As part of my preparation for Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m writing character sketches. This is something I’ve never been very good at, going all the way back to grade school when I’d have to write them for creative writing or drama class. When I try to think of a character, I have a hard time making specific decisions about what the character is like. I have a vague feeling of the character, but when it comes to saying something like “My character’s personality traits are…” I get stuck.

I’m a very systematic person and I like to have a list or group of things to choose from. When deciding what to have for dinner, for example, my mind goes blank, but if I’ve got a menu in my hands, I’m fine. So I started out trying to fill in the character sketch questions in 90 Days to Your Novel, but I found many of them seemed too specific, like “What is your character’s favourite food?” It is, of course, important to know as much about your character as possible, but I found starting out with such specific questions was causing a block; I need to get a more general outline before I can start deciding the small stuff. So I looked at the character sketch template in Scrivener (is there anything this program doesn’t have?!) and found that it simply asks for things like”Physical Description”, “Personality”, “Mannerisms”, “Background”, and “Internal and External Conflict”. This pared down version is easier for me to start with and I can fill in specifics when I learn more about the character as I write.

However, when I got to “Personality” I felt like I’d been asked what I want for dinner. Trying to determine specifics from this vague feeling of a character was like trying to hold on to fog. Whenever I would try to think of traits to choose from, my mind would be blank, or would come up with things so clichéd and one-dimensional that they were useless. So I googled “Personality Traits” to see what the internet could tell me.

I figured I’d get some personality quizes (that I could pretend to fill out as my character) or maybe lists of some kind, but instead the very first hit was a Wikipedia article on the Big Five Personality Traits. This is a theory in the field of psychology that states that the personality of every person in the world can be broken down into five major categories: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. What this does for me is narrow down my choices; I look at each category in turn and think, ‘what traits (or opposite traits) of this category does my character have?’ Before you start to think that this would create cookie-cutter characters, think of how many different traits fit inside each of these broad categories and their opposites (which really amounts to 10 categories from which to choose traits). I’m finding it really useful for focussing the decisions I have to make into smaller, easier to handle chunks of information. Which is what makes my brain happy!