A (possibly) new tool for your character-creating arsenal: Ofman core qualities

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Aug 5, 2020
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Melbourne, AU
Creating characters is my jam. I pore over them, flesh them up and out until they're real to me and I begin to love them like family... so I can torture them in my stories. You know how it goes. To me, there's no story - or story worth telling outside of a fairy tale, anyway - without character. Characters both create and propel the story. So anyway - it was with some delight that I discovered something completely unexpected for characterisation, not from my writing resources, but from my business consulting resources.

These past few years where I went into comms and content marketing and my writing took a back seat I learnt all kinds of things I could use in the corporate world, which I used in my consultancy. Among them is an interesting tool from Daniel Ofman called the Core Quadrant. This isn't a personality test: it explains how your qualities can be your asset and downfall, helps you understand your strengths and make the most of them, find balance in your life and inner world, and get along with other people. Along the way it also explains why there are people that simply rub you up the wrong way, and why you pretty much want to headbutt anyone who suggests that there's something in them that's somehow like you and that's why they rub you up the wrong way.

Here's how it works:


We all have qualities we're born with. Think of any one of them: this quality helps define you and most of the time it's an asset and strength to you. However, when you turn it up to 11 to the point where it’s just too much, it becomes your weakness - that's your pitfall. Say you're a loving person, but in overdrive, you tend to be clingy and suffocate people; that's your quality and pitfall. The pitfall, however, has a positive opposite: this is your challenge, and it actually complements your core quality and makes you a more balanced person if you nurture it. So if your pitfall is to be clingy, then your challenge would be independent. You can see how you could spend your entire life finding a balance between being loving and being independent, and it would be a worthwhile journey. Too much of your challenge, however, becomes your allergy: the polar opposite of your core quality and the thing you absolutely can't stand. In this example, too much independence could be a range of things from loner or hermit, to complete sociopath: you can see how any of these things could make a loving person break out in hives… or commit murder.

So that's all good for navel gazing, but what about your characters? Can you use this to create them and give them story? Yes, yes, and yes. I trust your characters will have more than one core quality but if you grab their most significant one or two, it really helps you flesh them out and bring lots of spark to the action, particularly when you create quadrants for the characters that most interact.

Your character can begin and end in any of the quadrants. Here are just some ideas of how it can pan out for them:

- The classic way would be for the character to start the story with his core quality in full view. Circumstances – featuring a character or entity in the Allergy space – would force him into that long dark teatime of the soul where his strength becomes his weakness, until the third act when he rallies and finds an alternative way to act: his Challenge. Newly strong, he fights against his allergy and emerges victorious. He restores balance by going back to his core quality except he’s better this time because he’s discovered his challenge and has grown and become a better human being.

- A character can end as the very thing he despises, in the Allergy space. It’s a bleak ending but valid and compelling. It can also end with the character in the Pitfall space, unable to move (the Cohen brothers’ A Serious Man comes to mind) because he simply cannot be a different way.

- A character at the start of the story can be unsympathetic, in either the Pitfall or Allergy quadrants, and move towards (discovering? rediscovering?) a core quality and Challenge.

- Interesting things happen when you introduce characters in complementary and “too much” quadrants to the core quality. Just like we tend to partner up with people who complement us in real life, you can have one character be the challenge to another character’s core quality.

- “Relationships gone wrong” stories can feature characters moving from their strong, complementary quadrants to Pitfall and Allergy.

- Buddy cop movies often begin with characters who on the surface are in the Pitfall and Allergy quadrants: they can’t stand each other, torture each other, and definitely can’t work together. As the movie progresses and the characters’ true selves are revealed and they grow and learn to work with each other, they move to where they belong: Core Quality and Challenge. And then, because they are perfect complements to each other, begin to triumph over their foes.

- If you know your character’s core quality, you will know the allergic situations and people to put him in/against when he is at his absolute nadir to create profound conflict. (“Luke, I am your father”, anyone?)

Like I said, these are just some uses for this nifty tool. I’m sure you can come up with more.

Here’s an example of my current work.


This is Greg, who will be my main character’s love interest. I worked hard on him, gave him a solid self-concept, and yet when I explained him to my lovely husband (who is also a writer, and a very good one), he said he sounded process-driven and boring. This wasn’t how I imagined Greg to be at all, particularly since I was already half in love with him myself! I realised that what I hadn’t done was really explore his qualities: what other people can see about him, not just the way he saw himself.

As soon as I did this, not only did he begin to take shape, but I began to see how he would interact with my main character, who at her best is passionate and lives for the moment, and at her worst is emotionally immature and tends to fly off the handle and not take responsibility for her actions. They will be each other’s challenge and allergy. I can’t wait to put them through their paces.

Anyway! Hope you enjoyed my little dissertation here. This isn’t the be-all and end-all of creating characters, by all means (it certainly isn’t for me), but it’s certainly useful and a whole lot of fun when you start thinking of the possibilities.

If you’re interested in learning more, there’s a fair bit of info out there on Daniel Ofman’s work (including lists of qualities complete with their pitfalls, challenges and allergies), but this little five-minute vid sums it all up quite nicely.


practical experience, FTW
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Jul 7, 2012
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Very interesting! You're right, this is a kind of model that has a lot of potential as a creative tool. Thanks for the tip!

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