I’m back with another installment of Crafting Rich Characters. In Part 1 of this series, we explored our characters’ physical appearance, mannerisms, and quirks. These are parts of a character we can visualize, but they aren’t the only ones.
With this post, we’re going to look at Attributes and Traits, Skills and Abilities, Occupations and Interests. These are the things the character brings to the table as part of their physical world. Then we’ll mix up everything we’ve covered so far and see what happens.
Attributes and Traits
For purposes of character-building, we’ll use attributes and traits to describe someone’s personality. They may be qualities acquired through experience, or aspects of personality a character is born with and finds difficult to change. In essence, these elements of personality reflect the way the character approaches and interacts with the world.
People have a blend of natural attributes and traits. As you contemplate your character, you might pick one or two that are more pronounced than the rest. Maybe your character is naturally stubborn, lucky, picky, impatient, naïve, flippant, adaptive, ambitious, stern, cautious, grumpy, or curious.
You can find lists on the web with hundreds of attributes and traits, both positive and negative. Making your character frugal or overly generous may not change your story significantly, but it can add dimension to a character’s personality. Want to spice up your story? Give your protagonists opposing qualities!
Attributes may change as part of the character’s arc. A naïve character wises up, or a picky character lowers his standards in order to survive. Traits are more difficult to change, and a character might have to make herself do something that goes totally against the grain—jump off a cliff to escape a villain even though he’s afraid of heights!
Here are some questions for exploring Attributes and Traits:
- What positive trait could become a flaw in the right situation?
- What trait annoys other characters?
- What trait might be holding the character back?
- What trait symbolizes the soul of this character?
Skills and Talents
No person is great at everything, and neither is your well-rounded character. Each person has strengths and weaknesses. Some strengths will be natural talents, like a great sense of humor. Others will result from practice or training, skills like playing the piano or sword-fighting.
Your characters’ strengths are going to help them solve plot problems, but their weaknesses are going to create obstacles, adding tension and complexity. When you have two characters sharing weaknesses—both are horrible cooks—you’ll have an opportunity for some fun or conflict. Same if they’re both great cooks who share a competitive trait.
Some strengths (positives):
Wonderful cook, excellent musician or artist, athletic prowess, good at stealing, technologically adept, quick thinker, knows lots of random facts, fast on his feet, great with children or animals, superpowers, can fast-talk anyone, excellent with a bow and arrow, or makes people laugh, etc.
Some weaknesses (negatives):
Terrible driver, drinks too much, never on time, can’t read his own writing, blows through money, lies (or is terrible at lying), easily jealous, overly shy, a know it all, has no sense of humor, can’t remember where he leaves things, terrible at anything mechanical, does anything to avoid exercise, etc.
Remember that under certain conditions, negative talents – like lying or thieving – can be a positive! Some skills and talents, like marksmanship, may be about saving or taking lives. Others – like being good at singing – may simply add depth.
Occupation and Interests
Have you read books where characters seem to have sufficient money to never work? Fantasy is notorious for jobless characters. Yes, sometimes our characters are independently wealthy or have benefactors, but the average character will have a job or something they must do in order to meet basic needs.
What does your character do for a living? A job tied into your plot is best, but even if the entire story takes place while they’re on vacation, they still have something they’re good at (or bad at) which functions as employment.
Jobs can bring joy, or they can be a slog. What your characters do and how they feel about it will tell your reader something about who they are.
The same goes for interests and hobbies. No one works all day long. What does your character do when they aren’t spying, fixing cars, arresting bad guys, or chopping off heads? You might only mention an obsession with college basketball a few times in a book, but it makes the character real.
Mix it Up
People are multi-dimensional. Villains can have redeemable qualities. They may rescue animals, feed orphans, grow roses, or play chess in the park. Likewise, heroes have their flaws. They drink too much, have hot tempers, always run late, get flustered, or are slobs. Mix it up!
Mixing it up can also happen when you put two characters together who might have skills that complement or grate against each other. Remember the example of too many cooks in the kitchen?
Mixing it up can add interest and tension by creating similarities between conflicting characters. What might the protagonist and villain have in common? Perhaps they both love horses, appreciate fine wines, or fear water.
Along the same lines, how might the protagonist and his allies clash? One enjoys the sound of a good belch, and the other finds it offensive; one might talk incessantly while the other prefers silence. What happens if your frugal character is stuck with a generous companion?
That concludes Part 2.
Now that we’ve covered aspects of the character that we can observe, what’s planned for Part 3? We’ll start looking at the psychological character – the hidden parts – Formative Backstories, Core Values, and The Lie.