Character traits are used to describe how characters act in a given situation and illustrate the type of person they are for your reader. Writing characters with a strong, well-defined set of traits will catapult them off the page and into your reader’s minds and hearts.
In fact, these personality elements are so critical that I usually begin development of a persona with a handful of adjectives I feel most clearly represent my character’s demeanor. These details can focus on the good, like benevolent or clear-headed, or lean to the negative, like cowardly or miserable. Remember, in life no one is entirely good or entirely bad, so if you want characters to feel real, it’s a good idea to mix them up a bit.
I tend to start my list of character traits with an odd number of descriptors. That way, if I’m writing about a mostly positive person, I structure their basic personality with two or four positive traits then throw in one or two negative ones to add balance. For example, here’s a list for Dorn, a character from my fantasy novel whose character traits trend positive.
Notice the two negative ones I added in are magnifications, or reversals, of some of his positive traits. For example, in the story he’s a real rule-follower and has a reputation for integrity and honesty. But sometimes doing the right thing requires bending the rules, and that’s when his law-abiding nature becomes rigid and inflexible. Same thing with his character traits of compassion and kindness; he can go too far and overwhelm other characters with his need to care for them.
Some writers feel traits should be in balance, that is, for every positive, a negative. I disagree. I’ve never met anyone in real life that had an equal number of bad character traits to good ones. Something about that ratio seems contrived and forced. I also think this type of balance would make it difficult to determine what a character would do in an extreme situation, since they are neither mostly good nor mostly bad.
It’s easy to think of common traits like loving, evil, grumpy, biased, or playful. Sometimes, though, pinpointing more precise traits can help you flesh out your character’s personality more fully. The more detailed you can get, the clearer you can write. Here are links to my favorite character trait lists. See what you can interesting traits you can find for your next character!
Please think twice before using a character traits generator to devise your next character. While these may seem fun, they are completely random and won’t give you the well-thought-out personality you want to develop for discerning readers. Instead, decide if you need a more positive or negative character. Then, choose an odd number (at least three) of strong traits that exemplify these attributes. Finally, determine how you can amplify, mirror, or reverse them to provide one or two counter-traits. Let’s try this for a negative character. Here’s a list for my character Tayvar:
As you can see, Tayvar might be a handful to control at times. But it turns out that when the chips are down, he’s able to pivot effortlessly and maneuver through a crisis because he doesn’t have any preconceived notion of rules and he’s willing to think on the fly. His impulsiveness becomes bravery and his rebellious nature inclines him to be creative and resourceful.
Got any characters you need to create? Try this formula and let me know how you like it.
See you on the next page!