Character Trait Entry: Ruthless

Definition: Having no pity; merciless; without compassion

Characters in Literature: Rumpelstiltskin (Brothers Grimm); Michael Corleone (The Godfather); Uncles Balder & Grim (Troll Fell)

Cliches to Avoid: The Hitler-esque military leader; the vampire killer bent on eradicating a species; the ruthless & beautiful female assassin; the guillotine-happy ruler or king; the stereotypical cardboard ‘power at all costs’ villain

Twists on the Traditional Ruthless:  

  •  Ruthless individuals are almost always cunning and intelligent. If a character with this trait did not have smarts to fall back on, how would they compensate?
  • Because ruthlessness and success go hand-in-hand, a archetype triangle is often created: rich, powerful & influential. Cast that cliche aside! Give us a ruthless grandmother, a cunning soccer mom or a shrewd bus driver.
  • Ruthless is most frequently presented as a negative. Challenge yourself to create a character who uses this trait for the greater good.


This sample, along with the rest of the character trait entries, has been expanded and streamlined into book form! Together, THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO CHARACTER FLAWS and THE POSITIVE TRAIT THESAURUS: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO CHARACTER ATTRIBUTES contain over 200 character traits that can be referenced for your character creation efforts. 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. Print, digital, and PDF versions are available for purchase from a variety of distributors. 

Thesaurus Pair


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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Kelly Hashway
8 years ago

Funny would be a great contrast. I’m getting ideas already!

Traci Kenworth
8 years ago

Ruthless grandmother? Reminds me
of those V.C. Andrews books.
Creepy. Great blog!!

Rachna Chhabria
8 years ago

Love this post. I am in the process of creating an antagonist that kids will hate on sight and this post comes as a blessing.

Julie Musil
8 years ago

I love your idea to create unlikely ruthless characters! Love this, thanks

Roza M
8 years ago

I love the show “The Grimm”. Anyways, thanksgiving is right around the corner and I am currently going around and thanking each blogger that follows me. So thanks for following and I hope you have a fantastic weekend!

Cynthia Chapman Willis

A ruthless grandmother or soccer mom–that’s great! This is perfect information for an antagonist. Very inspiring.

Diane Carlisle
8 years ago

A ruthless child is always creepy to me. I’m thinking of the movie “Orphan”.

Jemi Fraser
8 years ago

My villain won’t come into my story for a few chapters yet, but I’ll be coming back to this post for some tips! 🙂

Loree Huebner
8 years ago

Loved this post.

I remember the Flowers In The Attic grandmother…she was creepy. Louise Fletcher played “Grandmother” in the movie, Flowers..she also played another ruthless character in Cuckoo’s Nest – “Nurse Ratched”.

Michael Offutt, Expert Critic

If you are a manager, having no ruth at your side allows you to accomplish many capitalistic goals. Sometimes, I guess, it is necessary to kick Ruth to the curb.

8 years ago

Ah, a common “villain” trait, but as the cliche section warns, a difficult one to use if the character lacks any depth.

I would also caution against the “win for winning” sake attitude slapped onto these characters. Their motivations, no matter how petty they may seem, have to be believable.

Just my 2 cents. 😉

Carry on! 😀

Angela Ackerman
8 years ago

Thanks Becca!

Laura, FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC is a great example! Boy it’s been forever since I read that book–I would love to reread it! 🙂


Laura Pauling
8 years ago

Ruthless grandmother? I think Flowers in the Attic. Creeeeeepy.

I think this type is hard to write as the villain b/c it’s hard to create empathy and a well rounded character. But obviously it can be done. Maybe these characters aren’t meant to have empathy though.

Love the picture!

Becca Puglisi
8 years ago

Love the idea of a ruthless grandmother. And Al will be excited to see the Corleones represented. Great breakdown, Ange!