Using Choices and Crises to Show True Character
by Becca Puglisi
(see below to win a PDF copy of The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. )
When I think about some of my favorite protagonists, I can usually identify a trait that defines each one:
Will Hunting: Intelligence
Sam Gamgee: Loyalty
James T. Kirk: Boldness
However…if these characters were made up of just that one trait, they probably wouldn’t be my favorites because they’d be paper-thin—more like caricatures than the genuine article. Real people are complicated and deep, embodying more than one quality. And so must our characters if they’re going to draw readers in through authenticity and relatability. By adding more traits, you add dimension, but you run the risk of drawing a character who’s all over the map and doesn’t ring true to the audience.
So how do we create multi-dimensional characters who make sense to readers? For simplicity’s sake, I’d like to focus today on how to accomplish this in regards to a character’s positive attributes (although these tips also apply to flaws).
First, identify the character’s positive traits. Though there could be dozens, narrow the list down to the dominant ones—no more than five or six. Let’s use our beloved Captain Kirk as an example. Along with boldness, he also exemplifies loyalty, daring, decisiveness, extroversion, and charm. But trying to write a hero with so many traits can make for a scattered character with hard-to-define motivations and emotions.
To avoid this, look at your short list of traits and determine which one is your character’s primary. This is the attribute that will drive his choices. It is often also tied to his moral and ethical beliefs, his sense of right, wrong, duty, and worth. Going back to Captain Kirk, while he clearly owns a number of positive traits, boldness is the one that most drives him. It determines how he relates to others, responds to crises, and directly affects his career path and choice of hobbies. It also serves as a header from which many of his other traits—adventurousness, extroversion, and decisiveness—stem.
Once you’ve figured out your character’s primary attribute, focus your efforts on showing that trait to the reader. Whenever your hero is faced with a choice, that trait should be a factor in bringing him to a decision. When crises arise, the primary attribute should be the one that influences him on an internal, subconscious level. Narrowing the list down to one trait will make it easy for the reader to identify who the character is. For good or bad, we like to categorize things and put people in boxes. When readers can say, “Oh, he’s like this,” they’re able to put their finger on who the character is, and he becomes accessible. Relatable.
Then, to add dimension, show those secondary traits, too—only, not as often. They should offer support, strengthening your character’s personality without overpowering it. Showing these traits to a lesser degree will add dimension while ensuring that your character’s primary trait shines through.
If you’ve got a multi-flawed character, which can be a good idea, you can follow these same steps to balance his negative traits and make sure you’re focusing on the one that truly drives him.
What about you? Do you know your character’s primary and secondary traits? Leave a comment sharing about your unique protagonist or villain for a chance to win a PDF copy of The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. The giveaway runs through December 6th, after which time I’ll pick a winner. Best of luck!
Becca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including ; ; and . A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through , and can be found online at her website.