A Dip In The O.C.E.A.N by Susan Price

Ocean surface wave. Jon Sullivan.

I read a few ‘how-to write’ books when younger but as I remember, they concentrated mostly on how to lay out your book and how best to approach publishers. Apart from that, they directed you back to good writers with the instruction to pay attention to the way, for instance, dialogue was used to tell the story and reinforce character. These peeled back the Art a little, so you could take a look at the hidden art.

Some things I’ve seen lately differ from this in that they seem to be trying to provide a formula or recipe for writing a story or novel. Write so many words, make chapters so long, put in so much description, add a certain mix of characters…

O.C.E.A.N, for instance. It stands for:—

 Openness — Conscientiousness — Extraversion — Agreeableness — Neuroticism 

It began as a a tool used by psychologists to assess patients but has been co-opted by writers to help them build and understand character. Each of these qualities is a sliding scale and probably no neuro-typical adult is 100% Open or 100% Closed. But the theory proposes that every personality is made up of these five qualities in various degrees. (That's if you even accept that such a thing as 'personality' exists. Psychologists and psychiatrists are punching it out in a secret arena even as I type.)

A high score for Openness supposedly makes you curious, imaginative, accepting of other groups’ moral codes and customs, unconventional.

A low score makes you nasty, bitter and twisted— Sorry, I'll re-phrase. It makes you narrow-minded (not that we’re being judgemental here. We’re being scientific.) It also means that you don’t analyse things, are rather incurious, and tend to find ‘foreign’ attitudes repugnant.

Conscientiousness measures the drive to complete tasks. Those scoring highly would be hard-working, punctual, driven, self-disciplined and always finish the job at hand. On time, of course. They sound like nightmares.

Those scoring low for C are laid-back, unreliable, pleasure-seeking and spontaneous. They sound almost as bad as the high-scorers.
Diagram of the Big 5 Personlity Traits: wikimedia

Extraversion —measures the degree of extraversion (obviously) as opposed to introversion. Extraverts love stimulation and company. They have positive outlooks, are the life and soul, always take charge and I hate them. High-scorers on this quality are, apparently, the best leaders. Really? I wouldn’t follow them. Where are they going to lead you? Into the Valley of Death, I’m telling you, lured by all those stimulating, exciting flash-bangs and shell-screams.

A low score for E makes you an introvert. You find too much noise and chatter exhausting and painful. You hate parties and have a tendency to go to the furthest point of an empty Hebridean beach and read a book. Not too exciting a book, mind. Low Es tend to be pessimistic, dour and aloof. My kind of people.

Agreeableness — People who score high on Agreeableness are weak leaders, apparently. They are tolerant, sensitive, kind, warm— like Bhudda and Jesus, y'know. And nobody wants to follow them, obviously. But assuming that the scientists are correct and no one follows those high As -- well, right there, is what is wrong with the human race.

Those scoring highly on A are also forgiving and helpful, but gullible. I get the feeling that, if I ever take this test, I’m not going to score highly on A.

A low score for A makes you suspicious and antagonistic; quick to assert your own rights, irritable, vindictive, uncooperative and rude. Now there is a thumbnail portrait of me that my nearest and cowed would immediately recognise.

Neuroticism — I’ve never been sure what this means, apart from being a word psychologists and doctors use to insult you. Especially if you’re a woman. Apparently, it means ‘emotional instability.’ A tendency to feel sadness. (You mean, there’s an option not to? Where do I sign up?) A tendency to feel vulnerable and, as result, to be anxious, moody, quick-tempered.

A high-scorer is likely to be a hypochondriac, worrying over every little twinge— or one of those who constantly invents horrifying scenarios which ‘might happen’ and then worries themselves into fits over them.

A low scorer is calm and unemotional, self-reliant and wastes no time worrying, to the point of being complacent.

Psychologists presumably find OCEAN useful, though I’m not sure why. I doubt I’m the only person who would simply supply the answers best guaranteed to have the good doctor eating from my hand. Which is exactly what psychopaths do and it’s why they get worse with treatment, not better. Instead of 'working on themselves' and becoming better people every day, they quickly learn exactly what to say to convince the trick-cyclists that they've reformed and can be safely released immediately. But then, psychopaths and me, we’re low on Agreeableness, which makes us manipulative.

It’s suggested that writers use OCEAN's sliding scales to map out our characters, to help us figure out how they will react in any given situation. Presumably, we draw a graph for each one. Consulting our graphs, we can easily see that, if asked to make tea for everyone, A will smile and rush to the kitchen because A scores high on Agreeableness — whereas B will tell everyone where they can go because B scores low. And C wouldn’t even be at the meeting, because C is an introvert.

You can also, it’s said, use these sliding scales to plot a change in a particular characteristic. A character begins a story as overly driven and conscientious but in the course of the story learns to cheer up and relax, little square by little square, as you mark up your graph.

I have occasionally found this diagrammatic approach helpful with plots— but only after I’ve written three-parts of the book in my usual pantser, make-it-up-as-I-go-along style anyway. But it can help, when stuck for an ending, to lay a transparency of a perfect plot over the mess I’ve created and see if this suggests any stream-lining, or points broadly in the direction of a conclusion.

'Dear Boy, why not try acting?'
But I could never begin with ‘The Plan’ and then stick to it. I would find it stifling. I feel the same way about OCEAN. These tricks and schemes always remind me of the anecdote about Laurence Olivier. He spent a long time listening to Dustin Hoffman explain The Method and then said: ‘Dear boy, why don’t you simply try acting?’

For me, characters emerge, from the story you’re telling. For instance, Sandy in The Drover’s Dogs. The idea for the story came from reading about Highland cattle drovers in the 18th and 19th centuries and how they sent their herd dogs home alone while they stayed on at the lowland farms to earn money by helping with the harvest. I wanted to write about those dogs and their independent trek across Scotland for years.

Books seldom come from one idea. Ideas have to cross-pollinate. The cross-pollination happened when my partner told me about the ‘bonders’ of Scotland— farm labourers who were almost slaves. They were often mistreated but if they ran away, would be returned to their bond-owner by the authorities, just as slaves were.

The Drover's Dogs by Susan Price
I imagined a boy in eastern Scotland, running away from a bond he hated and meeting a couple of herd-dogs on their way west, returning to their home in Mull. I needed a character who, though a child, was capable of taking the decision to run away and capable of surviving alone as he trudged more than a hundred miles over rough country.

He had to be a boy who willing to leave his family— so the circumstances of the story dictate the characters of the rest of the family too. Runaways rarely come from happy homes.

I remembered some Scots friends talking about their country childhoods. Once they could walk, they said, home was somewhere they ate breakfast and slept. They always had string, matches and a penknife in their pockets. When they were hungry, they made a fire, stole potatoes from the edge of a field and set them to roast, caught some ‘troot’ with their string, and enjoyed ‘fish and tatties.’ They knew where to find mushrooms, berries and nuts. They stayed outside until long after dark, even when the weather was below freezing. They knew -- without ever seeing Ray Mears or Bear Grylls -- how to build themselves a shelter.

I drew on this in creating Sandy, a hardy, tough little nut. He’s about ten, but already works whenever he can. His relationship with his family is distant because he’s hardly ever at home. After his mother bonds him to a neighbouring farmer, he feels that he owes his parents little. He can’t bear the thought of spending the next ten years as a bonder and runs. He's far more scared of being caught and possibly hung (for stealing himself) than he is of surviving on his own. He knows he can do that.

He readily and gladly befriends the two dogs he meets but is suspicious and fearful of people because they might inform on him and have him sent back to his bond-owner. There is always another, opposing and almost equally strong side to a character, though. Despite his self-reliance and hardiness, Sandy longs to find a safe home where he can drop his guard, where there are people who love and value him. When he finds such a home, his loyalty to his new family is deep.

I didn’t need to plot his Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. I only had to think about the background and time that had formed him.

The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price
It was the same with my Sterkarm books. The Sterkarms are a reiver family, living in a pele tower on the lawless Scottish borders of the sixteenth century. The young hero, Per Sterkarm, is the son of the tower’s laird, which immediately gives him status. It supplies confidence and a ‘sense of entitlement’ but is also something he has to live up to. He can’t lose face or back down from confrontation.

Despite the title of ‘laird,’ his family are glorified cattle farmers in a poor and embattled part of the country, where life was always hard and often desperate. People had to stick together and help each other -- but also be prepared to defend what they had against outsiders. This means that Per has been raised with the attitude ‘Ourselves Alone.’ Everyone outside his family is the enemy and since family is the only security, loyalty to family is everything.

His formal schooling was negligible, but he trained to ride, to shoot with a bow and to fight with weapons from a young age. Physical confidence can be added to his general bumptiousness.

We end with a young man who can be charming when it suits him to be— and generous because in his world, generosity is how you display your status and keep the all-important friends and allies. Per loves the Elf-woman Andrea (who is really a time-traveller) and he is quick to defend her— but when he has to choose between her and his family, he always -- to her dismay -- chooses his family. It would be impossible for him to do anything else.

Capable as he is of charm, if crossed or cornered, he can be murderous— and cunning and treacherous. He cannot bear to lose face in his family’s eyes and he will win by whatever means he has to undertake. As Per sees it, lying is only wrong if he lies to a Sterkarm; treachery is only treacherous if used against Sterkarms. He acknowledges no authority except that of his family— which confuses the time-travelling executive Windsor, who expects obedience from those he sees as beneath him. (And as Per is much younger and one of the 16th-Century 'natives armed with sticks,' Windsor considers him very much beneath him.)

Again, Per’s character rose from his background, his influences, his upbringing. I don’t think that sitting with a blank sheet of paper or screen and trying to calculate how neurotic, agreeable or conscientious he was would have helped.

 I could, now, give you his readings for all the qualities. Openness? Almost zero. Accepting of the codes and customs of others? No. It's his family’s way or nothing.

A Sterkarm Kiss by Susan Price
Conscientiousness? Middling. Per's world isn't run by the clock, but by the sun and the seasons. If something seemed to him important and necessary, he would do it, or make sure others did it. The buildings had to be repaired before winter, for instance and there had to be enough fuel to last through the worst of the snow. If a raid ran off their cattle, they had to get out there and ride. This wasn't a matter of conscientiousness but of necessity.

On the other hand, when not pressed by necessity, there's plenty that can wait, especially if there's something better to do, like ale, women and song. (I think this reveals that the OCEAN scale was invented for a 21st Century society -- and only a small part of this society -- that orders its life by the clock.)

Extraversion? Per would score pretty high, but how much this is an inborn quality and how much something his upbringing would have engrained, is hard to say. Life in a pele-tower granted very little quiet or privacy. And when you're a big fish in a very small pond, you're pretty sure that the company is going to welcome you. -- In Handshake, when Per is translated to a 21st Century hospital, he becomes rather shy.

Agreeableness. Per would encompass the whole scale of Agreeableness, from 0 to 100%. On the low end of the scale, he's certainly capable of being vindictive. In fact, his whole family pride themselves on how very vindictive they are. Revenge was a duty. Where there is no reliable force of law to act as a deterrent, then the reputation for being willing and able to take revenge for any slight becomes an important protection. You touch not the Sterkarms with impunity.

Per can certainly be very quick to assert his own rights and inventively uncooperative. But he and his family can also be kind and warm, sensitive to others and helpful. Hospitality was as much a duty as revenge.

A Sterkarm Tryst by Susan Price
Neurotic? Well, if being neurotic is the opposite of 'calm and unemotional' then the whole Sterkarm family would probably score high on the Neurotic scale. Their time and place imposed a high degree of day-to-day anxiety. They were at the mercy of the weather and harvests. They never knew when they were going to be attacked. Moodiness, quick temper and raw emotions all round.

But though I've used OCEAN to express this character reading, I didn't arrive at it by using OCEAN. Instead, I studied the time and place the Sterkarms lived in and their way of life. I thought about how it would shape them. I’m tempted to say to those who favour OCEAN, ‘Dear thing, why don’t you simply try writing?’

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps I've even misunderstand how OCEAN is meant to be used?

I’d be interested to know how others feel. Is OCEAN something you’d find useful in creating characters? Something you’d consider trying?

Or, if not, how do you get to know your characters?

Susan Price won the Carnegie Medal for The Ghost Drum and the Guardian Fiction Award for The Sterkarm Handshake.
Find out more at her website.


I'm with Olivier in that I've always just tried writing instead of planning anything out! Which means it probably takes me longer to churn books out. Thanks for this post; it does look like a useful tool at the editing stage.
Susan Price said…
You and me both, Dipika, over here with Olivier!

I have to part with you, though, on whether OCEAN is a useful tool even at the editing stage. I've several times, when editing, had to rewrite a section because I saw that a character was acting out of character.

I didn't use anything like OCEAN. It was more that, as I was reading through, a nagging alarm started buzzing in my head: Something wrong here.

When I stopped and thought about it, I realised that a particular character just would not behave like that. One example was with Per Sterkarm, mentioned above. At the editing stage, I found that I had him meekly obeying some order from the 21st century executive, Windsor - probably because it was easier to write it that way while I was hell-bent just on finishing the book.

Inner klaxon sounded. Why would Per obey him? He doesn't regard Windsor as important in any way. I rewrote the scene -- but it was an understanding of the differing backgrounds and thinking of the two characters that alerted me to my mistake, not any scale or graph.
Penny Dolan said…
This post had me chuckling over your all-too-accurate summing up of OCEAN, Sue, and welcoming your thoughts on how your characters grew from the time and all aspects of the setting.

A memorable post!
Sandra Horn said…
Ah, OCEAN! That takes me back...I never found this kind of thing much use when I was at work (as a Psychologist!)and even less as so a writer. Wher's the life of the mind in it? Where's the richness of unfettered imagination, for good or for ill?
Thank you, Sue - great post!
julia jones said…
Great post indeed -- but I certainly shan't be using OCEAN -- unless I need any help in drawing villains (which I think I can manage from own resources). Instead I have just popped along to Amazon and put the Drovers Dogs in my basket for grandchildren's Christmas. They will love it
Enid Richemont said…
This post reminds me that I'VE GOT TO READ YOU and I still haven't, so will correct that asap.
OCEAN makes me think of all those invented categories journalists turn to when they need to fill space and have nothing to say. They're usually headed by: "Are you a...?"
Susan Price said…
Thank you all! I didn't expect such a response.
Interesting to see that even an (ex?) psychologist thinks much of these sliding scales.
Are there no supporters of O.C.E.A.N out there?
Umberto Tosi said…
You made me think, again. O.C.E.A.N. sounds like a handy mnemonic, if I can get myself high enough on the C-score to follow through with it. I'm also a terrible planner, though good at applying yardsticks. Thanks for another pensive post. Whatever systems you apply to your own works, they seem to be working superbly.
When I saw the title of your post, I thought OCEAN might be some kind of villainous organisation in a James Bond movie... but surely we create heroes and villains in books precisely because those extremes don't usually exist in the real world?

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