Tag Archives: Character traits

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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How to Deepen Character: Want vs. Need

In a previous post, I defined the protagonist’s character arc in terms of the rise and fall of certain 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 a character’s awareness of her want vs. her need. Prior to the mid-point, or, the moment of illumination, the protagonist pursues the goal chiefly out of want. She mistakenly believes that by attaining the outer goal, happiness will follow. This is because she has not yet discovered or acknowledged her need. The trait driving the protagonist’s search towards the goal, based on this lack of self-awareness, therefore, lies on the negative side of the spectrum.

After the mid-point, however, the protagonist is granted insight into the true nature of the goal and herself. What seemed like a good path at the beginning of the story, no longer does so. From the perspective of technique, this means that the prominent traits motivating the character have been overshadowed by other less prominent traits. This change in the goal, or, in the path to the goal, illustrates the causal relationship that exists between the inner and outer journey in the story.

Blade Runner

In the film Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford), 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 (Rutger Hauer), 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 acts to protect her from harm.

Swapping Traits through Want vs. Need

Deckard’s inner journey is to realize 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 is transcended by the traits of love and compassion released in him by Rachel, who, we are informed, has no expiry date. In committing to protecting Rachel from those who would kill her, Decker proves that he finally understands that what he wants is not necessarily what he needs. This change of heart clearly illustrates how traits work hand in hand with the story goal to adjust the outer journey — Decker goes from killing Replicants to protecting them.

In Summary

Crafting your character arc in terms of what your protagonist wants vs. what he needs allows you to design change in terms of a start and end point. The want is driven by negative traits; the need, by positive ones. Approaching character design in these terms, not only grants you the tools to effectively shape your protagonist’s developmental arc, it also allows you to fashion the outer journey in a way that is consistent with inner growth and motivation.

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