Character Trait Entry: Modest

Definitionneither bold or self-assertive; a tendency toward diffidence

Characters in Literature: Aibileen (The Help); Nevile Longbottom (Harry Potter, especially the early books)

Common Portrayals: Staff at charitable organizations, loyal campaign supporters of high profile politicians, janitorial staff, caregivers, supportive grandparents doting on their grandchildren, many artists and creative types, women in societies where the male is held in higher regard, employees of a lower station whose livelihood depends on not drawing attention to themselves

Cliches to Avoid: The modest-and-chaste girl meets a bad boy and he ‘ruins’ her; false modesty as a device to generate more attention on self; girls dressing modestly to characterize them as ‘good’ girls

Twists on the Traditional Modest:  

  •  Modest characters are often portrayed as having lower self-esteem. It is common as a plot device for another character to feel it is their duty to make them ‘see their own value’. Show us a hero or heroine who is very comfortable with who they are, yet is a born supporter of others.
  • By nature, modesty is a often a background trait. Shove it to the front of the conflict line by thrusting a truly modest character into the limelight out of need. Do they take on this foreign leading role to serve the greater good, or crumble of stage fright?
  • What happens when you pair modesty with extreme intelligence and drive? A masterful tactical character who runs the show from behind the curtain because he understands that so much more can be accomplished behind it than in front!

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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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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18 Responses to Character Trait Entry: Modest

  1. I tend to like modest characters. Aibileen is the perfect example. Great analysis here, as always. You always make me think in more depth about character traits. I so appreciate this. ; )

  2. Deb Marshall says:

    MMMMmwwwwwa! Happy ‘Versery! Checking back in after work. Ciao Bella’s

  3. Heather says:

    I love the idea of thrusting a modest character to the forefront. Hmmm.. I may have to try that.

  4. Leslie Rose says:

    I think modest understated characters are often the ones we learn the most from. These posts are so fabulous. They always give me another POV to sift my characters through. Thanks.

  5. Awww, I love Aibileen. Great twists. It’s interesting to me, how modesty is largely viewed as a virtue, but modest characters are so often drawn as weak or timid.

  6. Great post. Often modest characters are often heroic, but don’t realize it.

  7. It could be interesting for sure to bring a modest character into the forefront, their survival or the survival of everyone around them, in this character’s hand. Great idea!!

  8. Jeanne says:

    You’re right, Angela. Interesting, isn’t it, how the exaggerated stories gave Forrest the larger-than-life feel we usually associate with a more self-assured protagonist.

  9. Thanks everyone! We are glad these character entries are useful to you. And Michael–you are far too good to us. So happy you enjoy this blog. 🙂

    I like the idea of bringing a modest character to the forefront, and I think this twist really has the potential to create a break out character that the readers would love and root for.

    Jeanna, I’m trying to think of a truly modest character in a single protag story. I think the closest I can think of might be Tom Hanks character in Forest Gump. What do you think?

  10. Another wonderful addition! Thanks so much!


  11. I like the break down of modest characters. It gave me a great idea for a new character in my short story. Thanks.

  12. This is a great post. I love it when a character starts out modest there are always so many more directions for them to move towards as they evolve.

  13. Jeanne says:

    Interesting points. Abilene is such a great character, but because of the alternating POV style, she shares the role as protagonist. That made me wonder – can you think of any modest protagonist in a single protagonist story?

  14. Silent Pages says:

    Awesome post! Until I read it, I hadn’t really thought of one of my MC’s as ‘modest’, but he does seem to fit the bill.

    He’s actually sort of in the role of that second twist. 🙂

    I’ve got an antagonist who KINDA fits the last twist, but I don’t think modesty has anything to do with that. XD Just self-preservation and jerkiness.

  15. Great post. Modesty is such a difficult character trait. Love how you broke it down.

  16. You have one of the best blogs about writing. I always look forward to your entries.

  17. Awesome post. I always enjoy reading about the twists to try to make your character unique. Thanks.

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