What will your character do when disaster strikes?
Most people have seen character worksheets that encourage writers to identify everything from shoe sizes and favorite foods to what turns sexual on and off. And while knowing your character’s most prized possession can be helpful, it won’t tell you how your character will react when disaster strikes.
For that, you really need to have a grip on your character’s personality, especially the five to ten “core traits” that drive their behavior. To help you, this article takes a 3-step approach to knowing and working with the most important traits of your character.
Step one: make a list of your character’s qualities
Grab a pen and make a list of qualities that describe your character. Write down as many as you can think of, making sure to list personality traits (eg, temperamental, joking, logical, observant) and not physical characteristics such as eye or hair color. You can also download a great list of personality traits (PDF) and check off the ones that best suit your character.
When you’re done, you’ll probably have a lot more than five or ten qualities, so you’ll need to narrow things down. One trick is to divide qualities that are similar into categories. For example, if you noticed that your character has a great sense of humor, is a bit of a joker, and likes to get in trouble, you could sum up all those qualities in one word like “naughty.” If your character is impulsive, emotional, and cries easily, you could say that he is “in a bad mood.”
Regardless of how you do it, work your list down to the ten traits that are most important for your character to be who he is. If you’re feeling brave, tidy up the list; doing so will help you with Step 3.
Step two: subjective evaluations
As in real life, personality characteristics are filtered through people’s impressions. To get a better idea of how your character views herself and how that might differ from how others see her, use your list of ten key traits to answer the questions below.
Which of the top ten traits does your character value the most? Why?
How does your character want other people to see her?
How do people who don’t like your character see you? (Hint: They probably have a negative view of qualities that your character sees as positive. For example, if your character is spontaneous, her enemies may see her as impulsive or reckless. If she is outgoing, her enemies may see her as obnoxious).
Which of the traits has your character worked the most to develop? For example, if being strong is important to your character, what has she done to promote that trait? (The answer, of course, will depend on your definition of strong. If being physically strong is important, then you may have started lifting weights, but if being emotionally strong is your goal, you may have been in therapy.)
Which of these traits does your character use to deal with everyday problems? For example, if you are pulled over for speeding, are you trying to strike up a conversation with the officer? Is it deferential? Apologetic? Argumentative?
Step Three: Disaster
Now that you have a pretty good idea of your character’s personality, imagine disaster strikes. The best kind of disaster for a story, of course, is one that your character is not prepared to handle.
Regardless of what the disaster is, most people’s reactions to stress are stronger versions of the way they cope with other things. It is as if, under pressure, the personality defaults to the strongest traits. Therefore, your character will default to his strongest core trait, or jump two to three in his attempts to deal with what happened.
So let’s say one of the top ten traits of your character is “smart.” And let’s say that normally the way you handle problems is to reason to solve them. If you are faced with a disaster, you will try so hard to make sense of it that you probably avoid emotions altogether. Or let’s say your character is “impulsive”. If you normally get angry when things go wrong, you will go crazy when disaster strikes. What makes your character unique is what will characterize his feelings and reactions after the disaster.
You may want to create a list of core traits for each of your main characters. Referring back to them will help you keep everyone’s reactions clear when disaster strikes!