How to Validate Your Characters’ Traits

The number 4

Validating Character Traits

One of the wonderful things about being a teacher of writing, and author, is that I get to think about my craft and discover hidden treasures that surprise and reward me at unexpected moments.

During a recent screenwriting lecture, a student asked me how to avoid making the forth trait of a character appear less trite and forced? She felt that in many of the films and books she’d read, some by accomplished authors, this contrasting trait appeared superficial and misplaced and detracted from the effectiveness of the overall work.

Just to rewind for a moment: A typical character comprises of four defining traits, the forth of which stands in stark contrast to the others—this, in order to create inner tension and generate interest in the character. For example: a generous, intelligent, educated man who keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouses; a merciless, relentless, serial killer who supports a favourite charity dedicated to uplifting the education of underprivileged children in the inner city …

I thought about this for a while and realised that I hadn’t, perhaps, sufficiently emphasised the importance of tying each character trait, and especially the fourth trait, into that character’s backstory.

So, if a man keeps stupidly choosing the wrong spouse, find an event in his past that explains this trait, and make it integral to the story. Was he rejected by girls as a youth for a specific reason? Is he simply compelled to accept marriage proposals by women because he knows what rejection feels like?

In other words, seek to explain, in a believable way, where his ‘stupidity’ trait stems from, then reveal its backstory at a significant moment—typically at a turning point, or at the midpoint. The same goes for the remaining three traits. Doing so will deepen our understanding of that character and legitimise his contrasting trait.

Speaking of which, I’d really love to know what bit of backstory fully explains Hannibal Lector’s (the TV series) drive to create macabre meals from human flesh. Perhaps you can write in and let me know.


Tying character traits into specific and significant events of a character’s life through the backstory, especially the fourth contrasting trait, is essential in creating characters that are interesting, yet believable.


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Image: Jukka Zitting

6 thoughts on “How to Validate Your Characters’ Traits

  1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Jason, I think your comments are spot on. Not only does the backstory explain how Hanibal became a canibal, but it grants us a pinch of sympathy for him, although, of course, we’d never condone his actions, nor feel safe having dinner with him!

  2. Jason

    As far as Hannibal goes (Spoilers), I understand it as stemming from the novel/film Hannibal Rising. In the narrative, Hannibal (a young boy at the time), and his little sister are orphaned and taken hostage by a band of deserters during the War. They are trapped in their childhood home with these merciless individuals for the winter, and when the food runs out they resort to cannibalism. Hannibal is fed his little sister, and only finds this out years later while taking revenge on the soldiers still alive. I believe that this is at least in part why he enjoys feeding his victims to his dinner guests.
    He is also an extremely intelligent, narcissistic character; so I believe he feels powerful, a sense of control, and revels in the irony of feeding his victims to other people. When they enjoy the meal, he revels in witnessing these unsuspecting fools become monsters on a slightly lower level than himself.

    That’s my idea, anyway. I’d love to hear any other thoughts on the matter.

  3. Diana Manlely

    Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of character traits this way before. Good explanation of the 4th trait.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks Diana. Yes, neither had I, at first. I’m grateful to my students for seeking the clarification that led me to this simple insight.


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