Working with Character Traits

Character traits in the Gladiator

Character traits in the Gladiator

ONE OF THE HALLMARKS of accomplished writing is how well the writer uses character traits to generate the hero’s outer and inner journey in the story.

Which is to say: How well does the inner journey support the visible events of the plot?

One way is to relate the hero’s arc to the antagonist’s character traits. We are reminded from previous articles on this topic that, typically, a character has four or five traits — mostly positive but one or two negative for a hero, and the inverse for an antagonist.

This allows the writer to tie the hero’s inability to achieve the goal to his negative trait by allowing the villain to exploit it.


Not only must the writer present clearly defined traits to drive the developmental arc of his hero, he must relate that arc to the antagonist’s actions, too.

But, by the end of the story, the tables turn. Schooled by experience, the hero is not only able to dig deeper and unleash the power of his positive traits, but he can identify and use the villain’s own weakness against him, too. This is a one-two punch combination that gains the hero his goal by allowing him to knock out his opponent.

Traits define a story

In Gladiator, Maximus is able to muster his remaining strength and slay the usurping emperor with his own sword. In so doing, he fulfills his promise to revenge his family and keep Rome safe from all enemies, including tyrants. He is able to manifest his inner strength, which stems from moral fortitude and loyalty, as physical strength, and use it against the villain’s own weakness: Had Commodus not been an egoistical coward determined to show Rome that he could defeat the world’s greatest gladiator in the arena, he might well have lived.

It is this combination, this conflict between the hero’s and villain’s traits, that allows the final showdown to resonate with irony, tension, and a sense of justice. The result is a powerful and memorable story skillfully rendered. We would do well to emulate this in our own writing.


Use your hero’s and villain’s warring character traits to drive the story and integrate the inner and outer journey events.

4 thoughts on “Working with Character Traits

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    A character’s traits are manifested by there wants. In Breve Heart William Wallace wants to marry a woman who he is not prepared to share with an English lord. This is a contradiction to the wants of Richard the Lion heart “The Problem with Scotland is that it’s filled Scott’s. If we can’t smoke them out we will breed them out.”

    In Titanic Rose is a 17-year-old girl, who is forced into an engagement to 30-year-old Cal Hockley so she and her mother, can maintain their high-class status after her father’s death. Rose’s fiancé is arrogant and snobbish, and the heir to a Pittsburgh steel fortune. He becomes increasingly jealous of, and cruel about Rose’s relationship with Jack who’s background and traits are a direct contradiction to that of Cal Hockley.

    In short : Traits define wants and wants define contradictions which spark conflict.

  2. Johann Botha

    I like this. The Dark Knight has a similar twist with the joker. The joker has no friends or support, Bruce has Fox and he relies on him to help him defeat the joker. The scene with the sound map.


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