Gifting Characters Traits
One of the first steps in creating believable characters is defining their collection of traits. When I sit down to write a novel, a short story, a script for a comedic sketch, I approach giving my character’s traits in three ways. I give them a balanced set of good and bad traits, then some boundary traits, and I finish by examining how their traits may interact.
A good approach to writing characters involves discarding any judgment, negative or positive. It’s best to think of every person, robot or animal in a story as complex and no more good than they are bad, and vice versa. Balanced. It’s under this mentality that characters in fiction can become rich and full. An easy way to accomplish this balance is to give them traits in positive and negative pairings. Anytime you gift them a good quality, gift them an equal and opposite bad quality. You don’t need to make an exhaustive list either. It can be as small as twenty; ten good and ten bad. Allow each trait to spin off its opposite. When you make a character a kleptomaniac, also make them very good with children. Maybe you make them outgoing? Then make them drink a little too much. If it’s a small trait such as they bite their nails, then gift them another small trait such as they keep their car spotless.
Again, the most important thing is balance. If one is extreme, its opposite should be extreme. If one is a little tick, then the other is, too. Feel free, also, to be more random than you feel you should. The result can surprise you and create a character who is delightfully quirky and entertaining.
Once you’ve given your character a balanced set of traits, I find it useful to give my character’s boundaries. It’s a trick I found from the creator of Looney Tunes. Every character he made had a set of rules they would never break. For instance, the Road Runner wasn’t allowed to travel outside of the road. And he didn’t. This allowed Wile E. Coyote to set up a trap on the road, and the audience could count on seeing the trap in action and inevitably, due to Mr. Coyote’s character boundary, fail. If the Road Runner was allowed to leave the road, he would have no reason to even pass through the trap. Also, the Road Runner could never harm Wile E. except by saying, “Beep Beep.” This was a centerpiece in the entire comedic element of the show. Because of this rule, Coyote always ended up getting duped and hurting himself.
In my writing, I gift every character a few rules such as, they’ll never apologize for being rude, they’ll never turn down an invitation, or they’ll never take a compliment without discrediting it. It can be anything! You can pull from your traits or not. Be random sometimes. Life is random, that’s what makes it exciting!
After your character bio includes a balanced set of balanced traits and some boundaries, the final step is to examine how these characteristics may interact. Arbitrarily, I pick two or three characteristics at a time, from either the good, bad, or boundaries lists, and then I write a small description of how they might play off one another. This helps me visualize how a character might handle various situations. By the end of this character development exercise, I have a good idea of how my character may consistently behave.
As an example, here’s a character I’ve given some traits and boundaries. We’ll call them Nathan. Nathan’s a loser.
Though I try to keep this part of the process more casual, I think either of a specific scenario where these may both come into play, or I just free-write on the subject. Let’s take “he smells bad” and “he would never pass up a sale.” Sure. I’m picturing Nathan going to the grocery store. When he enters, someone scoffs at how bad he smells. Then, he notices something low on stock is on sale and proceeds to ask an attendant if they have more of that item. Because it’s funny, I’ll pull in the other trait and have him say hello to the attendant and then have her wait for a minute, believing he’ll say something more, but he doesn’t. Finally, she asks him if he needs help with anything. Noticing his smell, she tries making the interaction brief, but he wants to find the best deal.
Notice how that developed and eventually spun off a few more traits. There was some discovery. I found out that Nathan is thorough! Discoveries like this happen clear until your novel or screenplay is finished. The method that I’ve just shown you is not a way to fully flesh out every minute detail of a character. Instead, it’s meant to give your character a consistent and grounded base. Then, when you run them through the paces of writing your story, you have enough to pull from to help you discover how they handle conflict!