Personality vs Character

In the book I am currently working on (A Soldier’s Wife, historical novel set in World War I), I have two people who are superficially very similar, but who are very different underneath.

This got me thinking about personality vs character.

Our culture is obsessed with personality: we’ve even made it into a noun, ‘a personality’; it’s possible to have an entire career out of how we present ourselves to the world. And while this presentation is strongly influenced by our background, socio-economic status, and so on, we feel instinctively that personality is somehow innate.

The research tends to back this up, at least with regard to some traits. Risk-taking, for example, is distinctly different in babies of only 6-9 months old. Shyness appears to be innate. Our genes, according to New Scientist, are implicated in five main areas: ‘These big five – extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness [to ideas] and agreeableness – define five axes along which all individuals fall.’[a]

Each of these is a continuum (from extroversion to introversion, from abstract intellectual curiousity (open minded) to complete concrete thinking…) and each interacts with the other to create a unique personaltiy profile for each person. What a tool for writers! I thought when I read this. You just figure out where your protagonist falls along each of these axes, and you’ve done your work.

But you haven’t, because you haven’t taken into account character.

By ‘character’, I mean the old-fashioned, non-writerly usage: a man of good character, strength of character, a shady character. This usage has moral overtones, and was often used judgmentally, but if we look deeper into it, we can see that ‘character’ in this context means the part of the person which controls their choices.

The relevant definition from the OED is: The sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or a race, viewed as a homogeneous whole; the individuality impressed by nature and habit on man or nation; mental or moral constitution.

But we can go back further in thinking about character. The original meaning of the word was: A distinctive mark impressed, engraved, or otherwise formed; a brand, stamp.

Character is what happens to personality to shape the person’s moral and ethical universe, to set their prejudices, both conscious and unconscious, to modify or exaggerate their innate desires, and – most importantly for writing – to guide their choices.

Yes, a highly agreeable person may be more likely to want to take care of an elderly relative; but so might a less agreeable person, if they have been brought up (inculcated, brainwashed, socialised, whatever you want to call what we do to children) to respect age and believe that it is their inescapable duty to do so.

Let’s look at an example. Say we have two young women. Let’s call them Ashley and Caitlin. They both work at the handbag counter at David Jones’ Elizabeth St store. They have been chosen for this task because of their ‘personality’. They are both bright, bubbly, vivacious, friendly, highly social – extroverts, in fact, which the research tells us makes them prone to risk-taking behaviour. They are both of exactly average intelligence and have roughly the same level of education at the same kind of public school. They both moved out of their parent’s house and now live with their boyfriend.

One day, a customer spends an hour asking them for bag after bag off the ‘exclusive’ shelves behind the counter. They are polite, friendly, professional, but they’re not surprised when she goes off without buying anything. Before she goes, she does her make up at their mirror, and absent-mindedly puts her wallet down on the counter as she’s rummaging in her bag for her lipstick. She walks off without the wallet.

On the surface, these girls are identical. But now is the test of character. What will they do?

You can run this scenario twice. In one, Ashley finds the wallet and, after a moment of severe temptation, runs after the woman and gives it back. In the other, Caitlin finds the wallet and, after the same moment of temptation, slips in into her pocket.

Why the difference? Because Ashley has been brought up to be honest. Her parents valued honesty and prasied her when she showed it. Caitlin’s parents, not so much. In her house there was more of the ‘you’ve got to take what you can get’ attitude. And this shaped her character.

Now if all this sounds like a rehash of the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate, you’d be right. But what I’m interested in is the implication for writers.

Because if we look at the example above, we can see that character = plot. It’s the protagonist’s choices which shape the plot, and their choices, while influenced by their personality (Caitlin is extroverted, therefore prone to risk-taking), are determined, in the end, by their character. Too often, new writers concentrate on personality. So often I’ve asked my students to describe their protagonist, and they will describe the personality. They won’t mention values, or beliefs, or ethical or moral convictions, and yet these are what control choices, which means they control, in the end, the action in the story.

So, character equals plot, but personality, very often, equals tone. I think that’s next week’s post.