How Birth Order Shapes Distinct Characters

Birth order theory suggests that being a younger vs older sibling may have a profound effect on our psychology. Formative experiences affect people into adulthood, in real life and in fiction.

Thinking about whether your characters were an eldest, middle or youngest child will help you think how their family dynamics affected them. Plus, there’s a helpful Plottr character template to keep your characters’ birth orders in, well, order.

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What is Birth Order and What Does It Have to Do with Writing?

The way birth order affects psychological and social development is explored in the book The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are, by Kevin Leman, Ph.D. Over at parents.com, Jocelyn Voo gives a useful summary of Leman’s ideas on how birth order affects personality traits.

Put simply, Dr. Leman suggests that differences between siblings’ personalities depend (in part) upon how their parents treated them — and that this treatment is influenced by the order in which they were born.

You can find the origins of this theory as far back as fairytales. Many classic stories begin with a youngest son heading out into the world to seek his fortune, while his older siblings stay home to take care of their mother or look after the family business. (Is that you, Dean Winchester?)

Maybe this concept has come up in banter with your own family. Do you suffer from middle child syndrome, or do you poke fun at a brother or sister who does? Or are you the parent of an only child with typical only child qualities? These aren’t just empty stereotypes.

3 Reasons to Decide Characters’ Birth Order

If you’re writing a family drama or other type of story where siblings feature in the plot, birth order gives you a starting point for your characters’ relationship dynamics. Deciding characters’ birth order is useful because:

  1. Knowing characters’ birth order helps you create differences in narrative voice. Think of a book like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. It’s narrated by a family of sisters and their mother, each having a totally unique voice (with the youngest sounding appropriately child-like).
  2. You can play with (and subvert) roles and expectations. Do your characters conform to the stereotypes of their birth order, or buck norms? Maybe a character subverts the expectation that often falls on a youngest child (by taking care of their older siblings).
  3. Immerse readers in interesting family dynamics. Whether your reader is an only child, middle child, or eldest sibling, you can create character qualities and emotional complexity they’ll relate to.

As you use Plottr’s Birth Order character template, feel free to create a family of any size (it doesn’t have to be a trio of youngest, middle, oldest – though the rule of threes does work well in storytelling!).

Introducing Plottr’s Birth Order Character Template

One of many character templates in Plottr, our Birth Order template gives you space to enter when a chosen character was born in relation to their siblings, with extra input fields to describe how this affects them.

Birth Order Character Template in Plottr

Here is a quick reference on character traits that are often ascribed to birth order:

  • The Oldest Child: Oldest children tend to be leaders, high achievers, responsible, and reliable. They can also suffer from fear of failure due to their perfectionist tendencies. They may be expected to be a mini-parent, which can be stressful for a child
  • The Middle Child: Parents have more experience by a second or third child, and so tend to be less strict with middle children — but also less attentive. Middle children may be people-pleasers and crave attention. They may seek external approval because they’re not finding it within their family
  • The Youngest Child: Youngest children are often adventurous risk-takers because they’ve grown up without as close parental supervision or the strict rules their older siblings faced. They bask in the attention of their parents and tend to be charming, outgoing, and fun-loving.
  • The Only Child: Only children have the most in common with first-born children: they are often leaders, perfectionists, and mature for their age. The heroes of adventure stories are often only children, such as Indiana Jones, James Bond, or Lara Croft.

None of these traits are set in stone, and you could subvert these expectations (of course) to make an interesting story. Maybe your protagonist is a middle child who receives most of the parental attention, or an oldest child who is the adventurer, while the youngest could be the homebody.

Examples of Famous Characters’ Birth Order Qualities

Studying the birth order of your favorite fictional characters (and how it could have affected their personalities) brings fascinating insights.

Oldest child fictional example

For instance, the oldest child of the Bailey family in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), George, wants to travel the world. He makes the “responsible” choice and stays in Bedford Falls, though, raising a family, and manages his family’s company, Building & Loan.

George’s younger brother Harry, meanwhile, goes off to war and becomes a war hero. George’s regrets about the life he didn’t lead are part of the crisis he experiences at the beginning of the film.

Middle child fictional example

In Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Jo, a middle sister of three, has ambitions for a writing career. She travels to another city to find a job, and longs to tour Europe with her great aunt.

Although Jo marries and has a family like her oldest and youngest sisters ultimately, her life is more unconventional, which is typical for a middle child.

Youngest child quality

In the fairy tale “Puss in Boots,” a miller dies and leaves his mill to his oldest son, a mule and cart to his second son, and a cat to his youngest son. The cat makes the youngest son buy him a pair of boots and they set off to seek their fortunes.

Through the cat’s clever tricks and gifts, the young man marries a princess and takes over the former castle of an evil giant to become the Marquis of Carabas. The youngest’s adventurous, indomitable spirit is typical of a last-born.

Oldest vs youngest qualities in a two-child family

In the television series Supernatural, two monster-hunting brothers have a charming but sometimes tense familial bond. Dean Winchester is a textbook older brother, tending to take charge and hold his younger brother Sam to high standards of rules and ethics.

Sam Winchester, on the other hand, resents his brother’s overprotective nature and often pushes boundaries.

How to Use the Birth Order Template in Plottr

Ready to dive deep into your characters’ birth order and family history? First, make sure you purchase Plottr or sign up for a free trial.

Once you have Plottr set up on your computer, follow these very simple steps to get started:

  • Step 1: Open Plottr and start a new project (or open an existing one)

Use Birth Order Character Template with Plottr Step 1

  • Step 2: Once the project is open, navigate to the Characters tab and create a new character (or edit an existing one)

Use Birth Order Character Template with Plottr Step 2

  • Step 3: Click +Add Template in the character editing pane and select Birth Order from the template menu. Then, click the Choose button to add the template to the character

Birth Order Character Template in Plottr Example

  • Step 4: Start filling in the details of your character profile

When you add the Birth Order template to your character file, it will help you come up with all sorts of psychological quirks. You can add extra templates to develop additional character qualities.

These character templates go well with birth order insights:

What is Your Character’s Family History?

Staring at a blank sheet of paper? Coming up with ideas is often the hardest part of writing. Choosing your characters’ birth order is a great place to begin making your cast feel more real.

Join free weekly live Plottr tutorials to make brainstorming engrossing characters easy. Have you given this template a try already? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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