Kira-Anne Pelican, PhD., who researched and wrote the book The Science of Writing Characters, explained at Script.com why the best fictional characters stick in our minds.
Writers are constantly reminded: create complex heroes and villains. But how, exactly? How do we ensure our characters are satisfyingly complex? Should we just layer weird personality trait upon powerful personality trait? How many traits are enough to make a character as memorable as Hannibal Lecter or Scarlett O’Hara?
Here is Pelican’s answer: back in the 1950s, military psychologists Tupes and Crystal described the five cores of our personalities.
Extroversion / Introversion
When extroverts meet new people, they face outward and gain energy from social interaction. Introverts spend time alone so they are inward-facing. Extroverts are upbeat and energetic; introverts are serious. Extroverts have more friends; introverts have close friends.
Agreeableness / Disagreeableness
Agreeable characters are likeable and sympathetic; disagreeable characters may be strong, selfish and opinionated. Example: watch how highly agreeable boy Russell interacts with disagreeable widower Carl in the animated movie Up.
Neurotic / Emotionally Stable
Sensitive characters focus inwardly on internal journeys; emotionally stable protagonists are better for thrillers or action films. Example: Michael Keaton played Batman and Birdman. How did Bruce Wayne and Riggan Thompson experience their worlds? How did this drive their film’s narrative?
Conscientious / Unconscientious
Conscientious characters are goal-driven. They abide by social expectations. They have an heroic sense of duty and responsibility towards their jobs, friends and family. Unconscientious characters tend to lack a sense of responsibility. They are spontaneous and free-spirited. Example: contrast the highly conscientious Queen Elizabeth II and spontaneous Princess Margaret in The Crown.
Open to Experience / Closed to Experience
Open characters love to meet new people, delight in travel, constantly try new things. Characters closed to experience are conservative and prefer the familiar. Want conflict? Pair an open-minded character with a closed-minded character. Example: Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) in Little Fires Everywhere.
The vast majority of real people and the vast majority of fictional characters are moderately extroverted, moderately agreeable, moderately stable, moderately conscientious, and moderately open to experience. However, moderate people and moderate characters are forgettable.
Easy-to-understand people are forgettable; memorable characters stay on our minds. Memorable people and memorable characters are outliers. They impress the rest of us because they’re unlike everyone else we meet.
Memorable characters may be extroverted or introverted. They may be highly disagreeable or open to experience. But remember, flat characters are bland and moderate. Round characters are exciting because they are extreme.
Your story needs both. Just don’t write bland protagonists and villains. Write five personality traits for your heroes and villains.