Boneeaters: Using psychology models for writing stories

When creating a story and making characters, you build each character’s personality profile, and (hopefully) your story unfolds in a way that the character’s actions and choices feel “true” and in line with the profile you made for them (either because they followed their traits or made an effort to change). For me, the better this is done, the more satisfying the story. I’m inspired when creating stories to try to dig into this idea and my favorite stories often ruminate on character’s “fatal flaws” (aka personality traits they can’t escape from) such as Breaking Bad or The Godfather.

So, embarking on my new Boneeaters story creation, I want to implement a system to dig into each character’s personality. For my project, I want to present the story with a long sequence of making choices so the reader can shape each character and have all of that impact the storyline itself and literally change the ending.

Instead of running off and just “making stuff up” to create this system, I think it makes more sense to try to follow well-established Psychology models. There is a personality trait model called the Five-Factor Model that breaks down human behavior and personalities into categories with the acronym OCEAN. I will be using this site as my reference: Personality Traits from the NOBA project website.

Five-Factor Personality Model and OCEAN

  1. Openness
    Appreciate new ideas, behaviors, feelings; curious, imaginative
  2. Conscientiousness
    Rule-follower, hardworking, careful; organized, neat, self-disciplined
  3. Extraversion
    Talkative, social, enjoy others; life of the party, optimistic
  4. Agreeableness
    Follower, agreeable, not a leader; good-natured, forgiving, gullible
  5. Neuroticism
    Ruminate on negative emotions – anger, worry, sorrow; insecure, hypochondriacal

In this system, a person can be rated in each category and they don’t necessarily impact each other. Meaning a person could be agreeable and also neurotic and extremely careful while being very closed and not appreciative of any change.

When looking at the traits and behavior, I think it is also a probability concept, not a script. Meaning people can act in ways that aren’t perfectly aligned with their trait profile, but, more often than not, they would. Another way to dig into this concept is Freakonomics which powerfully showcases that if you know someone’s motivations, you can predict their behavior (and ignore what they say).

So I try to keep that in mind so that stories I make are roughly predictable in terms of behavior, but when my characters deviate it should have a dramatic effect on the story. That’s how I see character change being so powerful and maybe that hits the highest marks when that change is because of events in the story and reflection by the protagonist.

How this could work in Boneeaters

I see the story as having 4 potential protagonists, and the reader gets to pick one to run the story through. Then each choice that is made would adjust the protagonist’s OCEAN score. As the profile builds, future choices could be restricted to specific levels of each measure of OCEAN, allowing more development but also establishing some refinement.

Then the story can branch using the OCEAN scores as a guide. Ideally, the reader will get to pick at least one more protagonist and switch gears, building their profile. Finally, the story would pick up and carry forward with both profiles (and final choices) determining the ending.

To avoid feeling like a chore, maybe you only get to pick 2 protagonists, and then you could “re-run” the game and choose others if you want, but it wouldn’t feel like one big slog. The story needs to have enough depth to be satisfying, but I think some replay value is also a good thing. And, if I can hit the mark, what if you learned something in the 3rd protagonist’s backstory that enhances your first experience too – providing some explanation for an action that you didn’t see the first time? That sounds really fun to me.

Next up – exploring this idea with some basic plotline flow and ideas.

-Andrew Zar