Defining Traits

If your character feels flat, more like a plot engine than a real person, you need to devise ways to make him come alive on the page. At first the task may seem insurmountable. I have to create an entire personality and then think like him on the page? Yes, eventually you do. But keep in mind that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Or, in this case, I’ll suggest starting with three steps.

Everyone has defining qualities that set her apart as a person. Rather than trying to devise a barrage of subtle traits, why not try to define three outstanding ones? Is she passive or a go-getter? Is she a slob or OCD? Did something happen to her in childhood that has cast a shadow over her, or was growing up pleasant and bland? You want big-picture qualities like these. It’s likely that you’ve already written enough of the manuscript to tell what the character is like. 

The next step is crucial. You need ways to show those personality traits in action. Telling the reader what a character is like does not have the impact of seeing the traits emerge in the course of creating or overcoming an obstacle. Plus, telling is a one-time deal. You want an approach that keeps coming at the reader. That way the trait builds as the book goes on.

Draw up a list of events that show the character trait. Let’s posit that he is insecure, so he talks behind people’s backs. That’s an attractive idea for a novel, because it contains the tension inherent in getting caught. How do you devise an effective list? Think of the parameters that govern the character flaw. First, who is being discussed? If it’s some schmiel fellow secretary, that’s a low-level back-bite. Maybe no more lunches with that guy. If it’s the president of the company, though, exposure could have serious consequences. 

Also think through what you want the end goal to be. Is the back-biting a starting premise, and the character learns during the book to voice her opinions directly to a person’s face? Is the back-biting a tragic flaw, dooming an otherwise shy and kind person? Is the back-biting crucial to another character’s discovering a secret that helps him solve a mystery? Once you know the end result of this pernicious trait, you can draw a list of events that leads to the big blow-out.

Exercise: When you devise any quality, your first instinct should be: how does this impact the other characters? The first stage of penetrating the inner life of a character is giving him specific targets to think about. We care about what other people think of us, so ask yourself: how would the brother/sister/mother/etc., react? The more the person matters to the character, the more impact you will create.

“The historian records, but the novelist creates.” —E. M. Forster

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


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