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 Spotlightdrop 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.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

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:

On Character Traits

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Show me a good story with bad characters and I’ll show you a liar. There is a direct correlation between the quality of a story and the quality of its characters. Good characters are not optional. They are essential.

Are we all agreed on that?

Good. Go to the back of the class if you said ‘no’.

Now I know what you’re thinking: what makes a good character? Well, there’s quite a few things, but if you really want to write a character of substance, you’ll need to give him a few key traits. At their most basic level, a character’s traits can be defined simply as a list of a few critical adjectives which describe the sort of person your character is; for example, cowardly, obliging, sarcastic, compassionate, devout, holier-than-thou, etc. We’re not interested in physical descriptions here, nor are we interested in their thoughts or feelings at any particular point. We want to know what sort of person they are. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about someone you know well; a friend, relative or colleague. Ask yourself what sort of person they are.

‘John is really obnoxious.’

‘Susan is kindhearted.’

‘Peter is fly.’

These are all traits. They are fundamental to a character’s personality and will usually remain consistent throughout the story (with perhaps just a little wiggle room for growth). If you’re struggling, just Google ‘list of character traits’, you’ll find that the internet is simply teeming with lists of character traits that you can easily pick up and apply to your characters. It’s entirely up to you how many you choose, but I tend to go for nine traits for each major character: three positive traits (e.g.: generous), three neutral traits (e.g.: whimsical) and three negative traits (e.g.: censorious).

‘Sounds simple enough… ‘ I hear you cry, with a note of caution in your voice. And you’re right! It is simple. But there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it.

Detailing your entire plot (or worse, writing an entire draft) and then deciding on your characters traits based on what happens to your character throughout your story is how not to do it. This will result in flat, predictable characters around whom the whole world seems to revolve.

Real people aren’t like that. The sun shines on the righteous and the wicked– and on the zealous, the pious, the pitiable and the proud. Life happens to people regardless of what sort of people they are, and we all deal with each situation in our own way, based on the sort of person we are. Therefore, if you take my advice, you’ll sketch out your characters’ key traits before you begin any detailed plotting or drafting, even if you’re a pantser. And stick to the traits you decide on, no matter what events befall your character. These traits will help to define every choice your character makes, everything they say and, perhaps more importantly, how and why they do/say it.

Try to be adventurous when it comes to selecting character traits. Even pick a few traits entirely at random (yep, there are places online you can do that too) and work with whatever you end up with. Don’t worry if the traits you end up with seem contradictory. Real people are full of contradiction too! This will only enrich your character and you can always smooth out any rough edges that seriously impinge upon your story later if you absolutely have to.

When you finally do come to draft your story, be sure to keep your characters’ traits in mind at all times but do not explicitly state your characters’ traits in the narrative (e.g.: ‘Dave was an evasive and brusque man’). Let your reader get to know Dave by experiencing Dave, not simply being told about Dave. Portraying a character’s traits is a subtle balancing act, where you drip feed your reader just the right quantities of each trait at the right time. You don’t need to bring them all out in equal measure all the time, however I would advise making a character’s fundamental traits fairly clear from the get-go. Even shifty, unreliable characters can be portrayed as such through voice and body language. Let’s think about Dave again. Dave’s a bit of an enigmatic fellow. No one really quite knows what he’s planning, whose side he’s on or what his true intentions are. You can portray this to the reader simply by making him guarded or abrupt in his dialogue.

‘Up to much this weekend?’ Pete asked, pulling on his coat and switching off the office lamp.

‘Nothing much.’ Dave sniffed.

‘Why don’t you come over on Sunday? Susie’s doing Sunday dinner and she always makes enough for ten–‘

‘Sorry Pete,’ Dave interrupted. ‘Maybe another week, I can’t this week.’

‘We never seem to see you anymore, is everything okay?’

‘Fine. Just busy that’s all.’

Thus the mystery is not only preserved, but it is also enhanced, because it makes the reader want to know more. Is Dave out killing people at the weekend? Has he got some illicit love affair on the go somewhere? Does he simply dread socialising? We don’t know. One thing we do know: Dave is evasive and Dave is brusque. The narrative doesn’t say it. Dave just is evasive and brusque. Experiment with using characters’ actions and dialogue and especially body language and voice to portray your characters’ traits and you’ll have a vibrant and distinctive bunch of characters before you know it.

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Until next time!


I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.