’10 Questions’ with Veronica Roth, Author of the Divergent Trilogy: Part 3 — “Did You Plan These Books? No? Really?”

Hogwarts Professor.com Interview with Veronica Roth: Part 1 (with Prof Louise Freeman) and Part 2 (with Prof Elizabeth Baird-Hady)

In my conversation with Ms Roth in Orlando last summer, she told me point blank she didn’t plan her books. Hence my query below, the last of our ’10 Questions’ exercise, which is more of a reading comprehension selection followed by an essay question, alas, than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ short answer piece. Ms Roth very graciously and generously replied. Enjoy!

You told me in Orlando that you “don’t plan” your work, period, full stop. My question is “Really?” How can a dystopian world of such coherent complexity be written ‘off the cuff’? Let me explain why I think a more credible answer to the planning or jump-right-in question deserves a qualified “both yes and no” response. It’s hard to believe that the five groups came to you in mid-flight of the story; there must have been some world-building plan on the ground, if you will, as the story took shape or reverse engineering to have it work as it does.

For this I’m leaning on the psychological interpretation and exegesis of Prof Freeman. If you haven’t read them already, please read her two HogwartsProfessor posts on the five tribes of Divergent and their alignment with psychological categories (OCEAN).

Given your comments about your interest in Personality factors in interviews, it’s a real stretch to think this kind of artistry wasn’t planned.

Prof Freeman, in answer to a question I posed her about allegorical qualities of Divergent, wrote this:

Regarding your other queries, I’m seeing an “America” metaphor, with the world’s finest Universities (Erudite), agriculture (Amity), strongest military (Dauntless) and more religious than most of the rest of the developed world (Abnegation).  I admit  I can’t quite fit Candor in…  They are supposed to be the lawyers but so far I haven’t seen anyone actually in that profession, and I don’t see the need when each faction seems to have its own judicial system. Journalists? Maybe, though Erudite seems to do the publishing. Popular  entertainment, as in TMI spill your guts talk and reality shows?  And do other countries actually envy us our lawyers, Bill O’Reillys or Dr. Phils?

So, now we are looking at the rest of the world looking to Chicago and hoping they will solve their problems for them…  But they have been forced to face the ugly truths about their own society.. What is your take on the “resurrection” scene? Points that jumped out at me….  Shouting “I’m not done yet!” (instead of It is finished!) right before she “dies”  Being “saved” by the Peter who had betrayed her (at least) three times, the descent into the Hell of the trash incinerator, then going “home” to Abnegation for a foot-washing, making her cheeks “glow” the next morning….  The list goes on.

Here’s the problem for me as “professional serious reader” with the answer “No Planning.” The books have obvious artistry — and meaning consequent to that artistry — and reader experience consequent to entry into that meaning. The suggestion that this artistry cum meaning and experience jumped forth from your keyboard without organization or alignment stretches credulity.

Did you start writing ‘the story’ and then fill in the blanks and re-fashion as the world and plot points came together? That is very different than the ring composition and alchemical scaffolding artistry of Rowling’s Hogwarts books (and Casual Vacancy) which required extensive planning before, during, and after drafts. But it is still planning as much as that word includes world-making and organization rather than just inspired-writing-without-correction. No?

That was more of an argument than a question. Forgive me the long-winded distinction! Why do I think it matters?

In another exchange about OCEAN with Prof Freeman, she shared an article synopsis she had submitted to PsyArt: A Journal of Psychology and Literature.

Here’s the 150 word abstract I submitted to PsyArt, a Journal of Psychology and Literature.  No T-shirts.

In her Divergent trilogy, author Veronica Roth has constructed a dystopian society that segregates its citizens into five factions that are apparently modeled on Goldberg’s Five Factor Personality Theory. Four factions (Erudite, Abnegation, Amity and Candor) are obvious matches for Big Five personality factors: Openness (or Intellect), Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Extraversion (or Surgency) respectively. However, these factions’ insistence on developing only one facet of personality leads to dysfunctional relationships between them. Another source of conflict is the position of the fifth faction, Dauntless, on the continuum of the fifth personality dimension, Neuroticism. Dauntless apparently was founded with an emphasis on level-headedness in the face of fear, in accordance with the Emotional Stability end of the spectrum. However, its current training system emphasizes extreme risk-taking and brutal Darwinian competition between the adolescent initiates, jeopardizing their mental health. As the faction moves towards Neuroticism, their supposed bravery is redefined as bravado.

So, does it matter if the application of the Big Five Factors to the Big Five Factions was deliberate or not?

My answer:

“Does it matter?” She insists her books are “not planned.” An admission of this link being deliberate would rather explode that idea, for starters, and that’s an important thing to get past, I think.

If she denies the conscious link, her mentioning it as a subject she is very interested in points to the Five Factors being an important influence on her imagination, regardless.

Really, I think the integration of the Five Factors/Factions in the dystopia and her readers’ imaginative identitification with her heroine and Four is what she is trying to deliver.

I’m trying to explain why your stories work as well as they do, sans alchemy, triptych, and ring artistry (the Rowling formula that works in Twilight and Hunger Games as well). I think the front-and-back soul/spirit pairing of Tris and Four, the Republic as picture of the soul allegory lifted from Plato, and the transformation of Tris in the three books (which is alchemical, black-white-red, without the Rowling traditional trappings) is the core artistry of your books that causes reader engagement, identification, catharsis, and transformation — and that this literary-psychology/psychiatry is, if not completely conscious, is still intentional.

Thanks in advance for whatever response you can make to the first nine questions above [the first two parts of this series; see links above] and for whatever thought you give my working thesis on ‘planning/no planning.’

End of Question.

Veronica Roth responds: [Links, colors, picture selections are mine (the five caste photo shots are ones Ms Roth has posted on her web site); the words are all hers.]

With regard to the planning thing. I could talk about this FOREVER, probably, because I am absolutely stunned by the intelligence and thoughtfulness with which the people you linked me to have analyzed the book and its world, and that excites me very much.

I absolutely did not “plan” Divergent in the traditional sense of the word planning. That is probably why Divergent (and Insurgent, actually, to some extent) has such a dramatic swerve near the end, because as someone who is very much a work-in-progress, writing-wise, I was still struggling to get a handle on story structure.

The idea for the book came from a little nugget of an idea from psychology class– we were learning about exposure therapy, and I wondered what it would be like if there were a society of people who practiced exposure therapy on mentally healthy individuals to decrease their perfectly normal fear response, making them extraordinarily fearless, as a group. But I didn’t think a culture like that would develop independently; I thought of them as a subculture. So I thought of what would unite that group to other groups, and given my fascination with personality-based groups (like those in Harry Potter, or the armies in Ender’s Game, or the houses in Kushiel’s Dart, even), I came up with the other “virtues.” That was about all the intentional planning I did.

Since you asked me this question several months ago (apologies for that, by the way– deadline!), I’ve analyzed myself quite a bit. Basically, and I can’t really think of a more elegant way to put this, I write from my gut. If my gut tells me that the scene I just wrote is “wrong,” I delete it and try something else until it feels right. I name characters based on an instinct about the name, as I said earlier.

I have, as you pointed out, consumed quite a bit of information about psychology over the years, and I’ve read a lot of stories, and I’ve tried to be very thoughtful about those things. So I’ve internalized a lot of concepts from psychology (including the five personality traits, though that’s probably because of my fascination with personality tests. Last time I checked I was an INFJ/ISFJ depending on the day) and a lot of thoughts about stories and characters and story structure (and probably some elements of Joseph Campbell’s hero journey because my sixth grade English teachers were obsessed with it, though obviously not all of it, and so on).

Sometimes things—concepts, characters, stories, information, beliefs—take root in us and they become a part of our identities, and when a person writes, I think their identity bleeds into that writing whether they intend it to or not. A writer’s identity shapes the kinds of ideas they have and the characters they find interesting and the stories they think are worth telling. That’s why a piece of writing can reveal to you beliefs you didn’t know you had, or feelings you didn’t know you were feeling, and why it can help you to work through an issue you yourself are having even though you’re writing about a character struggling with something completely different. I love this quote by E.M. Forster– “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” It’s true.

For example, one of the things you see in Divergent, through my fixation on a character who learns how to be bold, brave, and strong, is my struggle with generalized anxiety disorder— something I didn’t know I even had while I was writing it. Exposure therapy took root in me enough to inspire Divergent, and two years after I wrote Divergent, I began exposure therapy to treat my anxiety. Anxiety made me feel stifled just like Tris was stifled in Abnegation, and I wrote her journey as a way of exploring on the page what the escape  from that stifling internal environment might be like.

Now I’m done with therapy and relatively anxiety free and sometimes I find myself feeling a little like when Tris goes down the zipline– free and grateful and overwhelmed by beauty. The story showed me my own story, and it’s weird and mysterious how it happens, and if it results in less polished work than if I planned it (and I’m sure it does), it also results in work that is deeply meaningful to me, and I hope to at least a few other people.

One more comment: about the “resurrection” scenes in Divergent and Insurgent. Those are in fact…drumroll, please… intentional! In college I learned about the “return to the womb” trope– in the book Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, the main character undergoes a false “death” in the form of a powerful emotional experience, and then wraps herself in a coat, and then emerges with a better sense of self. Since I read that book I’ve seen false deaths everywhere in fiction, and I’m completely fascinated by it. Can’t tell you what it means to me, though. I’ll probably understand it in a few years, because that’s how these things seem to go with me.

End of Ms Roth’s Answer to the Planning Question.

Discussion Post to follow but please feel free to comment below!


  1. I know this isn’t a recent post but I hope you’ll see it!

    After skipping all the Divergent-related posts since they started to appear in case I read the books later on, I finally read both books over the weekend and just finished reading all your posts on the topic.

    It’s so interesting. I just wanted to thank you all (especially Louise) for sharing your careful analysis. I hope you’re not done with that book yet!

  2. Louise Freeman says


    We can see comments, whether on old posts or new. I love to hear opinions, so please let me know what you think!

  3. I just read both her books. I find it fascinating that the author identifies herself as INFJ/ISFJ. The “N” for intuition and the “S” for sensing is a divergent split. I believe it is intuition that allows Tris to break out of the simulations (intuitive mind over senses). It is the sensing function that allows her to be at home ziplining from the Hancock Tower. What makes Tris unique is that these unique qualities exist in the same person.

    I think the Keirsey temperments/Myers-Briggs system is more adept at explaining the faction system. NF: intuitive feelers or idealists make up the abnegation faction. The Artisans (sensing perceivers) and Guardians (sensing judgers) populate the Amity, Candor and Dauntless factions. Erudite is a hybrid of intuitive thinkers (NT) and Guardians (primarily ISTJ) controlled by a leader who is a Guardian (ISTJ) (think of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons…that is Jeanine).

    I find it interesting that the more productive factions have a mix of types…
    Amity (introverted or extroverted/sensing/feeling/perceiving or judging)
    Abnegation (introverted or extroverted/intuitive/feeling/perceiving or judging)
    Erudite (introverted or extroverted/intuitive thinking or sensing thinking/perceiving or judging)
    Candor (primarily extroverted sensing thinking perceiving…description of faction almost seems like a pure type…undoubtedly would have other sensing thinkers)
    Dauntless (introverted sensing thinking perceiving or extraverted sensing thinking judging [e.g., daredevils and good soldiers])

    If this reasoning is true, the author would be divergent for abnegation and amity. Tris’ 3-way split (abnegation/dauntless/erudite) could be explained by splits between both intuition and sensing and between thinking and feeling….believe her other attributes are introversion and judging.

    The only flaw I see in this logic is we don’t see the divergent intuitive thinkers (e.g., Steve Jobs, Bill Gates) breaking out of Erudite…People with high intellect are not just mindless drones…perhaps Jeanine has them locked up in laboratories doing creative work but unaware of what is going on politically outside. Maybe this will come up in the third book.

    Good sites:

    (I’m terribly sorry I never sent my Hunger Games write up…still working on it.)

  4. Rochelle says

    Mary – that is a really awesome write-up. I love the Divergent series and the Meyers-Briggs, and I think you capture it really wonderfully.

    I wondered about Erudite myself; I would almost certainly belong there (or abnegation, I guess, but still) and it bugs me that she makes them all seem so set on ST personalities.

    I am an INFJ with more INTJ tendencies as I get older (My husband is such a thinker, and his logical approach to life is wearing off on me to the point where I test at 60/40 F over T – although I am definitely a counselor, not a mastermind). But still I value intelligence enough that I would likely go to Erudite.

    Anyway, this was a really fascinating write-up. I enjoyed it!

  5. Louise Freeman says

    Fascinating commentary, ladies! Personally, I have always preferred OCEAN to Myers-Briggs, mainly because 1) people tend to consider one factor at a time rather than four at once and 2) personally, I am very inconsistent in M-B, with “introvert” my only consistency. M-B types map fairly predictably to the openness, conscientiousness, extraversion and agreeableness traits, but neuroticism doesn’t correlate with anything. And, naturally, the Abnegation in me prefers the tidiness matching five factors to five factions rather than the multiple M-B.

    But I’d love to hear more from M-B aficionados. When Divergent becomes as popular as Hunger Games and people start having conferences, we’ll have to organize a personality panel.

  6. Rochelle says

    I’ve never taken a look at OCEAN. *goes off to check it out* I don’t know the shorthand for sharing those results, but they look accurate to me. 🙂

  7. Thanks, both. I am INTJ/ENTP. I find the MB system so enlightening because it seems to explain a lot of the conflicts in my life…I test almost 100% N, so most of my conflicts are with high sensors who really don’t get me and expect me to be like them. Being an NT female (rather rare) is a lifetime of sticking out like a sore thumb, particularly with other females.

    I strongly feel that the “NF” in Abnegation is why the other factions don’t understand them and mock and persecute them….It explains why their society is quiet and ordered and selfless. Since they abnegate the senses, the faction is the most moral of the districts. Because they accept individual differences, divergence is more common in this district than any other. Divergents join Abnegation at the choosing in addition to being born into it.

    I believe the population is predominantly Artisans and Guardians..NTs are fairly rare…It would explain why there are 4 districts mainly composed of Artisans and Guardians, one district of Idealists…with a smattering of Rationals in Erudite (NT is the rarest group).

    I did look at the OCEAN but to be honest, I don’t really understand Neuroticism as a type. It appears to be something that could change depending on the situation or setting. I could score high on either ending depending on who you talked to and how they knew me. Neuroticism could also be very high in someone with a history of being abused.

    I am really impressed with Veronica Roth’s work….I am wondering if she had read The Hunger Games prior to writing her books. I do see subtle, interesting parallels (e.g., between the simulations in her books to the hijacking in Mockingjay). I also wonder if she had seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004) and could have been unconsciously influenced by it….I see a lot of parallels between The Village and the premise for the civilization in Divergent….I see lots of similarities with the Abnegation faction in particular…Of course, it’s possible Veronica was too young to have seen this film when it came out.

  8. Rochelle says

    My husband is an NT. I can see how that would be a rare type for females and in general. And my NF definitely fits in with abnegation; not sure where my bias toward intelligence comes from…

    Your comment on Divergence being common in Abnegation because of their acceptance of differences makes a lot of sense. I haven’t read Insurgent yet, so if it’s spelled out there, forgive me. 🙂 Artisans and Guardians are by far the most common, I’ve read, with some of the individual types taking up as much as 10% of the population, while there are 3% INFJs and barely 1% INTP (which is my husband).

    Like I said, OCEAN makes sense as a way to talk about personality, but I haven’t looked enough into it to know how to speak of it. Neuroticism would certainly be high in someone abused, I think, but it also seems to relate to the T/F part of M-B. Someone who falls far into the Feelings side of things I think would be more likely to score higher in Neuroticism – it has a lot to do with acting impulsively on emotion, I think.

    I’m impressed to the point of jealousy of Roth’s work. She is a month older than I am, and wrote Divergent at my sister’s age. And yet it reads better than some YA Dystopian that I’ve read by 40-something English teachers (yes, that’s a reference to a particular series…).

    The Village came out when Veronica (and I) was 15/16, which isn’t too young, necessarily, although I haven’t seen it.

  9. I’m impressed to the point of jealousy as well with Roth’s books…and the fact that the first 2 books come together so well without intensely charting/plotting them like some of the other YA series.

    The only criticism I have is with the characterization of Tris. Even though Tris is divergent, she still needs to be internally consistent within herself…at times she seems all over the place. I don’t see how one person could be as intuitive enough to turn off her sensory information to beat the simulation and sensory seeking enough (logic function off) to zipline down the Hancock Tower. It doesn’t seem possible to me.

    If your characterization of OCEAN Neuroticism is correct that that just confuses me more. I know lots of high “F” types who would not test high on the neuroticism scale…They are F because they make decisions based on feelings rather than facts…not necessarily impulsively. Partiality not necessarily emotionality if that makes sense. And I still don’t understand a personality scale that has mental health mixed up in it…I’m sure there are NTs with bipolar disorder who would have messed up results 🙂

  10. Louise M. Freeman says

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