world...

... with James Bond and how this drives their films’ narratives.

Conscientiousness / Unconscientiousness

Conscientious characters are driven by a sense of duty and responsibility towards their jobs, friends and/or family. They are typically goal driven – a useful trait for many protagonists – and abide by social expectations. By contrast, unconscientious characters lack this sense of responsibility and tend to be far more spontaneous and free-spirited as a result.

Think about the contrast between the highly conscientious character of the Queen in The Crown, her husband and Margaret.

Openness to Experience / Closed to Experience

Openness to experience relates to the degree to which characters are open or closed-minded to new ideas, beliefs, experiences or even arts and culture. Characters who are open to experience will generally love meeting new people, travelling, and trying out new things, while characters who are closed to experience tend to prefer the more familiar and be more conservative. Put an open-minded character together with a closed-minded character and you have plenty of potential for conflict! Take the characters of Mia Warren and Elena Richardson from Little Fires Everywhere as an example.

What does this tell us about memorable characters?

So if believable – or psychologically-credible - characters need to be characterised on all five dimensions, why are some characters more memorable than others? The reason is that we’re more likely to remember characters who are different from the people we typically meet. The vast majority of people are moderately extrovert, moderately agreeable, moderately stable, moderately conscientious and moderately open to experience.

Use discount code "SCRIPT30" to get 30% off! 

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Because of this, characters like these are entirely forgettable.

Memorable characters are instead the outliers.

Memorable characters make a long-lasting impression on us precisely because they’re unlike everyone else we typically meet. Because we’re primed to try and better understand people who are less easy to fathom, they stay in our minds and we keep thinking about them.

So, memorable characters are the ones who rate more extremely on one or two personality dimensions.

· They may be memorable because they’re so introverted.

· They may be memorable because they’re so open to experience.

· They may be memorable because they’re highly disagreeable and emotionally unstable.

· They may be memorable because they’re unusually conscientiousness, introverted and open to experience.

The choice is yours. But whatever you do, don’t make your characters bland.

Now excuse me please as I take my leave. There’s a show I need to get back to, and some characters who need my attention…

Check out Kira-Anne Pelican's new book, The Science of Writing Characters and use discount code "SCRIPT30" to get 30% off!

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