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?
They say you should seek help if you’re depressed for two weeks or more. If you’ve never been depressed for two weeks, you haven’t been paying attention!
(P.S. Don’t worry, Klavan is actually very supportive of people seeking help for mental health issues. Just the other day, on his show, he advised a letter writer to seek professional help because it sounded like the letter writer had an anxiety disorder.
Klavan himself has also benefited from professional counseling.
His only point is that two weeks is kind of a low bar. Of course, it depends upon the type and severity of the depression. But I take his point that this is a fallen world, and anyone who takes a serious look at it will be tempted to despair.)
Today’s post is about cognitive science. But it’s also about love, in ways that will become clear.
In this post, I will regurgitate what Jordan Peterson has said about the Big Five personality traits, and then I will have a comment about them. If you doubt my word, or want to hear the same things said in a much more detailed, professional, and actually egg-headed manner, please feel free to watch the JP video below.
I have posted before about the MBTI, a personality typology which some people find insightful, but which was developed by amateurs. The MBTI makes a lot of intuitive sense to many people, but it was still made up. And it is not the only one with this problem. Peterson points out in this video that most personality typologies started as a theory which the developers then tried to apply to actual people. Not so with the Big Five. These are personality traits that emerge naturally from data. (JP says that much more convincingly than I do, of course.) They vary among individuals within every culture, and they are fairly stable throughout a person’s life. These traits are on a continuum, not binary. Each of us comes into this world falling at a certain point on each of these continua. As we mature, we expand our range along the continuum, but we are never going to move our set point from one end of a continuum to the other.
The Big Five Personality Traits
This will be easier to understand if we look at the Big Five.
Openness (to new experiences)
Very extraverted people draw energy from being around others. Very introverted people are drained by this. (This is the only trait from the Big Five that shows up, with the same terminology, in the MBTI.)
People with high neuroticism are more susceptible to negative emotion.
People with high agreeableness want to please others. Less agreeable people are less motivated to please others and more motivated to reach their own goals.
People with high conscientiousness are more industrious and more orderly than people without.
People with high openness tend to be creative types. They are also more likely to be politically liberal. (I am high openness, but due to a long personal journey, not politically leftist. My politics are spite of my temperament. This does mean that typical conservative arguments often don’t appeal to me.)
The Big Five and the Sexes
This is an aside, but Peterson often refers to the Big Five traits when talking about average differences between men and women. Women are, on average, more agreeable than men, higher in neuroticism, and slightly higher in conscientiousness. It is easy to see why these traits would flow from being designed to be moms. Even a greater tendency to negative emotion is an advantage when you’re taking care of preverbal children and you have to be sensitive to their distress.
These Are Factory Settings
It’s easy to see how a person could feel inferior by virtue of having any given one of these traits. It’s also easy to imagine how people who are proud of their trait could think there is something seriously wrong with people on the other end of the continuum.
Why don’t you want to be around other people?/ Why can’t you ever entertain yourself? (Extraversion)
Why are you so sensitive?/so insensitive? (Neuroticism)
Why are you so domineering?/so wishy-washy? (Agreeableness)
Why are you so lazy and irresponsible/so uptight and controlling? (Conscientiousness)
Why are you such a stick-in-the-mud/a hippie? (Openness)
All of us have character flaws. And sure, they fall along the fault lines of our Big Five traits, no doubt. But having any given one of these traits is not the same thing as having a sin nature. Conversely, not a single one of these traits will make the bearer a perfect person, either. These are just the factory settings.
And now we get to the love.
I was thinking about these traits as I sat in a Sunday School lesson about the love of God. To be specific, I was bemoaning that my natural tendency is to be low in conscientiousness. This has often caused me trouble with loved ones who are higher in conscientiousness. How can that be a good thing? Why didn’t God set my natural conscientiousness level a little higher? What was He thinking?
In a move typical of people who are high in openness but low in conscientiousness, I was lost in my thoughts rather than paying close attention. But then, the topic of the Sunday School lesson abruptly broke in upon my consciousness.
He loves me.
He loves me, and He made me, and, for some reason, He chose to make a person who is a bit low in conscientiousness. In fact, He chose to make people with all different Big Five factory settings. Ergo, all of these factory settings are by design. He must think we need all kinds.
Ergo, He likes your settings. Even if someone else doesn’t. Even if no one else does.
I was tagged to answer these questions by author of the wonderful blog The Orangutan Librarian. You should definitely go over there and check out her posts. Number one, she’s an orangutan, and number two, she has some great satirical pieces.
What book has been on your shelf the longest?
I was going to show a Bible picture book that I’ve had since I was 3, but it turns out it is not on my shelf any more as I have passed it on to a niece. So, here …
What is your current read, your last read, and the book you’ll read next?
What book did everyone like, but you hated?
OK, this is the question that calls
There are several that everyone
agrees are great, and they probably are, but I’m avoiding them.
Hate U Give, The Help, and The Secret
Life of Bees.
I even have two of these on my
shelf, but I haven’t cracked them open.
Reason? I’m super easily guilted. I don’t want to read a book that is going to call me racist, because even though I know I’m not, I’m going to feel responsible for all the bad stuff that happens in the book. I will go around hanging my head just that little bit lower. Then I’ll be angry that I am being blamed for segregation or for a police shooting in a city I’ve never been to, and … well, you get the idea.
What book do you keep telling yourself you’ll read, but you probably
Brothers Karamazov. I’ve started it,
and it was super good, and I know it has amazing writing and a ton of spiritual
insight, but I’ve heard so much about it that I feel like I already know the
What book are you saving for retirement?
At this rate, what I’m saving for retirement is probably my entire career as a novelist.
Last page: Read it first, or wait ‘til the end?
Wait, definitely. Unless you’ve
read everything that came before, the last page won’t make much sense and, even
if you can sort of figure out what is
going on, it certainly won’t have the same impact.
That said, I have been known to skim ahead a page or two in a book, just to break the tension, when I sense that something really awful is about to happen.
Acknowledgement: waste of paper and ink, or interesting aside?
Ok. I have lots of thoughts on
In general, I like them. They are
sweet. I love it when the author thanks
their spouse for all the sacrifices they made.
Also, the acknowledgements can be a way to find out the name of the
author’s agent, which is helpful if you write similar kinds of books and want
to query the agent.
But I’m not fond of acknowledgements
that fill 1 – 2 pages and, seemingly, list every single person who had anything
to do with bringing the book to print.
First of all, I can’t pay attention to all those names and my eyes glaze
over, and then I feel guilty because clearly all these people deserve to be
Secondly, these long
acknowledgement sections can be discouraging to a fledgling author. If a dozen people are listed, and every one of
them is thanked for their “invaluable edits and corrections,” and is a person
“without whose work this book would never have come to be,” we get the
impression that it’s impossible to write a book (at least, a decent book) without a team of at least
a dozen at your back. Which means that
our current WIP is probably trash, which makes us doubt ourself since we know
Also, I once saw a long
acknowledgment section by Nicholas Sparks that was nothing but a bunch of puns
on the titles of his previous books, none of which I had read. I didn’t end up
reading that one either.
Which book character would you switch places with?
Bertie Wooster. Who wouldn’t want to have Jeeves on hand?
Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life
(place, time, person)?
Yes, all of them.
(I once told a Medieval Lit
professor that because of a certain past friendship I had “issues” around the
entire corpus of Arthurian legends, and added, “I guess that makes me a real
literature dork, right?”
And she said, “I don’t know, I think most people have issues like that with different works of literature.” I think she was right.)
Name a book that you acquired in an interesting way.
A Meeting at Corvallis by S.M. Stirling. I read the first book in this series (Dies the Fire) by checking it out of the library. But I couldn’t find the second one in the library, though they had later books in the series. (What are you thinking, librarians?) So I was forced to go online and order copies of the missing books.
This shows the value of authors getting their books into libraries, by the way.
Have you ever given a book away for a special reason to a special
Only all the time. It’s called “forcing books on people.” It’s
my social handicap (one of many). Apparently I communicate by giving, lending,
and recommending books.
Which book has been with you the most places?
This is a tricky one. In my youth I was a world traveler, and I am one of those people who always have to have a book with them, so I have dragged many different books to some very remote places. But it’s never always the same one. I remember reading an Indonesian version of The Two Towers while on a canoe, and reading How Green Was My Valley (in English) sitting on an ironwood porch in the jungle. Little House probably wins, though, since I re-read that one on the ironwood porch as well.
Any “required reading” you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad two
No. I liked To Kill A Mockingbird when we read it in high school, and loved it
even more later. I hated 1984 so much that I’ve never gone back
Used or brand new?
Have you ever read a Dan Brown book?
I can’t remember. I have read one by another person in a similar genre, and reviewed it here.
Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?
The Great Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio version). The film made the characters sympathetic and the story poignant, which the book didn’t do for me.
Have you ever read a book that’s made you hungry, cookbooks included?
I don’t need a book to make me
I am easily guilted (is a theme
developing here?) by books that feature starvation.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy stars a 9-year-old boy who is
always hungry and includes many detailed, sensuous descriptions of food. Man, that boy could put away the pies! Of course, he was nine years old and was out
ploughing all day.
Who is the person whose book advice you’ll always take?
Not sure this person exists. Even people I respect greatly have different thresholds than I do.
Is there a book out of your comfort zone (e.g., outside your usual
reading genre) that you ended up loving?
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was out of my comfort zone and I avoided it for several years because I got the impression that it demonized missionaries as evil colonialists who don’t bother to learn anything about the cultures they enter.
Eventually, when I’d made some
culture crossing mistakes of my own and been through some difficult personal
stuff, and I had accepted myself as a flawed person and life had calmed down a
bit, I felt ready to read it.
It is brilliant.
I still think it demonizes
missionaries to some extent, but it is such good literature that even the
Baptist pastor villain is portrayed in a complex way. It does a great job of
showing the huge learning curve faced
by Westerners when entering a West African culture. It deals with white guilt, parenting guilt,
and more. At least three of the characters made me go, “This is me!”
Also, the sections narrated by the pastor’s oldest daughter Rachel are hilarious because they’re filled with malapropisms.
Now it’s my turn to tag you.
Tag! You’re it. If you want to do this tag, go home and do it, and let me know. Or answer randomly selected questions from this tag in the comments.
That’s common sense, but it’s nice that someone has written an article documenting the proof of it. Of course, the concept “ideological” is itself a relative one. Ideologues can’t see their own precommitment and would just call it common sense. So keep that in mind.
This feels like a vindication. One of my major reasons for distrusting psychological and sociological studies is that they claim to be able to scientifically prove to the victim … I mean research subject … that he or she “has” something like unconscious racism. And because it’s unconscious and has been scientifically proven, there’s no way to refute it. Denying it is further evidence that the claims are true. This kind of reasoning goes all the way back to Freud.