Traits and Character

I’m still in the lab working up my Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Tipping Point. I’m feeling good about it, but as you know, Story Grid Spreadsheets require a hell of a lot of blue-collar work and numerous runs through the material to check and re-check your analysis.

In the meantime, there are a whole slew of Storytelling fundamentals that I had to cut out of The Story Grid. Or the book would have been an even bigger monster than it already is.  One day I’ll put them together in a follow up, but for now I’ll just share some bits and pieces from the cutting room floor.

So the next few Story Grid Bonus Material posts will dive into how to best approach creating believable Characters.

What’s a Character Trait as opposed to Fundamental Character?

A trait is a physical description (tall) or a person’s choice of how they present themselves to the world (Grateful Dead Fan). What a friend of mine would call a person’s “style.”

It’s important to remember, though, that traits do not define the core “Character” of a person. If someone is rich or poor, fat or thin, tall or short, oily haired or curly haired, we are talking about his traits. If, on the other hand we describe someone as brave or cowardly, affectionate or withholding, cordial or brusk, we’re talking about the make up of his character.

For writers, it sometimes gets confusing to distinguish the two.  Because we often use traits to set up the revelation of Character, don’t forget that traits often lie.

What I mean by that is that we mask ourselves with “traits.” We hide who they really are by putting on airs or costumes to present to the world.  We show the world who we wished we were as opposed to who we really are.

We’ve all met the dilettante dressed as a punk rock girl or the 6 foot 4 inch, magnificently muscled…coward. The traits of these people mislead us.

True character, though, has nothing to do with physical appearance. It can only be revealed by action.

Choices that your protagonist or antagonist makes under duress or in good fortune are what matter. These choices aren’t about what kind of shirt your character wears (a trait), rather they are about what they do when the shit hits the fan or an overwhelming “good” comes into one of your cast members’ lives.

There’s an old saying the money does not destroy character, it reveals it.

Money and power do not corrupt someone.  They merely give them the freedom to be truthful to who they really are. On Wall Street it’s call “f-you” money.  Once you have it, you can act with disregard to the chatterings of your peers. When a person is given more than they will ever need in life…all of their material wants will be met over and over again with no seeming possibility of an end, he will reveal his true self.

Look at someone like Billionaires Elon Musk.  The guy could chill until they put him six feet under.  But no, he’s working like a dog in a crazy quest to get mankind to Mars while he works to get us all to have a great car that doesn’t use gas.

If you no longer need to worry about the reactions of people around you, that is there are no material consequences to what you do, how would you behave? What choices would you make? This is a very good question to ask of the characters you create for your story.

It will help you see them in a very specific way.  And it will help you eliminate redundancies too.

All Story genres have conventional characters.  Love Stories need lovers, and competitive interests too.  Coming of Age stories need naive children and/or child-like protagonists.

In a Thriller, the protagonist must act heroically. By story’s end, he must consciously choose to sacrifice himself for the benefit of another or for an entire community. He will die so that others can live.

Heroes are not martyrs, doing it for personal glory or everlasting worship. They just do it because they understand that it’s “the right thing to do.”

Through the course of the story, the Thriller protagonist transitions from a confused cog in the machine to a hero willing to die to save another or to protect a moral or ethical imperative.  The circumstances and stresses placed upon Thriller heroes force them to go deep within themselves to face who they really are. What they discover is that they are servants of justice—the greater good. As individuals they are not nearly as important as a collective righteous human value.  To live with themselves knowing they’d betrayed or abandoned their principles would be a fate worse than death.

You’d be surprised how man Thriller writers forget this core convention. I cannot tell you how many “thrillers” I’ve read where the lead character never chooses to sacrifice for anyone or anything. Instead, there is a lot of violent action whereby our “hero” beats someone up or gets beaten up. But there is no moment, no event when the protagonist chooses the lesser of two evils or one of two irreconciliable goods.

Without choice and action, these “heroes” are just bags of cliched traits. Their core character (hero) is never revealed.

Tough guys literally wear black leather jackets and speak with “dese and dose” cadences. Weak people are bony and thin and cower in the presence of power. This is a genre in and of itself, a comic book, but it is not cathartic/lifechanging storytelling. It’s on the nose and for most of us…boring.

The mystery and suspense in these sorts of tales lies in the imagination of the writer creating outlandish “what ifs.” What if massive machines transformed themselves into hulking monsters? The Transformer movie franchise pretty much begins and ends there. These are pure action stories that have no internal changes in the lead character, they are early James Bond stories. While they certainly have their place in the pantheon of storytelling, who doesn’t like a great action story?, the experience has no takeaway resonance. We rush on the adrenaline of the spectacle, but have nothing to inspire or caution us after we’ve set the book down or left the multiplex.

A real hero is not someone with great power using it in the service of “good.” They are people with hidden power who have to find it and tap it to save the destruction or erosion of “good.”  And they must sacrifice themselves.

Heroes have everything to lose when they face a crisis and act without regard to their own circumstances. A character with wealth and power who recognizes the moral bankruptcy of that power but does nothing to change it is not a hero. But if that character acts against the dark forces behind his privileged position, sacrificing all in the process, he is.

When you are sculpting your protagonists and antagonists, a fun technique to consider is to give your protagonists dark traits and your antagonists light traits.

Consider a hero with traits like Richard Nixon with an antagonist with traits like Mother Theresa.

Also remember that your protagonist is all about chasing a WANT (a dark journey) until he discovers his NEED for the TRUTH (which is righteous). It’s his eventual understanding that by revealing truth, no matter how horrible, he’ll find internal calm. That’s the thing that will turn the entire Story.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts The Story Grid Bonus Material posts and Storygridding The Tipping Point posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

14 comments on “Traits and Character

  1. Deb says:

    Hello Shawn, I was intrigued by what you had to say about the Thriller protagonist:

    “The circumstances and stresses placed upon Thriller heroes force them to go deep within themselves to face who they really are. What they discover is that they are servants of justice—the greater good. As individuals they are not nearly as important as a collective righteous human value. To live with themselves knowing they’d betrayed or abandoned their principles would be a fate worse than death.”

    Am I wrong, or might this also be a convention of a certain type of historical novel — or movie? An easy example to point to would be “The King’s Speech.”

    I love the principles outlined in your Story Grid book and here on your website, but get bogged down when trying to figure out the conventions and obligatory scenes of the various genres. Would you consider tackling these in some of your future posts? Or possibly a book devoted to that very subject?

    Thanks, as always —
    Deb

    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      Deb, are you part of the Story Grid forum? Genre is a major talking point over there. Boatloads of smart people.

      1. Hey Joel — I clearly missed some key posts. Where is the forum?

        1. Okay, I’m a goofus. There it is in the sidebar.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for the excellent “bonus” post Shawn! Good luck in the lab!

  3. Dick Yaeger says:

    Good stuff, Shawn. I love it when a writer first opens a new character with loathsome traits, but over the arc of the story drops subtle, often ambiguous, hints of his better character. Case in point: I recently watched the first season of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.” Jon Voight plays a truly despicable a-hole, but I think there’s a tinge of character lurking somewhere, yet to be revealed.

    1. Susannah Brewster says:

      Or not. Jon Voight’s character is lacking a moral core. Liev Schreiber’s character, Ray Donovan, is probably not. One is amoral, one is immoral.

  4. Patrick Maher says:

    Triggered a thought… when you said, “The circumstances and stresses placed upon Thriller heroes force them to go deep within themselves to face who they really are.”
    Jason Bourne has bad headaches, as do most of the field agents in Ludlum’s stories, because they suppress their true characters. Jason Bourne experiences dissociative amnesia when his inner character cannot kill a target because children are present – the children of the target. Ludlum is saying there is a cost if you live in the world of dark shadows and reflexive decisions.
    Suggestion – every writer should do an MBTI on themselves and then come to understand what that means. It gives you insight into your true personality and the character that you might really be. It helps you function as a writer and as a person in the world. I’d recommend “Please Understand Me II – Temperament, Character, Intelligence, David Keirsy: Prometheus Nemesis Book Company 1998.
    It is a handy and very easy book to use as a writer’s desk book on character and it also provides you with an easy to fill in MBTI analysis on yourself – and other characters in your private and professional life – and in your fiction.
    It is not a full psychological work-up – but it is a very useful for any writer to have set up in your character folder in Scrivener or whatever software you use to write.
    I reworked the entire book as a writer’s tool under the headings – Artisans, Guardians, Idealists, and Rationals.
    It provides excellent insights into each Jungian Type and their nature, interests, intellect, orientations, self-image, values, social roles, traits, mating, parenting, leading and outlines four variants of each type. – and in doing that discovered I was a variant of a Rational called an INTP (somewhere between Yoda and Hermione Grainger).
    It also gave me very useful insight into facets of my childhood and who I am now when I learned that my wife and my mother are Guardians, my father was an Idealist and the friends I relate to best turned out to be identical or complimentary in nature to me. What can a writer do with that stuff? Think about interactions, expectations, conflict, disappointments, consequences, hopes… and so on.

    Again Shawn – evocative and provocative stuff. Love it. It means a lot. Thanks.

    1. Susannah Brewster says:

      Even more interesting, do the Meyers-Briggs on your characters. Perhaps that’s what you were referring to.

      There are more than a few online resources for this – yes, more quick-n-dirty than the book but it’s a nice starting point. You can google MBTI or Meyers-Briggs and find a lot of them.

      One thing to remember – it can shift over time. Perhaps not a lot, but even Jung refers to this when he says that all of us (actually all organisms) seek to find wholeness. I have always been an INFJ until recently – now I waver (depending on the test) between J and P. The INF part has remained stable over time, but the J/P has not. I would probably say I’m an “X” which is the midpoint between two spheres.

      For those who aren’t familiar – the scales are I/E – introversion vs. extraversion. S/N – sensing vs. intuitive. F/T – feeling vs. thinking; and J/P – judging vs. perceiving.

      They are more temperament than character as far as I’m concerned, although there are some overlap between the two.

      1. Patrick Maher says:

        Yep! That’s why I said – “It is a handy and very easy book to use as a writer’s desk book on character and it also provides you with an easy to fill in MBTI analysis on yourself – and other characters in your private and professional life – and in your fiction.
        It is not a full psychological work-up – but it is a very useful for any writer to have set up in your character folder in Scrivener or whatever software you use to write.”

      2. Patrick Maher says:

        Isabel Myers dusted off Jung’s 1920 book ‘Psychological Types’ and with her mother, Kathryn Briggs, devised a questionnaire for identifying different kinds of personality. She called it “The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.” Largely inspired by Jung’s book, the questionnaire was designed to identify sixteen patterns of action and attitude.
        Point of it that for writers it is an easy character tool and along with the Enneagram is often used to either establish dynamics between characters or to test the truth of character interactions and even to profile deeper layers of a character. It is just a personality typology NOT a full psychological work-up.
        In other words it is not complex and yet it is rather complete. So it is useful for writers who want their characters to be something more than ‘tall with blue piercing eyes.’
        Although Myers used Jung’s terms she actually meant:

        E = Expressive or I = Reserved
        S = Observant or N = Introspective
        T = Tough-minded or F = Friendly
        J = Scheduling or P = Probing

        These terms are much more useful to a writer than
        E = Extraverted or I = Introverted
        S = Sensory T = Thinking
        J = Judging or N = Intuitive or
        F = Feeling or P = Perceiving

        Should I have even mentioned MBTI?

  5. Judy Potocki says:

    I’m just an echo. Thanks for the thought-provoking, enlightening post. I am working my way through The Story Grid, after reading it in installments here, and I’m knocked out by the fact you’re sharing even more with us. Thank you from the depths of my writerly heart.

  6. It’s all so obvious when you say it. I’ve been struggling with one particular character and now realize I’ve been stuck on traits he’s developed as coping mechanism rather finding ways to demonstrate his true character. With apologies to my very understanding husband…Shawn, I love you.

  7. Tony Levelle says:

    Damn good stuff!
    Thanks, thanks, thanks!. For all the posts, for ‘Story Grid’ itself and lastly for the bonus book.
    Onward!

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