How to Write Great Characters

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.

Knowing

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).

In Summary

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.

13 thoughts on “How to Write Great Characters

  1. Pingback: Character Traits Again | Stavros Halvatzis

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  4. Wiléne van Driel

    I find it very interesting that you mentioned an average of 5 primary character traits. I am used to making a list of traits and tendencies in order for me to understand my characters better, and I find that sometimes it becomes difficult for me to handle them. Picking 5 of those whom the other ones can revolve around will make life easier, so thanks for the hint.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Agreed. Funnily enough, having only five traits doesn’t make for impoverished characters. Only for manageable ones. Thanks for the comment, Wilene.

      Reply
  5. Mark Landen

    I hadn’t thought about building a list of traits for my characters, both good and bad ones. I suppose I knew what they were, but it seems best to catalog them so that an author won’t lose sight somewhere along the way. After all, writing a novel is a long journey.

    Great post!

    Reply
  6. Russ Welsh

    I’m scared of what my screenplay is becoming. Originally there were three protagonists with the only connection being the subject matter (lies, dreams, falsities of all kinds). But, now, it seems as though the story itself is taking on characteristics of being a protagonist as well. It’s little things that keep happening – like the romantic (classical sense not the love sense) connections to characters. Weird. I think you’ve created a monster in helping me find a deeper sense of story.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Sometimes Russ, the story does take a life of its own. In such cases its best to let it, then go back during the rewrite and apply what we know about structure, etc., to bring it to heel.

      Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks Susie. I certainly find that manipulating charater through traits at specific structural junctions allows me more control: it takes away some of the vagueness of how to change a character, and when to do so.

      Reply
  7. Shea Moir

    Hi.
    Your post are the best, they always seem to get my juices flowing. It has occurred to me in , Remnants (My 1st draft) I relied on events to pull my story along and was swept away with the event, that I didn’t even put major effort into character arcs.

    In my second draft I think, I will pay a lot more attention to the characters in detail. Individual story arcs for characters as well as the time line for the story that looms over head and effect everyone (events). Could take me a while but its better then having no growth in my film, which are essential since these events are happening to young miners that as you mentioned do have goals. At the moment they lack any kind of humanity. So dry. Hopefully I can set up Short term and long term goals for them and have the events be the block in the path. Seriously need to sit down listen to your classes again. That’s right I recorded em. (Thank you apple iPhone 4).

    Also , Stavros I have video footage of you in class drawing a diagram in your class of The story arcs, also showing all the points of the story in a time line. Would it be possible at all for you to post a diagram (timeline) listing inciting incidents turns points and pinches, as I found the diagram extremely ,helpful. And I think others may find it helpful when building successful characters.

    Keep it coming , Stavros.

    Reply

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