Stifling the yawns

Genealogists strive to find the fundamental data about a person in their family tree. Dates and places of birth, death and marriage are the bread and butter for the genealogist. You learn about their occupation and where they lived—the same for their parents, spouse, and children.

That “bread and butter” makes for a yawn-inspiring collection of facts.

If you’re lucky, you have a photograph, maybe a document they wrote, depending on how many generations back. Perhaps it’s just a postcard, a collection of letters or a diary, or something someone else wrote about them. Those can give a clue to their personality. It’s personality, not places and dates, and how that influenced their actions that stifle the yawns.

How do you go about bringing out personality? It’s something that authors of fiction deal with. They have the advantage of unlimited scope for creativity but need to ensure consistency. They will often write a profile for the central characters with much more detail than is required; the person takes on a life of their own in the author’s imagination. As they write, authors can feel guided by the characters they create.

One approach authors may choose is the psychological trait theory model’s Big Five personality traits (as described on Wikipedia).

  • openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
  • extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)
  • neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident).

A Canadian extension, the HEXACO model, adds an Honesty-Humility trait. If you’d like to explore further, consider taking the 60-item HEXACO personality assessment at, answering either for yourself or someone you know reasonably well. While the place on the scale for these traits will also be yawn-inspiring, consider whether any of those 60 questions stand out as indicative of the subject’s personality.,

Biographers and family historians, unlike novelists, don’t have the luxury of inventing personalities. The information available may be spotty, one reason why TV programs like Who Do You Think You Are and Finding Your Roots jump around in the family tree focusing on notable ancestors. There are probably people in your grand or great-grand generation you’d like to write about, people you know a little about but not enough to answer 60 questions about their personality confidently.

Even with minimal information, you can make a guess and indicate it’s that. How?

If a parent loses a child, it’s a tragedy. If the child is one of 18, many living, some already passed, you wouldn’t be surprised if the impact were less. Suppose the parent was from a large family and had experienced siblings’ deaths; you might expect the effect to be even less.

Now think about the contrast if the child had no siblings.

Those life experiences, and those of previous generations, can be influential, if not dominant, in forming personality traits.

Finally, accept that your story about an ancestor includes information about another person — you, the author. The story is your interpretation; there is no such thing as objectivity, nor would it make for a compelling story. Your life experience will colour the story you write. As a former meteorologist, I want to know and include the weather on the day of an event. Why wouldn’t I want to draw on my knowledge? Are you into architecture, music, or gardening? Let your interest, reflected as it was in the day and might have been appreciated by your subject, shine through.





One Reply to “Stifling the yawns”

  1. Good advice. If we’re lucky we also find our ancestor in a newspaper story or two, which can also help us, bearing in mind, of course, the bias of the writer. Still, I’ve been lucky to find physical descriptions of a couple of ancestors in the stories and found photos or sketches of others in various newspapers (one of my lines seems to have found its way into print on more than a few occasions!)

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