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.
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).
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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