Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Capitalize on Your Character's Traits

By Karen Albright Lin

When your book feels mushy rather than rock solid, it might be your characters. Instead of forcing your hero into another bad situation or recreating him from whole cloth, capitalize on what you already have established for him. Beef up his strengths, weaknesses and motivations. They are likely in your head, if not in your chapters. Often these sculpted aspects of your people get absorbed by the page. Make them bigger, more impactful.

Sam Gamgee is loyal, but we don’t learn how loyal until he sticks by Frodo even when he turns on him. Then when he picks up the ring, willing to sacrifice his own life to do Frodo’s job. Sam may have been written as a less dynamic sidekick initially. Once made bigger-than-life, who do we love most by the end?

How would your character act under different circumstances? Test her. Have your protagonist or antagonist make a mistake. Make her so jumpy she pulls false alarms, setting up a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario. Make her do things just for attention.

Give your character a blind spot, literal or figurative. Both were used cleverly in Blind Side. Go the other direction and let your character have a great internal BS meter like Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, Columbo and Richard Castle.

Let your bad guy lie or be crazy, both of which are true in The Dark Night. Make him the hero of his own story and make his story bigger. Explore backstory thoroughly enough that your audience can see his point of view. Gary Oldman’s villain in Air Force One.

Discover the bad guy is worse than you think. Terminator isn’t only a humanoid from the future, he’s a virtually indestructible metal monster underneath, something we don’t learn until his car blows up and his “flesh” melts off.

Beyond physical strength, add more psychological edge to your antagonist. Add vengeance or some form of debt to pay. Perhaps she’s painted herself into a corner. Have her involved in extortion or black mail. Let her have bad blood with a relative or friend—maybe because of a shared secret (the premise for both I Know What You Did Last Summer and Stephen King’s Stand by Me).

Create a toxic dynamic within a family. The important event might have happened just before the story starts. Think of Ordinary People and its devastating tale of how a family copes (or doesn’t) after the death of a son. Backstory done well is a great way to power up characters.

Give your character a phobia and let the bee get caught in his hair. His reaction tells us a lot about him. Indiana Jones was none-too-pleased to fall into the snake pit. Speaking of…consider using a character’s weakness to create unexpected disasters. Does your hero flee only to discover a threatening hole in the ground? Does that hole become a trap (as in The Village) or a portal to another universe as black holes are in science fiction stories? Be careful that the disasters or weaknesses don’t feel contrived or your readers will melt their e-books in the oven. Know your character well enough that you’ll sense what is or is not organic to her story.

Make the bad guy his own worst enemy, or make the enemy be the protagonist herself. See What Dreams May Come, surreal yet visceral.

Elucidate the character’s current frame of mind. Let your hero’s suicidal state send him diving into saving the world. (Bruce Willis plays this well). When you don’t worry over death, you lack fear. Aaron Michael Ritchey does this beautifully in his Long Live the Suicide King. It’s a mainstream YA about a suicidal teen who simply doesn’t care about his own safety. During JD’s careless week, he takes risks and helps more than one person, ironically giving his life new meaning.

Make your character’s weaknesses work in her favor. Let her fall back on tactile and visual clues because she has weak hearing, clues that end up solving a mystery. Let your historical character sneak rare spices out of a country in his prosthetic leg. There’d be no series without Monk’s OCD. Disabilities were primary factors in Forest Gump and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. If the latter main character had been deaf or depressed instead of autistic, it would have changed the story.

Caution: make your backstory and created weaknesses matter to the plot, to the relationships, to the narrative journey. Don’t just throw them in willy-nilly.

Consider creating an attribute bible for each character. You may eat, sleep and breathe his story. You may love her peculiarities. Even with all these things in place, the very trait you are in love with may well be the weakness of the book. Maybe it’s too subtle or too much like it would really be in our world. You may want to punch up the drama. We don’t tend to read books to live the kinds of lives we actually do live. We read to experience lives we don’t have a chance to live, be noble in ways we can’t, withstand pain we can barely imagine, and save the world in ways we could only dream of. And don’t we read to dream?

When the characters aren’t gripping, do an experiment; exaggerate their traits and see what happens. You can always chisel them back as needed. But I suspect you’ll only need a paring knife.

About the Writer: Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. Great insights, Karen. Sometimes I think our characters need to be almost caricatures to produce the experience for the reader we are trying to create. Tx!

    1. It's surprising how much the page absorbs. What sounds outrageous to us in our often just right for a novel. Best with your project Barbara!

    2. Yep ... write big so it doesn't get absorbed by the page. You can always pull it back if it ends up being over the top.

  2. Great suggestion to think of the 'characters' on TV and books and experiment with them. Poirot comes to mind, and def Mrs Fletcher, and the others you mentioned.

    1. I look forward to hearing if this method works for you, Sue.

    2. Whatever characters you love. I love all the main characters in movies like THE FUGITIVE, BACK TO THE FUTURE, AIR FORCE ONE, HAROLD AND MAUD etc. And so many others.. they can be used as great models for powerful characters interacting in very interesting ways.


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