A Protagonist’s Anatomy #3: Character Traits
Well it’s already time for part 3 in this little series of posts collectively entitled A Protagonist’s Anatomy. Over the last two weeks we looked at the importance of creating a strong set of motives and goals for your protagonist and how crucial their backstory is in creating a motive which is understandable and believable. This week we’ll focus on adding another important layer which will take the words on your page and make them read like the written record of a real life person: character traits.
Character traits are those little personality quirks that will not only influence the kind of things your characters will do and say but also how they do and say them and you can have lots of fun playing about with different traits to see which ones work the best for your characters. On a more important note, having your character’s traits firmly established in your mind allows you to show your reader exactly what sort of man your character is without ever having to tell them. You don’t need to say ‘Bob was a cold-hearted man.’ You can show us what a cold-hearted man Bob is by the way he interacts with other characters and the kinds of decisions he makes.
There’s no exact rule for determining your character’s traits, but I personally find it helpful to give each of the main players in my stories a balanced mixture of positive, neutral and negative traits, irrespective of whether your character is a good guy or a bad guy. However, while it is a good idea to mix a handful of different traits together to create a reasonably layered and complex character, try to practice a little bit of moderation too. You wouldn’t make soup with peas, brocolli, beef, onions, pasta, cheese, pork, cake, pizza, chicken, tomatoes, salmon, cod, haddock, oranges, bananas and avocados. All of those things might taste nice when combined with the right ingredients, but mixing them all together would be unpalatable. The same is true of character traits. Find ones that compliment each other (without necessarily matching each other) and try not to add too many.
There is, of course, almost no end to the list of possible character traits you might use, but I’ve listed a few below:
Because a character’s various traits must work together to form a single personality, it’s a good idea to experiment with them to see what works. I find writing little zero drafts or character auditions helpful for this process. While some traits may appear to be a more obvious fit for your character based on their motives and goals, there is something to be said for making more unlikely choices. A bitter old man, a hopeless romantic, a loudmouthed blowhard or a mild-mannered introvert may all be motivated towards very similar goals such as the pursuit of love, revenge, justice or whatever other motive you care to mention. The way they pursue their goals and deal with the ensuing conflict, however, will vary greatly. So for example, let’s pretend our protagonist is motivated by a desire for true love and his goal is to woo Jeanie, whom he is in love with. Jeanie, however, only sees him as a friend.
Our bitter old man will respond to Jeanie’s ‘friend-zoning’ with a certain level of resentment. While he may still harbour affectionate feelings for Jeanie, his hurt will likely be manifested in cruel comments and unkind behaviour. Our mild-mannered introvert, by contrast, will disguise how he feels with an easy-going manner and an apparent willingness to be a really nice ‘just friend’ for Jeanie, even though inwardly he still dreams of marrying her. Same motive, same goal, same problem, completely different results.
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Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlight, drop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.
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Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.
You can check out our previous interviews here:
- Sharleen Nelson, author of The Time Tourists 
- D. Wallace Peach, author of the Shattered Sea duology 
- Jacob Klop, author of Crooked Souls
- H.L. Walsh, author of From Men and Angels 
- G.M. Nair, author of Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire
- Georgia Springate, author of Beyond
- S.E. Morgan, author of From Waterloo to Water Street
- Megan Pighetti, author of Fairy-Tailed Wish 
- Nancet Marques, author of Chino and the Boy Scouts [VIDEO]