Establishing a Character Trait


Establishing a Character Trait

This might be another fiction is not life post in that what you do on the page, might not be what happens in real life. You want to provide your lead character (let’s call her Dani) with a trait, either positive or problematic, to create a rounded character. Say Dani is shy.

In real life, and over an extended period of time, you’d probably notice various actions—not talking much, avoiding social gatherings, spending a lot of time alone—which would lead you to conclude that Dani is shy.

But in fiction, if this shyness figures significantly in the plot, you need to establish this fairly early on in a way that sticks in the reader’s mind. Then you can build your story with that understanding firmly entrenched and avoid the reader being confused by what might seem like Dani’s puzzling or at least unexplained behavior.

Just a note—in this post, I am talking about a characteristic on which you might be building as part of your plot. It is NOT the character trait or flaw which you spend the entire novel unfolding so that the climax is partly the reveal of the presence or absence of the attribute.

All right, so it’s hard to think of a climax whose conclusion includes, “Oh, she’s shy. Now I get it.” But it makes more sense if we’re talking courage, self-sacrifice, selfishness, etc. The subject of this post is the quality (e.g. shyness) you want to nail down early on to support/mitigate/excuse/contextualize the final conclusion on the heroine’s personality.

Building a Character Trait

You already know that having somebody say of Dani, “Gosh she’s shy,” is tantamount to tell in quotes. Efficient but not effective. If you want this to stick in the reader’s mind, it needs to be more than a passing comment.

If you can, and it fits well into the plot, you might have a scene where Dani shows her shyness in a way which is memorable, probably because it embarrasses her or puts her in an awkward position. She might be asked a question whose answer she flubs, to the merriment of those listening and to her humiliation. Whatever fits into the plot.

Having established this fairly early on, you can even give the reader the pleasurable sensation of being in the know. Every time Dani is faced with a potentially difficult situation, the reader knows how she’s likely to react.

In addition, doing an establishing scene fairly early on means you just need to drop reminders of the trait occasionally without elaborate explanation.

Evolving a characteristic

Sometimes, it’s enough for your plot that you have shown that Dani is shy and she stays that way for the rest of the novel.

Other times, however, you might need the trait to progress because it helps the story. For example, Dani may need to overcome her shyness in order to help the climax, whatever it is, to come to fruition.

If this is the case, you can’t go from church mouse at the beginning to roaring lion at the end. It’s going to be jarring and not all that credible. Instead, in the reminders suggested above, you might consciously build in small steps of bravery which make the final fearlessness both believable and satisfying.

See what I mean? In real life, Dani’s road to courage would be haphazard, two steps forward, one back, and even long periods in hiatus. In fiction, it is a more linear progression. That is a writer’s reality.