Using Key Traits to Create Complex Characters

First, a disclaimer: I’m in no way affiliated with the Character Trait Thesaurus books I’ll be using in this article, and I haven’t been compensated for endorsing them. I just really love using them as a resource.

Character development. There are worksheets galore on the internet, varying from ones that ask about a character’s favorite color to ones that delve deeply into their goals and fears.

I’ve filled out dozens of those worksheets, and they do assist in developing a backstory and fleshing out a concept, but for some reason they never really 100% clicked for me, as far as getting a grasp on the key personality of a character. And without knowing their true personality, I can’t predict how any character would react in a given situation.

Then I discovered the Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

The Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

A quick rundown of what these books are: Each guide lists character traits and flaws such as “Confident” or “Cowardly”, and explains what past experiences may have helped shape such traits. Each entry includes the common ways this character may react to certain situations, and which traits might cause conflict with others.

When I’m shaping a new character, I go through these books and assign one primary positive trait and one primary flaw to every character, as well as two supporting ones each. My chart for Cambiare looks something like this:

Character trait chart.

These key traits shape how these characters react in any given scene. Cirelle’s primary flaw is her impulsiveness, and her rash decisions drive much of the plot. Ellian’s main positive trait–his disciplined nature–helps him maintain focus on his goals.

Sometimes, even positive traits contain weaknesses that can cause story conflict. For example, Ellian’s discipline causes him to make sacrifices for his larger mission that ultimately result in harm to others.

By selecting three positive and three negative traits per character, I can also create three-dimensional characters with contradictory attributes. Ellian is disciplined when it comes to his primary mission, but he’s also vain. This can cause internal conflict when achieving his goal means he’ll need to sacrifice his pride.

Every time I’m stuck or waffling about how a character will react in a scene, I can come back to these core traits and use them to determine their course of action.

In addition, the books include a “possible causes” section that can help shape a character’s backstory, as well as offering lists of potential challenging situations for characters with these traits, which can prompt ideas if I’m feeling a bit stuck.

How about you? What methods do you use to shape your character’s personality? Sound off in the comments below!

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