There’s a lot to be said about character traits – they’re as individual as fingerprints and can be very revealing to your reader in ways that help them understand your characters on so many different levels.
Your can use character traits to show the reader what your character is feeling, without having to directly tell them. By establishing character traits early on in the story – the earlier, the better – you can use them to show the reader at key moments how your character feels, the emotions he or she has and the thoughts they have in any given situation.
Behaviour plays a big part in character traits – how we behave effects how others perceive us and react to us. Sometimes we act predictably, while at other times we do something that is considered “out of character”, depending on what is it we’re reacting to.
The thing about character traits is that you don’t have to fling everything at the reader in one foul swoop. If you do that, you’ll have nothing else interesting to reveal to the reader as the story progresses. Instead, it’s better to intersperse relevant characteristics at opportune moments, to drip feed the reader in order to main the interest.
Writers use the following ways to show character traits:
- Body language
- Dialogue & Voice
What we do and how we do it can speak volumes about who we are and how others perceive us, and that’s true of our characters. But the way we show readers is what makes this work, rather than what we tell them, for example:
John slammed the door. He often got angry whenever people let him down. It always raised his hackles and so he always resorted to slamming things.
This is telling the reader what they don’t particularly want to know – not what they need to know. This is a missed opportunity for writers. They can show the reader the kind of person John is without having to tell them. That’s because the art of revealing character traits is all about subtlety, instead of the obvious. When rewritten, the example reads differently:
John’s senses tautened and he slammed the door, yet in his head it sounded like an angry growl of thunder and immediately he shrank from his anger, afraid to let it spill over.
This rewritten example shows John reacting to his anger. He shrinks away from it, he realises his aggression, which reveals to the reader that he doesn’t like getting angry and could be afraid of showing it.
Actions show the reader the kind of characters you’ve created, especially within confrontational situations. Conflict creates actions and that creates plenty of opportunity to reveal character traits.
Body language is very revealing. It’s a trait we all possess, and the best writers tend to be the most observant, because they use things like nose rubbing, ear scratching, curling hair around fingers, finger tapping and chin rubbing for their characters, which makes them that more interesting and rounded.
Imagine a character that always plays with their earlobe if they’re lying. Or a very wily, clever character who has a habit of stroking his chin when he’s deep in thought. Small, almost unnoticeable movements can give the reader insight into your characters. Readers will pick up on these subtleties without any effort.
Watch other people; gestures and body language may not appear important, but they are, because without them we wouldn’t have much in the way of expression.
How we react to things can be just as revealing as how we are with actions. That’s because reactions show the reader hints of behaviour that is unique to that character. How would your character deal with being accused of something? Will he react with anger, will he be dumbfounded or will he be evasive, perhaps afraid to show guilt?
If a character has been wronged or betrayed, how would he or she react? How does your character reaction to something someone says – something bad, mean or insensitive? How they react can reveal more to the reader than simply telling them. Readers don’t want to be spoon fed. They want to find out for themselves.
Reactions, like actions and body language, can help them do that; anything that helps to bolster characterisation.
Dialogue & Voice
What your character says and how he or she speaks can help the reader formulate the kind of character they are. Some people love the sound of their own voice; others don’t like to say a lot. Some people stutter, others don’t know when to shut up, especially if nervous. Some people have loud, commanding voices; some have quiet, shy voices and some have flat, monotone voices. All these tell us the kind of person they are.
Tone, pitch and elevation define certain characteristics, so don’t miss the chance to use them. Dialogue is a clever way of revealing character traits without being obvious, particularly as emotions play an extensive part in how the reader sees your characters, and many emotions are often found in dialogue.HDialogue can show a character’s feelings through tone and pitch and the way those words are spoken, especially when reaction to another character. Sometimes it’s not how much characters say, but what they don’t say that tells the reader about the kind of characters they are. Character traits might seem trivial, but they aren’t. They’re exceptionally important if you want to show your characters in a multidimensional light.
Next week: Is it better to edit during writing, or at the end?