Manage the character arc using traits

Jostling transformative traits in Knowing.
Jostling transformative traits in Knowing

How do you use character traits to help you manage character transformation? While it is true that certain genres such as Action Adventure or Science Fiction adopt a more plot-driven approach, others such as Romance, or Literary Fiction, are more character driven. All stories, however, require convincing characters to complement an effective plot. Managing character traits lies at the heart of this process.

Start by Defining Character Traits

Lagos Egri reminds us that character defining traits are important characteristics that define a personality in broad strokes – honesty, bravery, miserliness, nobility, steadfastness, cowardliness, and so on.

Importantly, most traits have a moral or ethical flavour. To act nobly, for example, is to act ethically, whilst to act in a cowardly manner is to be devoid of righteousness. But how does a coward become courageous, or a miser generous?

Typically, a traditional protagonist tends to have three or four positive traits and one or two negative ones. This juxtaposition is essential in creating dynamic characters who experience internal conflict because of a contrary trait: A conflicted character is inherently more interesting than a static, stable one. Character change, on these terms, involves managing the changing emphasis of these defining traits.

In an up ending story protagonists de-emphasise their prominent negative trait(s) and accentuate their positive ones. In a down ending, the opposite happens. This means that some event causes the character’s traits to realign within the hierarchy. Macbeth for example has the traits of a great Thane—courage, strength, leadership (positive), but also the traits of ambition and ruthlessness. All these traits coexist, but the negative traits are initially obscured by the positive ones. But when the conversation turns to Macbeth’s destiny to be king it feeds the trait of ambition. His ears prick up as it were. His intrigue turns into somewhat of a preoccupation. His trait of ambition climbs up along the hierarchy, affecting his actions more and more. At first, Macbeth offers token resistance, but he quickly succumbs to his ambition.

In the film Knowing, John Koestler, an astrophysicist and atheist who believes in random chance rather than Devine determinism is forced to come to terms with the idea that the future is predetermined when he discovers that data held in a time capsule buried fifty years previously accurately predicted global accidents and disasters, and ultimately the end of the world.

This eventually persuades John to entrust his son’s future to a group of alien observers who offer to take the boy, his young friend Abby, and other youngsters to another planet to ensure humanity’s survival through their progeny. As a marker of his transformation, John reconciles with his father, a priest, after many years of alienation. His defining trait of faith in cold logic of science has been overtaken by his faith in the benevolence of the aliens who he believes will secure his son’s future. This overtaking of one trait by another completes his character arc.


Trait realignment is fundamental to the growth of engaging characters.

Catch my latest YouTube video here!

2 thoughts on “Manage the character arc using traits

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Good post. The trades of defined characters ( whether they are the protagonist or antagonist) usually come from a strong moral campus that predetermines there thoughts and their actions. A character’s morals define his/her’s concept of right and wrong , love , justice and so on. It usually is the spark that lights the flame between two opposing characters. In War of the planet of the Apes , the protagonist’s (Caesar) whole existence is centered on protecting and providing for his family however he is a pacifist . His morals are tossed aside and causes a inner conflict when his family is slaughtered by the antagonist. he embarks on a quest for revenge with allies that are determined to make sure he makes it home alive. It is only when Caesar is able to confront the man who killed his family when his morals forbid him from for filling his desire for revenge , making his inevitable death less bitter – He died according to his code.

    In short : Every character needs a code of honor to predestine his trades and beliefs. Recommend watching : War of the planet of the Apes


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *