7 Traits of Enduring Characters

Most folks reading this know me as a writer. A smaller percentage know that I also teach writing at workshops and conventions. I really love teaching writing. I was lucky enough to have had a number of older writers who shared their wisdom with me as I was starting out. It is a great thrill to watch the light go on behind someone’s eyes as something in a class clears away an insurmountable problem they’ve been having with a story. What I teach is highly practical, not long on literary theory—the difference between being taught plumbing and Hydrodynamic Systems design.

In preparing a class, I came up with a short list of traits shared by highly memorable characters. It’s something to think about as you design your main characters, especially if you looking at a series character you want to develop and grow over a bunch of books. These traits give characters purchase for emotional engagement, and that’s critical for keeping readers engaged in the story.

Seven Traits of Enduring Characters

1) The characters are a bit of a mystery, so we want to learn more. In short, piece out your big reveals, and don’t lay the character open like a dissected frog. Mystery gives you more to write about in the future, and room for the character to grow.

2) The characters are worthy of redemption, even if it slow in coming. The desire to believe in and predilection toward liking characters who have fallen from grace and are struggling to rise again is very strong in most folks. After all, who is without sin? Their struggle is one with which we can identify, even when it has starts and stops. If you’re beginning with a bad person and want to make them right, show us they are worthy of redemption in some little act early on.

3) These characters score high on the loyalty/treachery scale. One way or the other, no ambiguity here. Either they are fiercely loyal, or utterly treacherous.

4) Are internally consistent and reliable; yet have the capacity for surprise. This ties strongly into point 1—if we don’t know everything about the character, we can be lulled into believing we do by providing a routine set of behaviors, and a known pattern of coping mechanisms for anything they encounter. When something causes them to break routine, or causes a reaction we’ve not seen before, this is a big shock for the reader. The event clearly has to be momentous, therefore exploring the source and the growth of new coping behaviors becomes very intriguing and memorable.

5) Such characters score high on the self-sacrifice scale—willing to put the best interests of others before their own, even when it causes them a great deal of pain. Characters who act against their own best self-interest simply for the sake of others are epically heroic, almost messianic. We’ve been bred since birth to admire those traits. Moreover, because the reader likes the character, and because the character is enduring undeserved pain, the readers will want justice for the character, and will admire his taking that burden unto himself.

6) These characters have a massive romance/love story attached to them. This could be in an ongoing, adult and passionate relationship, or it could be in the haunting and bittersweet aspect of having let the love of their life get away. This is especially strong when coupled with the point above—see the first Tarzan novel or the film Casablanca. Having the capacity to love, and having felt the pain of losing love, are two personality aspects which foster a great deal of sympathy and empathy in readers.

7) These characters are able to succeed at tasks which we not dare attempt ourselves. James Bond is a classic example of this sort of character: bold, sexy, snappy dresser, great gambler, ice water runs through his veins save when he’s passionately in the pursuit of the fairer sex, and he’s more lethal than the Ebola-virus. Hell, his just placing an order at a Starbucks would be an adventure. Allowing characters to perform as wish-fullfillment, empowerment fantasies, just for a moment or two, will endear them to readers everywhere.

Your characters don’t have to do all of these things—at least not all at once. Pick out a couple to build the character around, then see where they fit with the rest of them. If you have an ensemble cast, you’ll have some who score highly in one or two areas, and the slack in other areas will be taken up by their companions. And don’t be afraid to start someone low on one scale and work them up through stories. That’s character growth and a good way to work on that redemption angle mentioned above.

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I’ve prepared a lot of how-to write material, sharing my thoughts, insights and the advice I’ve learned from other writers down through the years. One such project is 21 Days to a Novel. It consists of 21 days worth of writing exercises that you can complete quickly and painlessly. Many writers have had the problem of leaping into a novel with great enthusiasm, just to find the project grinding to a halt ten pages or ten chapters in. The 21 Days to a Novel exercises will step you through all of the preparation and pre-writing work that prevents that sort of thing from happening.
If you’re looking for a way to jumpstart your next project, 21 Days to a Novel is perfect for you. Click on the above link to buy the PDF from my webstore, or you can get it from Amazon here: 21 Days to a Novel

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6 Responses to “7 Traits of Enduring Characters”

  1. When can we expect “An Ungrateful Rabble”?

  2. Well… there is a five year gap between the end of Of Limited Loyalty and An Ungrateful Rabble. I don’t expect it to take that long to get Rabble out. I’m working on a blog post to discuss what’s going on with the third Crown Colony novel, but it may be a bit before details are worked out.

  3. 21 days to a novel is great, it really helped me a lot with my writing and is worth every cent.

  4. Thanks so much for this. I’m getting ready to revise my first book, when I realized there was something that made these characters so much more interesting than the ones in my other book… These traits will help so much as I revise and look for opportunities to make these traits a little stronger and more evident, for the characters of both books! I got to thinking about characters in books I’ve loved, and many of them fulfill some of these traits (like Ender) and some fulfill all (though to varying degrees, such as Vin from the Mistborn series).

  5. Wait, wait. Mike’s actually posting to his blog again for the first time in what, 9 months?! Huzzah!

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  1. Recommended Writing Resources | tracycembor - 08. Mar, 2013

    [...] Barry Eisler – author with experience on both sides of the legacy/self-publishing fence, co-wrote Be the Monkey with Joe Konrath A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing – Joe Konrath gives great advise for authors, also co-wrote Be the Monkey with Barry Eisler Michael Stackpole – successful science fiction and fantasy author who is branching out to teach the next generation of writers. Check out his post on Seven Traits of Enduring Characters. [...]