September 17, 2011

Guest Post: Openness in YA Characters (OCEAN #1)

 I'm happy to welcome Najela from Brave New Adventure to the blog today for a Psychtember guest post! This is the first of 5 guest posts from Najela, each discussing a different personality trait of the "Big Five" in YA novels.

The Big Five Personality Approach
The Big Five Approach is a way of studying various aspects of personality. The five traits in this personality category are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (Emotional Stability). Together these words make the acronym OCEAN (or CANOE, if you're old school according to my teachers.)
Openness to experience refers to the ability to think creatively or imaginatively and to be open to new experiences. The testable measures of openness are fantasy, values, aesthetics, feelings, actions, and ideas.
Someone who is high on openness may be impulsive and sensation seeking. Someone who is low on openness maybe reserved and withdrawn. However, this trait alone isn't the end all or be all of your characters. My creative writing teacher refers to Tolstoy's idea of shading your characters. All of these traits interplay with each other and give your character depth. Try exploring how these traits would play off one another. What would happen to someone who is high on openness and high on neuroticism?
Some characters that speak out to me as being high on openness tend to be teenagers. In fact, I feel that most teenagers in YA books need to have some degree of openness. That's one reason why I read YA novels because these characters are open to experience as ultimately most teens are. These experiences shape their identities and that's the interesting part to me. Whereas in adults, openness tends to decline with age and unless there are extremely well-written and/or can have me invest in the characters, are not as open to new experiences as teenagers tend to be. Most young adult novels deal with changes that usually can't be controlled (moving, losing a best friend, romance, etc...)so they have to find some way to cope. That is the conflict.
What happens when you get too high on the spectrum? One character that comes quickly to mind would be Alaska from John Green's Looking for Alaska. When you read the novel, you can see that all the characters are sensation seeking and impulsive, but not to the point where its an overall problem. Except for maybe, Alaska, who's openness interacts with other traits (neuroticism?) to cause the conflict to come into play.
A character who has a decent balance of openness would be typically most teenagers in YA fiction. They can sometimes be a bit apprehensive, but at the same time willing to try new things. When I was a teenager, I was a bit reserved, but could be prone to being impulsive when the mood struck me. Others I know were constantly doing something impulsive, possibly even reckless, and they had to deal with consequences. Others I know hardly took any chances and as a result didn't have to deal with the consequences of their own actions, but the actions of others. That can make for great tension and a good read. Characters from books like this would be Caleb and Corinne from Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles who have to deal with the consequences of their friend's actions. Also Clay Jensen from Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. Each of these characters are a balance of control and impulsiveness, but ultimately they are paying for the consequences of the others around them. (Ellie and Josh from Jumping Off Swings and Hannah from Thirteen Reasons Why)
Very rarely will you find a character that is low in openness. They may start off that way, but for the story to work and be compelling, the conflict comes when they pushed into the open and need to start dealing with the situation. Most urban fantasies and paranormal romances start off like this. An inciting incident or encounter with paranormal, a disbelief, another encounter, belief, then action. One book that follows this pattern is The Iron King by Julie Kagawa. At the beginning, Meghan does not believe in faeries. Ultimately, a character needs to overcome that problem to protect the ones they love. A story about a character who isn't inclined to experience anything makes for a boring novel and a passive character.
So readers: Do you know any characters that would rate high, low, or balanced in a novel? What about your own characters, how would they rate on the openness scale? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Najela is a recent graduate from UC Riverside with a dual degree in Psychology and Creative Writing. She is actively trying to combine the two majors while working as a Behavioral Interventionist for children that have autism. She is current pursuing a Master's Degree in Exceptional Student Education and working on an illustrated college guidebook set to release hopefully by (late) November 2011. You can follow her at her website or her tumblr.  

Thanks, Najela, for sharing your insights on openness in teens and how this is reflected in YA novels! 


  1. Wow Najela,
    I didn't know you graduated already! Congrats on that and this great post! I'll save it in my writing tips! Good luck with the job!


  2. Yeah, I graduated in March. Thanks for the comment, I'm glad you found it helpful.


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