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.

Summary

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

Character Traits, Wants, Needs.

Character Traits in Blade Runner
Character Traits in Blade Runner

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IN A PREVIOUS POST, I defined the protagonist’s character arc in terms of the rise and fall of certain character traits at the expense of others.

I suggested that the best way to manage this process is to make changes at specific structural junctions such as the inciting incident, first turning point, mid-point, and second turning point.

Another way to think of the character arc is in terms of character traits vying for dominance as a result of the tension that arises between a character’s wants versus his needs.

Let me explain:

Prior to the mid-point, sometimes referred to as the moment of illumination, the protagonist pursues the goal chiefly out of want. He mistakenly believes that by attaining the outer goal, happiness will follow. This is because he has not yet discovered or acknowledged his need. The trait driving the protagonist’s search towards the goal, based on this lack of self-awareness, therefore, is a negative one—obsessive desire, overblown ambition, and the like.

After the mid-point, however, the protagonist is granted insight into the true nature of the goal and himself. What seemed like a good path at the beginning of the story no longer does so. From the perspective of technique, this means the prominent trait(s) motivating the character has been overshadowed by other more positive traits. This causes a change in the goal, and therefore, in the path to the goal. It illustrates the causal relationship that exists between the inner and outer journey in the story.

In the original Blade Runner, Deckard, a retired blade runner, a hunter of off-world synthetic humans, is persuaded to come out of retirement to hunt and kill a group of dangerous Nexus-6 Replicants, led by Roy, who have landed on earth illegally. We later learn that they’ve come in search of their creator Tyrell, of the Tyrell Corporation.

Their intent is to have him extend their lifespan which has been set at four years to prevent them from developing emotions and becoming a threat to humans. During his investigations, Deckard discovers that Tyrell’s personal assistant, Rachel, is herself a Replicant although she is is unaware of this fact. The plot thickens when Deckard falls in love with her and tries to protect her from harm.

Adjusting Character Traits Through Want vs. Need

Deckard’s inner journey is to realise that what he wants — to get rid of Replicants, is not what he needs — to rise above his prejudice and to keep Rachel alive. Ironically, during a fight to the finish, Deckard is rescued from falling to his death by Roy, the Replicant he has sought to kill. This act proves Replicants are capable of compassion, a trait that humans seem to have lost.

Deckard’s dominant trait of cold efficiency in tracking and killing Replicants becomes subservient to his traits of love and compassion released in him by Rachel, who, we are informed, has no expiry date. In changing his goal by protecting Rachel from those who would kill her, Decker acknowledges that his need is greater than his want. This change of heart (character arc) illustrates how traits affect the story goal — Decker goes from killing Replicants to protecting them.

Summary

Crafting your character arc in terms of character traits as well as what your protagonist wants vs. what he needs allows you to integrate the outer and inner journey of a story.

How to Tighten Character Traits

Although I have written about character traits in this blog before, they are such an important part of the jig-saw puzzle of crafting intriguing and successful characters that they deserve another pass. In terms of storytelling, traits, we are reminded, are key aspects of a character, often with moral or ethical implications, that determine behavior, such as righteousness, cowardliness, generosity, stinginess, and so on.

Solving the Traits Puzzle
Solving the Traits Puzzle

The Essential Core

The key aspect to identifying and crafting character traits is that you choose only traits that represent the essential core of a particular character. Too many traits tend to work against each other and cause confusion. Too few, and the character becomes monochromatic and static. The essential core is a set of three or four traits, with at least one of which acts in counterpoint to the rest in order to create dynamism. The core informs your character’s thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes, and allows for what, at first glance, appears to be “uncharacteristic” behaviour, which is later shown to be fitting, through the revelation of a hidden or suppressed trait.

Traits are Specific and Precise

When picking traits for your character ensure that you pick only those that describe her precisely and specifically. A particular combination of traits should be unique to that character, and no other. In the film, Heat, for example, Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro) share the traits of determination, cleverness, and pride in their work, but McCauley’s sense of independence (never have anything in your life that you can’t immediately walk away from) is overcome by his suppressed capacity to love. This differentiates him from Hanna, who seems incapable of true love. It drives McCauley to fall in love with Eady (Amy Brenneman), which, in turn, leads to his eventual capture and death and the hands of Hanna.

Traits are the Foundation of Good Dialogue and Action.

How do traits manifest themselves? Through your character’s dialogue, thoughts, and actions. Who, for example, can forget Bruce Banner’s core line in The Hulk: “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!” Traits can also be traced through one character describing another, or through direct narration, as in the case of Nick Carraway’s description of Jay Gatsby’s “gift for wonder”, a trait that explains much of Gatsby’s appeal, and Carraway’s final approval of him, despite Gatsby’s questionable past (The Great Gatsby).

In Summary

An essential part of creating memorable characters is through a system of traits: Define three or four traits (one of which is in counterpoint to the rest) that best describe the essence of the characters; ensure the traits are specific and precise, and reveal them through action, dialogue, and narration (where appropriate).

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