Great characters are an indispensable part of any successful story. Certain genres, such as Action Adventure, or even Science Fiction, tend towards a plot-driven approach; others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character-driven. All stories, however, require convincing and believable characters to complement an effective plot. Much has been written on the subject over the centuries and it is not my intension to rehash this here. Certainly, observation, honesty, intelligence, maturity and empathy, are all attributes that aid the writer in this task. These attributes can’t always be taught in class; they accumulate over a lifetime. There are some core techniques, however, that can be taught and do provide the scaffolding for building successful characters by utilising a set of well-chosen traits.
What are Character Traits?
As the famous writing teacher Lagos Egri reminds us, traits are values or character components that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on. Most traits have a moral or ethical component. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst cowardliness is inconsistent with righteous behavior.
The Character Developmental Arc
We’ve often heard that successful characters change and grow. They learn from events around them. What does this mean in practical terms? In its simplest sense, change in a character means the gaining of prominence of certain traits at the expense of others. Typically, a character is defined by four or five traits. A traditional Protagonist tends to have three or four positive traits and one negative one. This juxtaposition is essential in creating dynamic characters who experience internal conflict. A conflicted character is inherently more interesting than a static and stable one. Character change, on these terms, involves managing the emphasis of these traits. In an “up ending” the Protagonist de-emphasizes his negative trait and accentuates his positive ones. In a “down ending”, the opposite happens. These changes typically happen at the structural turning points, particularly the mid-point. These are the moments where important events impact the character and cause him or her to respond. This allows the writer to craft character growth in a localized and manageable way.
In Knowing, John Koestler (Nicholas Cage), an atheistic astrophysicist who believes in random chance rather than Devine determinism, has to come to terms with the idea that the future is indeed predetermined, when he discovers numerical data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously, which accurately predicts global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world. This eventually causes John to entrust his son Caleb’s (Chandler Canterbury) future to a group of alien observers who offer to take Caleb and his young friend Abby (Lara Robinson) to another planet to ensure mankind’s survival. As a marker of his transformation, John reconciles with his father, a priest, after many years of alienation. His trait of skepticism has been replaced by the dormant trait of faith (at least, in the ability of the aliens to secure his son’s future).
Traits contain an ethical or moral aspect, and lie at the core of character formation. Having one trait in opposition to others creates the potential for interesting conflict within the character. Traits, in relation to the structural turning points of the story, afford the writer a way of managing a character’s transformational arc, essential for crafting successful stories.