More than just trivia.Edit

Now we're really cookin' with grease. Your character will start to really take shape after this lesson, and will hopefully stand out from the crowd, which is what makes characters memorable. Have you ever heard of a "cardboard character" or a "cookie cutter character?" These are characters that have no personality, no substance. Characters like this are interchangeable with other characters from the story. Usually a reader will relegate a character to this deplorable category when the only way to know who is acting or talking is because the author says something.

That is not good.

That is what we are going to start fixing with this section.

Just like real life, each of your characters should be different from all the others. They will have quirks, different traits, full personalities. They will react to things in their own way. The more time you spend figuring this stuff out, the more your character will shine. Do not skimp on doing the work here. Your character is much more than just a name and an occupation.

To illustrate my point here, we need look no further than online dating. The basic concept is simple: a person puts a profile and some pictures up on an online site in the hopes that someone else might find them interesting enough to meet and subsequently date, marry, etc. But one of the most common mistakes people make is with their profile. Most profiles are just lists of trivia. Musical preferences, hobbies, education history, pets, etc. This might help someone find other people with common interests, but these pieces of information don't reveal any type of personality in and of themselves.

Take a look at this short bio I made up that illustrates this concept:

"Hi, my name is Dillan. I like listening to music (Metallica, Green Day, Led Zeppelin) and my favorite movie is Rocky. I like to do things outside, but I also don't mind staying in. I work at Home Depot but I'm going to school for a degree in criminal justice. I'm from Boston, but I've lived in Chicago for three years. I like it here."

Based on this list of trivia, we can't really get a handle on this Dillon's personality. We can make assumptions on things, but those would all be cursory at best. You can't really predict how someone is going to be based on such facts about them. Not in the slightest. What do you think Dillon is like to hang out with? Is he funny? Does he get upset easily? Is he lazy? Sloppy? Well-spoken? Polite? See, we don't know. The only way to know these things is to actually spend time with someone, to see their mannerisms and their speech. To view them in action.

Handing out lists of trivia is how most people handle characters, and unfortunately, they never get much farther than that. Luckily, this lesson is designed to dig deeper. It's also not too difficult to flesh out a character beyond just the minor details.

What is your character like?Edit

Nature and NurtureEdit

All right, so now we're ready to start issuing your character personality traits. By thinking about a character's strengths and weaknesses, flaws, habits, quirks, and mannerisms, you'll be able to bring that character to life. Readers will feel like the character is real this way.

You probably already have an idea at this point of the type of personality your character will embody, so this part might be easier than you think. Before we get into that, though, I want to touch upon a very important subject briefly, which I'll cover in more detail in the next lesson.

Intrinsic or Environmental?Edit

There's a big debate in the field of psychology as to which one plays a more important role in the shaping of an individual's behavior, but for the purposes of this course I'm going to close the book on that argument and declare here and now that it's a little bit of both. That was easy, wasn't it?

The reason I mention this now is because it's important to remember that people change. Who you are now is not the same as who you were ten years ago. The reason is because you are the sum result of your experiences and how you perceive them, how you reacted to them, what you learned, etc. Everyone has different experiences, we all see the world in a different way. Our histories help define us, along with our goals and our beliefs about who we are and who we want to be. Remember this when you start picking out character traits and personality quirks. We'll come back to this afterwards. It'll be helpful to determine which traits are the character's nature and which ones are the result of some past experience.

Positive TraitsEdit

One key way to making a character more realistic is to give both strengths and flaws. Make them human. Remember what I said about the Mary Sue characters before? This is where that comes into play. You don't want to create a character who is impervious, who cannot fail, who gets everything right the first try. Perfect people don't exist. Everyone fails. And besides, if your character can't be beaten, it won't make the payoff at the end of the story worth much at all.

So your character needs flaws. They also need strengths, even the weakest characters. Even if it's just the perseverance to trudge onward toward the goal, that is a virtue.

On to traits. There is no real science behind this part. Just start picking the traits you want your character to embody. These can change as you get into the story, too. Nothing needs to be set in stone. Pick as many as you like or as few as you like. We'll dig deeper in the next section.

For now, start thinking about your character's strengths. What are some traits that could be considered universally positive? (Courage, punctuality, reasonable, thoughtful, etc.)

Negative TraitsEdit

Like I said before, we all have flaws. These are what make us human. Your character's weaknesses will also help play a vital role in the overall story. Not only will they make your character more believable, they will give you real fodder for interrupting that character's journey towards the goal. For example, maybe your character has a lackadaisical attitude. Being laid-back need not be necessarily a bad thing, but if your character misses an important deadline because of it, that becomes a negative thing.

It is more powerful to use your character's flaws against them in the course of the story, especially when creating conflict or tension. You'll definitely want to keep these negative traits in mind when it comes to how the characters interact with each other as well. All these traits - positive, negative, neutral - will combine to help form your character's personality, which will keep you away from creating cardboard characters. If you do your job correctly, each character will be unique, so there are likely going to be personality clashes in your story (tension).

This all contributes toward giving the reader a more genuine experience, one that brings your characters to life.

So start thinking about your character's flaws and weaknesses, negative aspects. Complete the exercise before moving on to the next section.

Reading Assignment 1Edit

Resource: 638 Personality TraitsEdit

Exercise 1: Character TraitsEdit

Answer the following questions:

  1. What are my character's positive traits?
  2. What are my character's neutral traits?
  3. What are my character's negative traits?

Exercise 2: Favorite Character TraitsEdit

Do the same as the last exercise with your favorite character.

Exercise 3: Character PersonalityEdit

Now let's start fleshing out your character's personality. How do your character's specific traits contribute to their personality? Using your list of traits, how would your character respond to the following situations:

What ACTIONS would your character employ?

  1. A masked gunman storms into the cafe and tries to take everyone hostage.
  2. A lover or potential lover reveals they've been cheating.
  3. Your character sees someone drop a hundred dollar bill on the ground.
  4. Your character has just survived a plane crash and there are other survivors.
  5. Your character is waiting in line at the post office. It's been an hour already.

Now that you know what your character would do, how might a verbal response look?

  1. The gunman says, "Nobody move or your last meal will be made of lead."
  2. The lover says, "It's not personal, I just wanted to expand my horizons. I still love you."
  3. Someone else picks up the bill. She lies, saying, "This must have fallen out of my pocket."
  4. A survivor says, "We're all going to die out here! What do we do now? Why is this happening to me?"
  5. Another patron says, "Hey, I have to go pick up my kid from daycare. Mind if I cut in front of you?"

Can you see any personality shining through now?

Exercise 3: Optional Mary Sue Litmus TestEdit

Run your character through this test.

What Made Your Character Like This?Edit

Why is your character like that, bro?Edit

By now you should be seeing your character's personality come out. The character can't help it. They were made this way. But now we want to take that personality even further by figuring out what caused them to be this way. This is the best way to do backstory.

Backstory is, for all intents and purposes, everything that happened prior to the beginning of the story. Do not make the mistake of just dumping all this info onto the reader, especially if it doesn't matter in the least, and most especially not in the beginning.

It interrupts the story. The reader doesn't care. Have you ever met someone out of the blue who won't shut up about themselves? Yeah, you don't care. Especially if it has nothing to do with the business at hand or the conversation. So why do you think a reader wants to know this stuff?

There's a trick to it. First of all, let's redefine backstory in a way that will help your story, rather than hurt it.

Backstory that matters most: what made your character the way they are. This is the real juice, man. This is what you want to uncover. This is, though, still something you don't have to include in the story. If, after you figure out what helped contribute to your character's personality, you discover that it doesn't matter in the overall scheme of things, leave it out.

The only reason we are going to look deeper at this is because when you have a character whose past contributed to some interesting part of their views or personality, you have a ready-made subplot to weave into the whole. Notice how I said interesting there. If it's not some interesting thing that plays a large role in the story, don't even worry about it.

For example, in the movie American History X, Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is an angry skinhead. We later find out that his father, a fireman, was killed by an African American while trying to do his job. That event directly shaped who he ultimately became. Because that character trait was a major part of the story, the cause also became an important piece of backstory.

So you should only include this info if it plays a role in the story. Otherwise, it's infodump also.

But take a look at your character's traits and personality. Is there anything in there that might be interesting to the reader?

Another way to make this easy on ourselves is to determine whether the traits is inherent, versus something that happened to the character that caused it. (Nature vs. Nurture) If it's an event that happened, does that event warrant a mention?

Extra note: Using a past event as a major part of the story is a frequent thing used in science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding. Writers use what's called a cataclysm, which is a major event that changes the landscape (literal or physical) for the world that appears in the story. The meteor that resulted in the dinosaur extinction is an example of such a cataclysm. This is what I'm talking about with the character's backstory. If there was a cataclysm, it will definitely affect your character's personality or outlook.

Historical MinutiaeEdit

Regardless of what I just said, your character does have a history. They had stuff happen to them. They did stuff. They were kids at some point. I get it.

Here's the part where we get to the trivia. Some of this trivia actually can contribute to the story, as some of it might be stuff your character really self-identifies with. Maybe your character went to Cornell and religiously reads the Daily Sun. That little bit of historical trivia there just played a vital role in that character's quirk of having to get the student paper, possibly after decades even.

Yeah, it's minor, but it matters to the character, so it helps define them. You could technically stop right there (since this section is about historical trivia), but you could also take it a step further and reveal that the reason this guy reads the paper is because his college sweetheart was the editor-in-chief, who died in a car crash their senior year.

So even the minor things can become major.

But still.

A lot of that trivia is just to give YOU a better understanding of who the character is or where they came from. This is so you can decide whether any of that stuff is more important than just surface-level detail. But you'd never know if you didn't think about it. Luckily, this is the stuff that everyone thinks of first.

Don't worry about figuring this out just yet. We'll do this in the next section.

Reading Assignment 2Edit

Revealing Backstory while Avoiding the Info-dump - Give this article a quick read.

Exercise 4: Nature vs. NurtureEdit

Take a look at each of your character's traits. List whether they're part of the character's nature or if something happened to cause it. Then for all of the ones that were caused by something, describe what happened. How does the character feel about the event? What other ways could this event contribute to the character's outlook or behavior?

Exercise 5: Favorite Character BackstoryEdit

Does your favorite character have anything that happened in their past that causes them to behave in a certain way? How else does this manifest in the character's thoughts and behavior? If there is nothing you know of, why do you think the author didn't include any of those things in the story?

Final ReadingEdit

[ The Fatal Flaw - The Most Essential Element for Bringing Characters to Life URL Completed: Part 2 Final Reading: The Fatal Flaw - The Most Essential Element for Bringing Characters to Life] - Read this final piece to conclude the learning section of this lesson.

Move on to the next section: Character Particulars

Creator's Guide Resources

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