Creating Interesting Characters: Characterization by Trait – Superhero Nation


Some authors brainstorm and plot characters by using lengthy character questionnaires. That is generally a mistake because answering questions like “what car does he drive?” probably won’t give you interesting insights into the character or the role he will play in your story. At best, you’re answering a string of barely relevant questions based on the unsettled character concept you had in mind when you started the questionnaire.

There is a better way, fortunately. I recommend plotting a character by taking two likeable traits and one that isn’t inherently likeable. (Not sure which traits to pick? We’ve compiled a list here). Then ask yourself how this character might embody these traits.

For example, let’s say your characteristics are rugged, philosophical and antisocial. We usually want readers to sympathize with the main character, so let’s ask ourselves why he is antisocial. Maybe he has a legitimate and major beef with society. But what? Well, he’s rugged, right? Maybe his face has been horribly scarred by an accident or animal attack and now he lives alone in the wilderness. So now we’re getting a good visualization of this character: hard and freakishly ugly.

Now let’s try to describe his mental characteristics. He’s philosophical. Perhaps he was an academic before being attacked by a mastiff, but I think that’s too obvious. What if he became philosophical only after the attack? Perhaps he’s a relatively uneducated guy searching for some way to come to grips with the cosmic injustice that has befallen him. I think this coping quest would be accentuated if he lost a job that relied on his physical appearance. Hopefully he wasn’t a model (too obvious), but maybe he was a car salesman or someone else that needed to make a good impression. This will heighten his sense of loss.

So now let’s recap what I’ve discovered about this character in the ten minutes it took me to brainstorm.

  1. defining characteristics
  2. physical appearance
  3. job and educational background
  4. his defining desire– to come to grips with his ugliness

That’s not bad for ten minutes! By contrast, if I were filling out a character questionnaire, I’d be stumbling through questions like “what’s in his wallet?” without any appreciation of what defines the character. Putting the defining characteristics front-and-center and then filling in the rest of the character as needed is a far more structured and productive way to develop characters.

Article from SuperHero Nation, an online repository of writing articles and advice. http://www.superheronation.com/2008/06/05/how-to-develop-characters/

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