The dictionary definition of “Trait” is:
A distinguishing quality or characteristic, typically one belonging to a person. A genetically determined characteristic.
Creating a character from scratch, so to speak, can be a daunting task. Many of us do have an image of our main protagonist as our story idea comes to mind. This may be a purely created mental image, or an actor or model that is similar to our character, or we can even use specific details of people we know. Many writers utilize a vision board for each book, with characters, location, attire etc. There are many examples online that we can utilize for our own use. Collecting these images and having them front and center allows us to ‘picture’ our characters in a physical way, as we write. Another tool is to use a character sheet, there are many to be found on the internet. These give us the ability to write out each significant character’s details. Now depending on your personality this is either an enjoyable pastime or a chore. One that is relished or abandoned. The available work sheets range from simple to complex, so it is personal choice which one works for you.
However, to translate these mental images to the page is more difficult to convey. It is our ability to ensure our readers visualize our characters the way we see them, or indeed want them to see them, that is the trick. Understanding all your fictional characters personality and what affects them will make them more ‘real’ to our readers. Our characters are not alone and have history, even if we never reveal it; they interact with other characters and the world around them, thus experiencing ‘life’ as we portray it for them. A three-dimensional character with depth and motivation pulls our reader into their story. We have to balance too much exposition and too little detail in our writing. After all, if our reader does not have a sense of the characters – what they value, their fears, their relationships etc. our reader will not understand how events and incidents affect them.
A reader wants to become immersed in our story’s location or its main character as quickly as possible as the story commences. There are formulaic methods for certain genres, such as romance, where you have to include a certain amount of detail within precise word counts. This method works for some writers, but not all.
Remember there is no right or wrong way – only what works for you, your writing style and the genre you are writing. To get a grip on reader’s expectations of how a character or location is introduced in a specific genre, we need to read books within it. This research will show you how other writers introduce their characters. It is a good practice to make this a regular habit so you can write a compelling character for your story.
As writers we are always learning, it is one of the benefits of this craft. Genres, writing style, reader expectations etc. are constantly changing and we need to be aware of these innovations and incorporate them into our own writing.
As we all know, there are many aspects to a character, much the same as personalities you come across in real life. Some we like, some not. Our aim within the narrative is to show a character’s journey and growth throughout the story. We can show their growth through their reactions or coping mechanisms to certain situations, it might be self-discovery or a liaison with someone else that alters or changes their world or personal view. We shape our characters not just by their physical and internal emotional life but their interaction and encounters with other characters within the narrative.
Remember a character does not always have the same beliefs, personality or history as you so make sure you reflect that truthfully in your text.
For example, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company will have a lifestyle many of us could not imagine, but if this is your character, you will need to research what that life looks and feels like. Likewise, a homeless person will have the exact opposite life experience to the CEO, and you need to be true to them as well. Get inside the head of your characters, see through their eyes, and visualize their life.
Characters need to have a range of emotions and expressions; they are multi-layered beings just like us. They may be contradictions in their behavior. For an example, an executive may seem confident but internally second guesses his choices and decisions. A homeless person may have chosen that lifestyle for a reason (or not) but life without shelter or structure brings about certain difficulties and experiences.
There are four basic personality types we can use in our writing – melancholic (sad), choleric (reactive/volatile), sanguine, (upbeat) and phlegmatic (easygoing). From these basic types we can expand our characters into three-dimensional beings using traits.
We can break down the makeup and traits of a character into sections, using character sheets, and/or our own notes. It is essential however; we remember the Five P’s when creating a character. These are physical, psychological, personal, personality and practices.
Personal Traits these include their marital status and profession. Their position, whether within a family group or socially, such as oldest child or youngest, top executive or assistant. It covers their lifestyle, values, beliefs, educational level, religion, values, as well as childhood and family background and friends and colleagues.
Within personal traits we give our characters names, and these are key to giving your reader a mental image of a character before you have even started writing about them. The choosing of a name is paramount when beginning to write a story. It can be a name that means something significant, it may reflect their personality or station in life or their age. Look at names as the starting block of your character and create them around it. The name may change as you become more familiar with the character or their role within the narrative changes. Be flexible as you become more familiar with your characters, it enhances them and your story. If you are writing a period piece, research names for the area and era. Many sites will give you the most popular names for that year in that locale or country.
Personality Traits which you may think is the same as personal but is actually different – it includes their dreams and memories. Resentments, fears, hopes, wants, denials, and thought processes. In essence what makes them tick.
Then we have Physical Traits, which is probably the easiest to define. These include voice, gait, age, gender, race, sexuality, nationality, flaws, health, assets, height and size. As well as the obvious eye and hair colour etc.
Practices are what a character does. Such as what they play, be it physical sports, a craft or a hobby. Where they work, what motivates them to buy something, what they eat, and favorite foods, such as a specific kind of food or drink and also what their fashion style is, what they wear and why.
The last P is Psychological Traits, which are not as easily demonstrated within a characterization without utilizing some deeper thought and reactions within your narrative. These traits are not as easily expressed as text, but mainly within dialogue and your characters actions or reactions to certain situations. This is where you need to know your characters inside and out. What motivates them, makes them hide or retreat, makes them angry or happy. We can go deeper into traits naming numerous personality and psychological aspects of characters. Some include, resilience, strength, reliability, fearlessness, daring, ambition, optimism, honesty, compassion, loyalty, social intelligence, kindness, curiosity, adventurous, and dishonesty.
Traits are not just the physical attributes of a character, although these are essential for our readers to image who they are reading about. Apart from height, weight, hair, eye and skin colour, we can make our characters unique by incorporating such distinguishing marks as tattoos, scars, birthmarks, and unusual facial and body features. Maybe a character has a limp, or one eyebrow is permanently raised. These traits make your character memorable and ‘visual’ to your readers.
Another identifying trait we can use within dialogue is using an accent or dialect, slang words, regional sayings, physical jerks or even a stammer. We can utilize physical ticks – an eye twitch when a character lies, a pulse in the neck when angry, nail biting to show a nervous disposition, or hair twirling. We all witness these traits in the people around us – use them to good use in your writing.
Depending on the POV of your narrative, you can use internal dialogue or thought processes to reveal a character’s inner turmoil, reasoning’s or deductions. These allow your reader to ‘see inside’ your character’s mind and their subsequent reactions or actions to a specific event.
As we write we need to ensure our characters grow and change as the story propels them toward their ultimate goal. We write their lives through struggles and successes in the same way we experience life’s uncertainty. We however do know the ending and where we want our characters to end up. Some will fail to make it to the end; others will triumph, while others lose. A shy woman may find her inner strength, a bully could meet his match, and a warrior dies a hero. We are the masters of our story’s universe.
The more relatable we make a character the more our readers will be drawn into our narratives. And hopefully, will return to another of our books to enjoy the strong storytelling we craft.