Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Eureka! Nailing epiphanies – by Rowena House

I’d planned to start this blog by diving straight into the Big Five personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness & neuroticism (acronym: OCEAN) – and extoll their virtues as the best tools ever for crafting character arcs.
But during a FB discussion about the Big Five earlier this month for WriteOnCon (an online conference well worth catching next time, btw) I remembered why I’d found them so helpful when redrafting my debut novel:
OCEAN had nailed the problem of how to make an epiphany work.
The anatomy of epiphanies had bugged me ever since James Scott Bell’s Writing Your Novel From The Middle persuaded me that a Midpoint Epiphany was a great plotting device. John Yorke’s Into the Woods expands on them at length, but story structure alone wasn’t enough to make mine seem ‘organic’ so I turned to psychology for help.

The Big Five
After millennia of debate about how many aspects there are to human personality, current psychology has (broadly) settled on five categories: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness in fulfilling a task, the multiple facets of extraversion plus all the variations of agreeableness & neuroticism.
Taken together, they express the myriad permutations of personality.
These categories aren’t binary. People aren’t Open or Not Open. Each is a sliding scale from more to less, and encapsulates aspects of personality that tend to go together.
For example, being sociable, talkative & assertive are manifestations of extraversion, while being systematically late, lax and indifferent indicate a low level of conscientiousness.
Under sufficient stress these traits are mutable, evolving in response to major life events – events so important they make us step up to the mark and decide what we’re prepared to do to achieve our greatest ambitions or defend that which we hold most dear.
Which seems to me a reasonable description of a character-based plot.
There’s loads of stuff about OCEAN on the web if you’re interested (and a bunch of online tests if you don’t mind some random organisation knowing who you are) but here’s a quick summary of each for ease of reference.

OCEAN definitions
Factors associated with openness include curiosity, original thinking, insight & creativity, openness to new & unusual ideas. Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas. Those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.

Examples of low-score behaviour
Examples of high-score behaviour
Someone who prefers not to be exposed to alternative moral systems, has limited interests, down-to-earth attitudes, non-analytical, narrow-minded.
Enjoy seeing people with new types of haircut, body piercing, curious, imaginative, non-traditional.


Conscientiousness: being organised, systematic, punctual, achievement-orientated, dependable. High levels of thoughtfulness, good impulse control, goal-driven. Tendency to be mindful of details.

Low score
High score
Spur-of-the-minute decision-making,  unreliable, hedonistic, careless, lax
Never late, hardworking, persevering, punctual, self-disciplined, dutiful.

Extraversion: outgoing, talkative, sociable, high energy, positive emotions, urgency, a tendency to seek stimulation and the company of others. Extraversion is the factor most strongly associated with leadership.

Low score
High score
Prefers a quiet evening in, reading rather than parties, sober, aloof, unenthusiastic
Life of the party, active, optimistic, taking charge,

Agreeableness: being affable, tolerant, sensitive, trusting, kind & warm. A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic. Weakly related to leadership.

Low score
High score
Quick to assert own rights with confidence; irritable, manipulative, uncooperative, rude.
Agrees with other’s opinions, good-natured, forgiving, gullible, helpful

Neuroticism: tendency to be anxious, irritable, temperamental, moody. Inclined to experience unpleasant emotions easily, including anger, depression or vulnerability. Sometimes called emotional instability. Tendency towards sadness.

Low score
High score
Not getting irritated by small annoyances, calm, unemotional, hardy, secure, self-satisfied.
Constantly worrying about little things, insecure, hypochondriac, feeling inadequate.

Constructing a basic profile incorporating these traits seems to me a more efficient way to create realistic, rounded characters than answering one of those long questionnaires about the colour of their favourite t-shirt & TV shows they watched as kids etc.
Better by far (imho) to know how open they are to new experiences or if they’re vulnerable and anxious.  Not only will this knowledge signpost how a character is likely to react to unexpected events but also what actions they might plausibly initiate at each stage in their emotional/psychological journey.
And once you know their deepest, repressed fears, you can merrily create the kind of obstacles which will test their underlying weaknesses to the utmost.
Think Snakes On A Plane. Who’d give the air marshal in that film a phobia about spiders?

Retrofitting character arcs
For me, OCEAN really came into its own when I had to rework a First World War coming-of-age script after receiving a development advance from Walker Children’s Books. The elements I needed were already in the backstory; I just hadn’t developed them enough.
So, in the rewrite, I took my protagonist step-by-step to a more mature place, one where she could – plausibly – reverse her deepest feelings about members of her family.
Spoiler alert: the worked example below is based on an Openness subplot of this novel, which will be out with Walker next year. (Hurrah!) I hope it’s detailed enough to make sense without giving too much of the plot away.

Act 1
Pre-story trait to be transformed
Stubborn loathing of family member X (a soldier killed in the Battle of Verdun).
Initial openness behaviour
Down-to-earth, non-analytical, limited life experience, defensive about her opinions of her family
OCEAN traits permitting transformation
Openness: a vivid imagination
Agreeableness: capacities for empathy & kindness
OCEAN traits preventing transformation
Openness: refusal to accept alternative points of views about her brother
Neuroticism: an unconscious desire for a substitute father
Act 2
Transitional behaviour
Aroused curiosity about the outside world as she starts her journey; fails first test by focusing narrowly on her quest rather than the suffering of others
Pre-epiphany behaviour
Forced to consider profiteer’s point of view, forced to consider strikers’ PoV; forced to consider the suffering that led to ex-soldier Y’s disabilities.
While assimilating her feelings about Y, she recognises the narrow self-interest that prompted her quest, but remains resistant to re-examining her feelings about X
Post-epiphany behaviour
Being more open, she observes the world more closely, leading to true empathy for others.
Act 3
Completion of consequences of EPIPHANY
On eve of the ‘final battle’, makes her peace with X
Final Openness state
In epilogue, evidence of new open attitude to disabled soldiers


Twitter handle: @HouseRowena



Penny Dolan said...

Impressive way of looking at creating a character and planning out a story, Rowena!

Sue Purkiss said...

It's always fascinating to hear about the extremely different ways in which writers approach their work!

Jess Butterworth said...

Thanks, Rowena. Very helpful post!

Rowena House said...

Thank you for your comments, guys. I must say I'm wedded to it now (or at least for now).

philippa said...

Eye opening stuff - thanks for sharing in such a clear way! Lovely blog.

George said...

Thanks for sharing this on #GEAQA. That's fascinating to see how you were thinking. Really interesting and helpful.