The Big Five and the Odd Couple

A month ago, I wrote a post about the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness). In the comments, Katie Jane Gallagher suggested that an author could use the Big Five to plan out their characters’ personalities. I replied that this might work for some people, but I was doubtful my characters would co-operate with being assigned a personality beforehand.

I still think it would be difficult to assign, in a fixed way, all five of your character’s traits before you begin writing. But I have thought of a trope that relies heavily on the use of character traits: the odd couple.

The Source of the phrase “The Odd Couple”

The Odd Couple was a 1968 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Then there was a 1970 – 1975 TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

Also, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played the same odd couple in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s original play.

In all of the versions, the premise is that two men are living together because each has been kicked out by their wives: one for being such a perfectionist, the other for being such a slob. High jinks follow.

How odd couple stories use Big Five traits

As you can immediately see, the odd couple trope relies on selecting one Big Five personality trait (in this case, Conscientiousness) and throwing together two people who are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to that trait.

This is much more manageable than trying to run down all five traits for each of your characters before beginning to plot.

Of course, when you start to develop the story, other traits will come along too. In this story, the conscientious character (Lemmon/Randall/Broderick) is also high on Neuroticism. Interestingly, it is he, with his extreme conscientiousness, who is portrayed as being the harder person to live with. The slobby person is portrayed as more normal. That is not what I expected when I set out to research the show, because in real life, slobby people can be just as hard to live with, especially if they are low in Agreeableness, for example.

In fact, some shows will dispense with the “couple” part of the odd couple and just have the gimmick revolve around one person’s extreme traits. Monk springs to mind, in which the detective’s OCD about cleanliness is so incapacitating that he must have a handler with him at all times … but his attention to detail also makes him an excellent detective.

Odd Couples Everywhere!

Once you start looking for odd couples in film and literature, it seems to be a trope that is used to enrich all kinds of stories. You find odd couple cop partners, odd couple road trips, and (ubiquitously) odd couples in rom-coms. Often odd-couple stories are funny, but they can appear in dramas as well, such as Thelma and Louise, or Charlie and Raymond in Rain Man. Whether comedy or drama (but especially in drama), one or both characters are supposed to be transformed in some way by their forced relationship with their polar opposite.

In my own first book, The Long Guest, there is a bit of an odd couple dynamic going on between Enmer and Nimri. Enmer reacts to the demise of civilization by becoming hyper-responsible as he tries to care for his extended family. Nimri, who at the beginning of the book is selfish and has no one to care for, honestly doesn’t care if he himself lives or dies. The two are forced into proximity by the dynamics of the survival situation (and by Enmer’s mother, Zillah), and while they never resolve their differences, the inherent conflict between them drives much of the action in the book.

So … what do you think? Do you like odd couple stories?
Are you a member of an odd couple? Perhaps more intensely, now during quarantine? Have odd couple stories lost their appeal? What are some of your favorite odd couples from film or literature?

18 thoughts on “The Big Five and the Odd Couple

  1. Em @ The Geeky Jock

    That’s a really cool way to map out characters! I never thought of that!

    Tests and interpretations of the Big 5 are harder to get than the Meyers-Brigg … while MB is passé in psychology circles, there are a ton of internet resources for it. It would be interesting to complete a quiz early in the character drafting — pretending to be that character — to see where they end up, and use it to guide the rest of the story development process. It might shed light on the character’s motivations and tendencies if they’re being difficult to define 🙂

    In other news: I am watching the Odd Couple tonight!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Glad I could help. Hope you enjoy it.

      I like the MB but I do realize it’s not really professional. And I think that the MB metric called Thinking/Feeling is really about Agreeableness. So-called “Feelers” want to please people; so-called “Thinkers” don’t.

      It would be fun to take a personality quiz as a character … all the more so because I tend to take personality tests cautiously, but I think my characters would perhaps give more extreme answers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Em @ The Geeky Jock

        That’s a good point … even the action of taking a test as a character probably would get you into their head! 😄

        I wouldn’t say the MB isn’t professional … just that the literature has moved on. There’s still a ton of disagreement as to how many dimensions of personality there is, but people seem to think — overall — that 4 (like the MB) isn’t enough to fully capture a person. (That said … I did the MB as part of one of my classes, sent results to family to assess, and was told “it’s like someone has been following you around every minute of every day for the past 15 years.”)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Benjamin Ledford

        I would disagree pretty strongly with that. I think most people want to please others and be liked. Michelle and I are both “Thinkers” but I think we’re also pretty Agreeable. Michelle in particular is highly agreeable, and very much a people-pleaser, but still a “Thinker” more than a “Feeler” (though she’s probably borderline).

        As someone who tests pretty far on the “Thinking” side, I find the suggestion that I have less desire to please people pretty odd.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The reason I say that is as follows.
          The given explanation for MBTI thinking vs. feeling doesn’t make sense. It says that thinkers make decisions based on “logic,” whereas feelers make decisions based on how the outcome will affect people. That is so nonsensical that I don’t know where to begin. Is taking into account how people will be affected, not part of “logic”? Reminds me of when Dilbert creator Scott Adams wrote that it if government were “logical,” they would go after trans fats rather than guns because trans fats kill more people. He calls it logical but it’s actually just a truncated argument that is purely materialistic and ignores philosophical frameworks.

          Maybe what the explanation means is that Feelers are more likely to be swayed by emotional arguments ,,, but that, again, is just the trait Agreeableness.

          I first tested as T on the MBTI, making me INTP or even INTJ. Now, I am certainly not an INTJ. I tested that way because I was answering according to my ideals/values, rather than according to my actual personality. I diagnosed myself (if diagnose is the right word?) by reading the descriptions of the types in Please Understand Me. Then, it became blindingly obvious that I am an INFP.

          Michelle does NOT strike me as a T at all. According to Please Understand Me, the way you can tell whether a child is T or F is that F children will tend to comply; T children will tend to demand an explanation before complying. Again, this is pure trait Agreeable. I think it’s a scandal to call disagreeableness “Thinking” because no one wants to be illogical, so we will claim to be T when we are not. Also it gives T types the ability to say that the more sensitive and compliant ones of us are illogical.

          I guess I feel rather strongly about this.


      3. Benjamin Ledford

        I’m probably wrong about Michelle then. She was the epitome compliant child from what I understand.

        I totally agree that “Logic” vs. “how it affects people” is a bogus distinction. But I would suggest that in the same way that “Feelers” don’t appreciate being called “unthinking,” so to “Thinkers” might not like having their thought processes labeled as “disagreeableness.”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, I get that. Some of the trait names in the Big Five are not all that flattering. “Neuroticism,” for instance. Maybe we could call it “Sensitivity”? 🙂

          It’s just as foolish to say that “disagreeable” people don’t care at all about others, as it is to say that Feelers don’t think at all. Of course everyone thinks and feels, and everyone cares to some degree about the welfare of the people around them unless they are a sociopath. This is an example of just how difficult it is to describe personality in precise, “scientific” terms.

          I think what they are trying to identify, in both cases, is the relative weight given to the different values. As a Feeler/Agreeable person, knowing that all is not well in a relationship can be so devastating that it can consume all my attention and, yes, make it difficult to think clearly. For a more thinking type, people’s feelings and relationships might still be one factor they consider – maybe even a major one – but it’s still one of several factors, not a fire that they have to drop everything in order to put out.

          I came up with that cos I was up at night worrying at this comment thread. Cause I’m a Feeler. 😉


    2. Benjamin Ledford

      And since you’re so agreeable, now you’ll have to backtrack and agree with me! Ha!

      But really, I do see the irony in my “disagreeable” post. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Benjamin Ledford

        Yes, yes, I grasped the irony after posting the first comment. But surely disagreeableness isn’t describing the condition of agreeing or disagreeing with a given position.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jen, Interesting blog. I’d say Peggy and I are an odd couple. We have totally different personality types on the Myers/Briggs scale, and are still working things out after 52 years. I never think of the characters in my books in those terms, but perhaps I would find it useful. Thanks!


    Liked by 1 person

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