When I think about some of my favorite protagonists, I can usually identify a trait that defines each one:
Sam Gamgee: Loyalty
Anne Shirley: Impulsivity
James T. Kirk: Boldness
However, if each character was made up of only that one trait, they probably wouldn’t make many “favorites” lists because they’d be paper-thin—caricatures, rather than characters with depth and nuance. Real people are complicated and deep, embodying more than one quality. And so must our characters be if they’re going to draw readers in through authenticity and relatability.
However, by including too many traits, you run the risk of creating a character who’s all over the map and doesn’t ring true. So how do we create multi-dimensional characters who make sense to readers? For simplicity’s sake, I’d like to focus today on how to accomplish this in regards to a character’s positive attributes (although this process also apply to flaws).
First, identify your character’s positive traits. Though there could be dozens, narrow the list down to the dominant ones—no more than five or six. Let’s use our beloved Captain Kirk as an example.
Along with boldness, he also exemplifies loyalty, daring, decisiveness, extroversion, and charm. But focusing on so many traits can make for a scattered character with hard-to-define motivations and emotions. To avoid this, look at your short list of traits and determine which is your character’s primary one. This is the attribute that will drive his choices. It is often also tied to his moral and ethical beliefs, his sense of right, wrong, duty, and worth.
Going back to Captain Kirk, while he clearly owns a number of positive traits, boldness is the one that most motivates him. It determines how he relates to others and responds to crises, and it directly affects his career path and choice of hobbies. It also serves as a header from which many of his other traits—adventurousness, extroversion, and decisiveness—stem.
Once you’ve figured out your character’s primary attribute, show that trait to the reader. Whenever your hero is faced with a choice, that trait should push him to a decision. When crises arise, the primary attribute should be the one that influences him on an internal, subconscious level.
Narrowing the list down to one trait will also make it easy for the reader to identify who the character is. For good or bad, human beings like to categorize things and put people in boxes. When readers can say, “Oh, he’s like this,” they’re able to put their finger on who the character is, and he becomes accessible. Relatable.
To add dimension, make sure you show those secondary traits, too—just, not as often. They should offer support, strengthening your character’s personality without overpowering it. Showing these traits to a lesser degree will add dimension while ensuring that your character’s primary trait shines through.
If you’ve got a multi-flawed character, which is a good idea, you can follow these same steps to balance his negative traits and make sure you’re focusing on the one that truly drives him. Very often, this will be tied to his fatal flaw—the thing he has to overcome or learn to deal with for him to successfully traverse his character arc.
You know that we’re all about making things as easy as possible for you, so we’ve got some resrouces that can help you with this process:
- One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder: This tool lets you collect all the important information about your character, including their positive and negative traits. It also encourages you to choose the primary one of each. If you’d like to see what this hyper-intelligent and multidimensional resource is all about, sign up for a free trial to give it a whirl.
- Character Target Tool: This resource helps you identify your character’s primary moral, achievement, identify, and interactive traits, making it easier to zero in on what makes him or her tick.
- The Positive and Negative Trait Thesauruses: These books look at over over 100 attributes and flaws: where they come from, how they manifest, the behaviors and attitudes associated with them, and the good and bad aspects of each. If you’re on the fence about who exactly your character is, these books can help you narrow the field. They can be purchased separately or in a boxed digital set.
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.