A few days ago I was talking with my friend Casey and the topic of character traits came up, specifically vices and virtues, and she pointed me to the Tumblr she does with some fellow writers.
Give yourself time to go through this one- it is work intensive, but totally worth it.
Because what it comes down to (short version) is that characters are constructs of various vices and virtues that work both in tandem and in opposition. By understanding these trait sets, you come to understand your character a lot better.
The easiest way to approach it is to copy the lists over into a word file and just delete each trait that doesn’t fit until you have a finished list. Then find the dominant traits and find the pieces that naturally pair together. For example, someone who has honesty as a dominant trait may also have tactlessness as a dominant vice (or perhaps simply as a negative trait rather than a vice). (All of this is explained in the tumblr post, I promise)
It gives you interesting insight into your characters, but I challenge you to take it a step further.
Ready? Got pen and paper (or word file) handy?
Do it THREE TIMES.
The first time through, do it as the writer, as the omniscient creator of worlds and the inventor of all the little humans (or otherwise) populating said world. You know these characters better than they will ever know themselves and each other, so be thorough in documenting their separate parts.
Then put the list aside and do it again.
This time, do it as your character. When he or she does a self-evaluation, what does he or she see? What does he or she genuinely believe about his or herself? Because as people, we tend to delude ourselves. We think of ourselves as better or worse, or maybe just different. Kind of like how every housecat secretly thinks it’s a panther. So find out how your character sees his or herself.
Then put the list aside- it’s not time yet to compare them- and do it again.
The third time, pick a general consensus among your other characters and delete the traits based on how others see your character. If you wanted to- if you really just have that much free time- you could theoretically do this for every character’s perspective, but people generally fall into groups of ideologies or opinions, so you could pick one or a couple and still come out ahead.
Done with that one?
Good. Take 2 and 3 and set them side by side.
What’s the same? More tellingly, what’s different? Does your character think he’s outrageously generous but other characters think he’s more tight-fisted than Scrooge? Does your character think she’s perspicacious but others think her patently self-delusional? But again, where are they the same? Does your character think of himself as compassionate and others agree?
Now bring list 1 back around, and do the same thing. Compare them side by side and find all the similarities and differences.
Your character, as he or she steps out onto the page, is mostly likely somewhere between the three. Think of it like a really fancy Venn diagram. How your character behaves is based on a mix of how they (sorry, I’m taking the grammatically incorrect shortcut from here on out) see themselves and how you as the God Of Your Universe sees them. BUT, mixed into that is also how other people perceive them and treat them, and your character’s reaction to that.
You might be surprised at what comes out of the process. And feel free to share below any revelations or tips! Any patterns you see, etc.
Until next time~