Anaylizing Four Characters from a Work of Fiction in Terms of a Structural Model of Human Personality Variation
Rather than assign an empirical (data-based) scientific paper or an expository essay based on existing scientific literature, I have opted for an exercise in scientifically informed literary analysis. Your task is to describe four characters from a work of fiction in terms of a structural model of human personality variation. Furthermore, for one or two of these characters, you will formulate an argument about the evolutionary costs and benefits to this character of having an extreme value on one or more personality dimensions.
What works of fiction are acceptable sources of characters? Pretty much any novel, movie, graphic novel, or TV series. A fictional short story might be acceptable, if the characters are developed fully enough. Reality TV shows are not acceptable.
What personality structure should you use?
The simplest option is to use the Five Factor Model which is thoroughly described in the assigned book, Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are by Daniel Nettle.
We won’t cover alternative stuctural models in class until Week 8, which is too late to start working on the term paper. If you’d like to use a different model, such as the six-factor HEXACO model (the model that informed the “Describe five people you know” exercise on the first day of class), email me (soon) and we’ll discuss it further.
How should you structure your paper?
1. Start with a paragraph summarizing the plot (if a novel or movie) or the premise (if a TV series). Don’t worry about “spoiling” it.
2. Following the opening paragraph, you have two choices.
A. You could devote 1-2 paragraphs to each of the four characters that you’re describing.
B. Alternatively, you could summarize relevant plot elements in greater detail with frequent references to the four characters’ personality traits. Here’s an example of the latter technique, from a book about the HEXACO personality structure (dimensions: Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience). The work being analyzed is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
When Elizabeth first meets the aristocratic Mr. Darcy at a ball, he is aloof and unfriendly, seemingly disdainful of nearly everyone around
him, including Elizabeth and her relatives. But after a few more meetings, Mr. Darcy becomes captivated by Elizabeth’s spirited and free-thinking personality (in terms of the HEXACO model, she is rather high in both Extraversion and Openness). He proposes marriage to her, and is shocked when she rejects him and bluntly explains her reasons for disliking him— basically, Elizabeth perceives Mr. Darcy to be a low-Extraversion, low-Agreeableness, low-Honesty- Humility kind of guy. (On the first two counts, Elizabeth is probably right; he is clearly not very outgoing or cheerful, and by his own admission he is resentful, critical, and unforgiving.) Mr. Darcy then embarks on some soul searching, as he realizes how he is perceived by others… Meanwhile, Elizabeth also learns that Mr. Darcy’s personality is, in some respects, very different from what she had believed. For all of his apparent arrogance, Mr. Darcy is actually known for his generosity to the poor and his fairness toward his servants, who can see that he doesn’t really have an excess of “pride.” Mr. Darcy is high in Honesty-Humility after all… Lee, Kibeom; Ashton, Michael C. The H Factor of Personality: Why Some People Are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive—And Why It Matters for Everyone. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (pp. 49-50).
Whether you choose option A or option B, be sure to provide evidence for every extreme judgment of a character’s personality. Don’t just assert that a character is very high or very low on one or more personality dimensions; describe some of the character’s words, actions or thoughts that show this. If you judge a character to be average with respect to a personality dimension, you don’t need to produce evidence for this.
3. In the Fluctuating Selection model of personality variation (the topic of Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are), extreme values on the personality dimensions confer both costs and benefits, and the balance between them depends on the local environment. In the concluding part of your paper, focus on one (or two) of the four characters who seems to be extreme on one or more personality dimensions (e.g. very high on Openness, or very low on Agreeableness, etc.). For this character, describe how (within the story) these extreme values both help and harm the character.