Character Trait Entry: Cautious

Definition: watchful or careful; alert to risk

Characters in Literature: Elrond (Lord of the Rings); Hermione Granger (Harry Potter); Stanley Yelnats (Holes)

Common Portrayals: Parents, politicians worried about voters; health and critical care specialists (surgeons, doctors, nurses and hospital staff); the police, firemen and other first responders; military leaders; publicists; people keeping secrets

Cliches to Avoid: The sheltering parent who practically bubble-wraps their kid before letting them out the door; the teacher or committee that over plans, sucking all the fun out of an event; a cautious character used as a plot device, warning the main character that their reckless ways will land them in deep trouble…and then it does

Twists on the Traditional Cautious Character:  

  • Anyone bearing responsibility for others is naturally cautious. However, few truly dangerous situations allow time to plan. Put a Cautious character responsible for more than himself in a situation with a high stakes and a ramped up ‘ticking clock’, forcing them to act.

  • Do caution and instinct go hand-in-hand, or do they lay at opposite ends of the spectrum? Explore this relationship with a cautious character–will their instinct lead to caution, or does caution actually hamper their instincts, forcing them to stop and think about the pros and cons rather than act in a way that feels natural?

Build a worthy protagonist with a mix of unique strengths that will help him overcome obstacles and achieve meaningful goals.

This sample, along with the rest of the character trait entries, has been expanded into book form. Together, the bestselling NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO CHARACTER FLAWS and POSITIVE TRAIT THESAURUS: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO CHARACTER ATTRIBUTES contain over 200 traits for you to choose from when creating memorable, compelling characters. Each entry contains possible causes for the trait, as well as positive and negative aspects, traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict, and associated behaviors, attitudes, thoughts, and emotions. For more information on this bestselling book and where it can be found, please visit our bookstore.

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About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

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12 Responses to Character Trait Entry: Cautious

  1. An impulsive/responsible combination sounds like a great character combo. Very unusual, but realistic if you write it consistently. This is how you create unique characters, so I say go for it!

  2. Like @patonlorraine, I’m now wondering if it’s realistic to have my character be impulsive, though he feels a great responsibility for his brother (who he partly raised). Sounds like they’re in contradiction. OTOH, you’ve also said the contradiction may be good!

  3. L.B. Gale says:

    Rick in The Walking Dead comes to mind. I haven’t seen the finale yet, but I know that this season his caution has been a focus of the plot. Lots of drama comes from pitting the cautious hero against the reckless/gunslinger type of hero.

  4. Love these entries of yours! 🙂

  5. Elisa Nuckle says:

    This came at a perfect time! I’m writing a WIP where the character is cautious but still independent. However, she has a lot of people depending on her, or she feels she does, and I didn’t want to create a cliche cautious person. So thanks for this! =D

  6. Leslie Rose says:

    Love Elrond. Especially because when push comes to shove he does send the elves to fight the Uruk Hai. You go, Elf. You know when a cautious character acts, they mean business.

  7. I enjoy your character traits posts!

    Now I’m mulling over how to merge cautious and irresponsible traits into one character. Hmmm… 🙂

  8. Bish Denham says:

    Elrond is a perfect choice! Cautious, but not to a fault. Cautious in wanting to expose all the possible consequences, to not rush in making a decision. Caution with wisdom.

  9. The joke around the African-American part of my family is that “the black guy always dies first” in a movie. After watching that happen over and over they are almost 100% accurate. Now maybe if they make him less cautious or even give him a line he might live a little longer. lol

  10. Seeing Elrond makes me want to watch those movies again. Thanks for the great post.

  11. I love the character of Elrond. Cautious–but not afraid to fight for those he loved. My hero is this sort of person in the wip I’m editing at the moment. He needs to be since its a horror story, lol…

  12. JeffO says:

    “Cautious characters … generally are the ones still alive at the end of a Horror movie.”
    Hah! That’s a good one. This nails me perfectly, and my two daughters as well. Though I was neither overprotected as a child nor overprotecting as a parent.

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