>Ten Traits of Creative People

I write so much about creativity is because the subject fascinates me. I came across this post by Liz Strauss on why creative folk drive us crazy. In it she dissects a section from Dr Mihaly Csikszentmikalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. The section deals with the 10 dimensions of a creative personality, or as Liz Strauss puts it, 10 reasons why creative people drive us crazy.

Since Dr Mihaly Csikszentmikalyi studied people who had been inventive in technology and science these description may not apply as much to writers but I thought it would be interesting to examine this from a writer’s perspective.

1. Creative individuals have great physical energy, but they become extremely quiet when they are at rest. This restful period can lead others to think that they are not feeling well or that they are unhappy, when the truth is they are fine.

Well, our job as writers tends to be static. But I can spend a day writing non stop and feel like I’ve just a run a marathon. My mind will be racing. Also, I can be watching TV, listening to people talk on the train or just staring off into space, but my mind will be either making connections as to motivations and reasons behind people’s actions, or doing the same thing for the characters in my current manuscript.

When the urge to get a story down hits me, I feel like I’m on a high. Do you get this feeling?

2. Creative folks tend to be both highly intelligent and naive at the same time.

I laughed when I read this one. Has anyone ever watched a documentary about the Disney artists called Dream on Silly Dreamer? It looks at the rise of the Disney animation studio in the early nineties and what happened to it. These artists were ignored by the Disney corporation. Left to get on with their jobs they produced beautiful work – The little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, the Lion King. Then the business people saw they were making money, they moved in and stifled all creativity and tried to milk the animators like cows. Consequently the next movies were not as successful and most of the animators lost their jobs. What was interesting was that most of the animators, as the talked about the events, still did not understand what had happened to them. They had the exact same combination of personality traits mentioned in the above point. They were highly creative people who were also a bit naive about the world.

It is rare to combine the creativity with the business sense. Today, writers are expected to be that business person. Not only do they have to write great books, but they must do their accounts, promote their books and plan their career.

I know I tend to wish the business side of it would take care of itself, but I do knuckle under and get it done. Are you in the same boat?

3. Creative people are disciplined and playful simultaneously. In some creative people, this can mean that they are responsible and irresponsible at the same time as well.

This is a good point. One of the things I tell people in my workshops is that you must give yourself permission to make mistakes. When children play they learn by making mistakes. As adults we have an investment in getting it right. But as writers, we need to be willing to make mistakes, to take that creative risk. So we are playful. But we are also highly disciplined. You can’t sit at a computer (every spare moment) as I have done for the past three months in 35- 40 degree heat with a wet towel around your neck and rewrite three 700 page books, without being highly disciplined.

Take a look at yourself, do you combine that sense of playful risk taking in your creative gambles, combined with personal discipline?

4. Creative minds move between a spectrum of fantasy and imagination and a firm grounding in reality. They understand the present and need to keep in touch with the past.

Wow the first half of this is so accurate for fantasy and SF writers it is scary. I would argue that the second half also applies, as it is through examination of the past, that we writers extrapolate the future and explore how humanity would react given technological changes.

In fact I would argue that it is the role of creative people to examine the present by holding a mirror (a distorted mirror if they are writing fantasy and SF) to the world. By exaggerating aspects of everyday behaviour, we make them easier to see.

Do you feel you can see a fantastical world and yet remain grounded?

5. Creative individuals seem to be both introverted and extroverted, expressing both traits at once. An image to explain this might be that they are shy showoffs, if you can picture that.

I think writers tend to be observers of life and people. I find people endlessly fascinating, but also frustrating and bit frightening. The extroverted part of me enjoys running lectures and making the students laugh. The introverted part of me could happily live in a monastery and do nothing but write.

Does the term ‘shy showoff’ strike a chord with you?

6. Creative people are sincerely humble and extremely proud in a childlike way. It requires ego to have a risky, fresh idea. It takes self-doubt to hammer it out to a workable form.

Think of Dave’s post yesterday. It struck home with me because I have to love the book I’m writing, or I wouldn’t write it. I can be totally in love with it and totally despairing of it within a day, or even an hour. I want people to read what I write. I want them to love the characters as much as I do. Yet the idea that readers will read and be critical of my book terrifies me.

From speaking to other writers they tend to feel this same conflict towards their work.

7. Creative folks don’t feel as tied to gender roles. They feel distinctly individual. They don’t feel the barriers of authority or the rules of what they are “supposed to do.”

Or put another way, creative people tend to be a bit iconoclastic. Add to this we are writers and readers of speculative fiction, quite happy to identify with an AI or a genderless alien, and you can see how accurate this description is. if we could not ‘think outside the box’ we could not create other cultures for our books, or write from a different Point of View.

8. Creative individuals are thought to be rebellious. Yet, in order to be creative one has to understand and have internalized the traditional culture. Therefore creativity comes from deep roots in tradition. Creative people are traditional and cutting edge.

This one made me stumble as little, as I don’t consider myself traditional at all. The only way I can relate this one to myself as a writer is to look at it this way. I want to write stories that make people question their assumptions. To do this, I have to internalise their world view – the traditional culture of my society – once I’ve internalised it, I can deconstruct it within a story.

I think this one ties in to number 4.

9. Creative people are deeply passionate about their work, yet can be extremely detached and objective when discussing it.

Absolutely. I have to be passionate to write the book. Then I have to be objective to analyse what does and doesn’t work. I think of first draft as right brain (creative) and second draft as left brain (analytical). (Leftbrain/rightbrain)

What this leads me to guess is that creative people are better as switching between different sides of their brain. I read somewhere that piano playing is goof for you because it forces the two sides of the brain to work in unison. Just throwing some theories out there.

10. Creative people are highly open and sensitive, which exposes them to pain and suffering, but also allows them to feel higher values of joy and happiness.

This is one of those ‘of course’ moments. As writers we feel very deeply. We mine those feelings for our characters and, even when suffering, we examine how we feel. I know this intensity leaves us open to greater pain, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This post has been a bit of a ramble. Dr Mihaly Csikszentmikalyi’s book looks interesting. There’s a section on the domains of creativity and on enhancing creativity. How accurate did you find his list of 10 traits of creative people?


  1. >I have to say that at first glance the list of traits appears very cargo-cult scienceish. I could replace the word "creative" with many other words (intelligent, naive…) and the statements would read much the same. The thing I got out the list was that highly creative people are people. And those people can express traits across the range of human psychology.

  2. >I don't know, try substituting "Teachers" or "Accountants" for "Creative individuals."Some fit, but a lot are ludicrous. The careers that seem to fit the whole suite of traits best are the one that require innovation and creativity.

  3. >I'm not entirely certain one can substitute something like a job title with a personality trait. Of course, if someone substituded the word "creative" with the word "writers", the list makes perfect sense, mainly because in this case (for this blog) the words are interchangable. As a larger exercise in psychology is where it becomes cargo cult science.So are we applying this list specifically to writers or are we teasing out the science behind? That would necessarily change the meaning. :)If I'm waxing philosophical it's because the caffeine is not working at all today. 😛

  4. >C Kelsey,I was taking the list as it stands and looking at how these descriptions applied to writers.The one that struck a chord with me was the intelligent but naive description.

  5. >Matapam,I read an article in new scientist where they found the parts of the brain associated with creativity lit up when people did their favourite thing, (eg. gardening), as long as the person described themselves as creative!So it appears to be a mind set.

  6. >It's an interesting list, although kind of shallow – there's probably a lot more said in the book itself that a blog post can't really cover.For starters, I'd guess everyone is coming from their own definition of creativity, which means their interpretation of anything about creativity is going to be skewed. It's one of those endlessly fascinating "you know it when you see it" things that no-one actually really understands, and everyone wants to be able to lay claim to.

  7. >A very interesting post. I know alot of this struck home for me. As a writer I'm terrible at the business side of things. I'm not very good at promoting myself but the urge to create is still there and before I know it, I'm onto the next project. Consequently – 7 novels, unpublished.I lit up when I saw the Shy Showoff.. lol.. this is me to a T.I can relate to many of the others, but thought they were somewhat generic as others have pointed out and could apply to many.Another aspect of being creative, which is not mentioned here, and is somewhat stereotypically applied to creatives especially writers, is the battle with the black dog. Depression, anxiety, often tying in/leading to, problems with abuse..drug alcohol etc.. I know I have struggled with these things for many years, and continue to do so, though have more control these days, than say, in my twenties.. It's a love/hate relationship with the world and self. A teetering on the precipice, where the view is staggering with the price being the risk to fall either way.. A tear down and rebuild mentality… and definetly with that sensitivity you mentioned.. how else can a creative observe people and comment on them without being sensitve to what they are going through… and that comes at a high cost… Ask John Kennedy Toole.. often too high a cost..

  8. >Wow! I am a writer, and I found all of these pretty accurate to my personality. The most striking was the "shy show-off".I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and broadening my horizons. Definitely something I will be sharing with my friends. Thank you for posting!

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