Three Things that Are Not Character Traits

Ah, characters. They can be difficult little hooligans sometimes, am I right? We all know this, and I sympathize. I stop sympathizing, however, when I pick up a book and discover the pages are full of one-dimensional cardboard cutouts standing in for REAL characters, who had other places to be (I guess). Authors like Cassandra Clare, Sarah J Maas, and Victoria Aveyard love to rely on the sort of character I like to call the Single Aspect, or SA character.

This is a character who has one Aspect the author has tried to build their entire personality around – and failed utterly, because nobody has just One Aspect from which to flesh out the rest their entire being.

Here are a few Aspects I have seen authors try to use in place of real character traits.

1. Their Accent

Generally a British accent of some kind, this character exists to have an accent. Other characters will mention this character’s accent frequently. Often this character is a villain or ‘bad-boy’ type, and the single draw to their character will be how ‘sexy’ or ‘exotic’ they sound while speaking. Everything they say and do is crafted around how they sound and they fall into the stereotypes that come along with said accent or supposed nationality (because all English people are either bad-boys or villains, everybody knows that). Of course, we can’t restrict this to only British accents – characters with Spanish accents are generally suave and flirtatious! Characters with Australian accents are usually buff, tough, and punch sharks in the face for fun. (Well, okay. That example might be accurate, but use it sparingly.)

2. Their Appearance

The way someone looks isn’t a character trait. I don’t care if they have gold eyes or silver skin or maroon hair; I don’t care if they’re an albino or have scales. I don’t care if they have a perfect hourglass figure or a twelve-pack. Their appearance is not a stand-in for a well-rounded character. This is something at which Cassie Clare excels – can’t think of anything interesting for a character to say? That’s all right; they can just talk about their appearance. Or someone else can talk about their appearance. Or you can just spend another paragraph describing it. You know, when in doubt.

3. Their Intellect

Intellect is not a character trait. LET ME REPEAT: Intellect is NOT a character trait. We’ve all seen this example – whether as a sidekick in a book or (often) a TV show. This character is incredibly brainy and knows everything – so much, in fact, that they don’t have much of a voice to call their own. They’re always willing to share a fact or a piece of history or something about science, but is there anything to them beyond their intellect? Sometimes…no. This is lazy writing. Having a character around for no reason other than to provide exposition and explain things to the reader (or viewer) is no reason at all; this character provides a crutch for a writer who doesn’t want to take the time to explain things in a more organic way. Also, the kind of Intellectual Character often seen in villains is a cop-out. A character who has no real depth or emotion aside from Their Cold, Calculating Intelligence isn’t a character. It’s an uninteresting structure. Like most modern art sculptures.

AND there we have it; three aspects that are not personality traits. Can you think of any more? If so, I’d love to hear them; we can rant about them in the comments. Until then, happy writing (with three-dimensional characters)!

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A Staff, a Sling, and Five Rocks

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Who else takes pride in their individuality? I know I do. Being something Other, going against the flow, has always been important to me for reasons I’ve never been able to put my finger on. Being unique is important to me, although it used to be moreso. Nowadays I don’t think about it nearly as much; I don’t feel the need to let other people know when I have a specific Quirk. It’s not urgent for me to let anyone know.

That said, the Christian community often has a problem with individuality. Not everyone is ‘out to get anyone different,’ but there’s a common mindset that claims things like You must do everything like X Great Person or, You must have these habits or, You must walk/talk/eat/dress like/sound a certain way.

These ways aren’t usually bad, of course; that’s not what I’m saying. They’re perfectly fine – for some people. But not for everyone. ‘God wants Unity in his children,’ I hear, and that’s true. It’s a common theme throughout the New Testament. One thing I don’t read, however, is ‘God wants all his children to be the same.’

How do I know this? Because He created us all in vastly different ways. He made us individuals. He made us unique; and the beauty of unity doesn’t lie in a bunch of perfectly cookie-cutter people being perfectly cookie-cutter, but in unique and multi-faceted individuals coming together because their goal is God. Their reason is God. Their work is God.

My favorite illustration of this is in 1 Samuel 17.

David, after he goes up to give his brothers lunch, finds a Philistine giant laughing at the terrified Israelites. David decides hey, nobody else is killing him, so I will; and then one of my favorite things happens – Saul puts his own armor on David. He gives him his own sword. Both are honors; but David walks around in them for a minute and says, “I can’t wear these; I’m not used to them.” And he takes the king’s armor off. He picks up a staff and a sling and some rocks – because he’s used to those. He’s grown up with those.

You all know how the story ends; David defeats Goliath with the first stone. He does it without armor and without a sword, with no real protection except God and the tools he already had. God wants us to do things our own unique ways. He doesn’t want us sitting around trying to mimic someone else; putting on their armor. He wants you to use your staffs and slings and pens and pencils and music and crafting and whatever it is you are called to do; the things you love doing, the things you’re good at. God doesn’t want you wielding someone else’s weapon.

Saul said to David, Go; and the Lord be with you.

A Villain’s Mind: The Pain in the Neck

Remember that A Villain’s Mind series introduction? It’s ba-ack; and ironically we aren’t starting with a full-on villain (per se). Let’s get to it.

I have a favorite type of antagonist. He’s not the over-arching villain (usually) – generally he’s a secondary character, someone with whom the MC clashes frequently. They’re kind of a ‘bad guy,’ but not necessarily evil and they usually exist to create extra conflict and danger for the MC.

My favorite example of this character – we’ll call him the PIN, or Pain in the Neck – is Eric from Divergent. (I’m NOT talking about the books, only the movies; as the two characters are almost totally different and I don’t have any liking for book!Eric as a character.) When we first meet him it’s obvious he’s arrogant, tough, and merciless. Literally every time we see him it’s in a negative light because the movie frames it that way.

But ah, there’s the rub – because I have always liked movie!Eric as a character. What’s more, I usually agree with him. We’re supposed to view his words and actions as negative because he does not like the main character, Tris, whom we’re supposed to see as positive. But let’s flip it around and look at it this way –

You’re Eric. One of the new recruits is from Abnegation – the exact opposite of a warrior. She’s a skinny teenage girl with exactly no personality, and there’s very little promise there. Sure, she jumped off some stuff, but that doesn’t make her a good recruit. It just means she, like everyone else, was afraid of failing. Training continues; she mouths off to her instructors, is less-than-stellar at almost everything she does, and still dislikes the idea of hurting people – in which case, she should never have joined the militant Dauntless faction. She routinely breaks rules, ignores orders, and mouths off – but everyone sees her as a hero because she stands up for people sometimes.

I don’t know about you, but if I were Eric, I wouldn’t like Tris either. In fact, I’d want her out of Dauntless. Throughout the movie, Eric is shown in a negative light because he’s ruthless. He’s efficient. He doesn’t stand for back-talk. Of course he possesses negative qualities – he’s unnecessarily harsh, he enjoys watching good recruits climb through the ranks at the expense of the less-talented, and he gives no quarter even when he should lighten up.

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And yet there are moments, too, where he isn’t so bad. When Tris runs in order to catch the train that was leaving without her, he’s even willing to show he’s impressed. Because when Tris acts like she belongs in Dauntless, Eric is okay with her.
He’s a soldier. He follows orders, he does what he’s told – to the point where he’s apparently willing to shoot a young Divergent girl in the head. But before his execution, he tells Four in a moment of candor,

“Listen. I’ve found a way to live with the blood on my hands. But can you?”

Those aren’t the words of a villain. They’re the words of a soldier – and beyond that, Eric was born and raised Erudite – the faction now calling all the shots over his head. He believes in what he’s doing.

So like I said, I’ve always liked Eric. He’s my favorite character in an entirely stupid movie series, and the only thing that kept me watching it – because Eric, for all his terrible flaws, was quite possibly the most well-rounded character in the whole series.

He’s an antagonist, true, but he’s my favorite kind – the sort with whom, if you look just a little closer, you just might agree with. These characters are tricky to write and I’ve often seen it fail – I even think the Divergent movies failed Eric because they painted his every action as that of a Bad Guy and his dimension happens almost in spite of it – but it can be done. Here are a few questions to ask when writing your PIN character:

Give them a strong set of beliefs. We don’t want a character who’s annoying just for the sake of being annoying; then we get Peter from the Divergent movies and he’s just – well, you don’t want that. Eric’s beliefs are a solid mix of his firmly Erudite upbringing and his Dauntless adult life; making him someone who believes Erudite should rule and is generally able to enforce those rules.

Give them likeable moments. Eric actually has a few, believe it or not. He’s impressed with Tris’s initiative in chasing down the train; he’s impressed with her bravery in standing up for her friend. He has a brief moment where he pauses to pet a horse – all these little things add dimension to a PIN character, making them something more than merely an Antagonistic Force. It keeps you wondering whether he might change his mind and join the good guys.

Show them interacting with people. Often in a book it will feel like the PIN character exists in this nebulous vacuum of space-time, existing only to pop out and taunt the main character whenever the plot starts to lag. Establish this character firmly within the world, or they won’t feel believable. Eric has history with one of the main characters and we see how he interacts with the other initiates, not just Tris.

You don’t need a lot to write a PIN character – they’re interesting; they often live in a gray area that’s fun to write, and they keep the reader guessing; so go forth and conquer!

Do you have a favorite PIN character?

Ways to Grow Your Writing

Here’s the deal. There are many new, budding writers out there who have no idea what they’re doing. They’re fragile – they’re newborn writers and they’re flying blind, wanting to create all sorts of cool things with no idea how to do it. They can be easy to make fun of; I see the cliches and tropes they’re writing with gleeful abandon, I see the mistakes they make with everything from grammar to romance to characterization and I think ‘Oh honey. Ohhh honey.’

But me thinking ‘Ohhh honey’ and sipping my coffee with a Sage Expression on my face doesn’t really help anybody, and here’s the thing – I was that fragile, newborn, budding writer with no clue what she was doing. I took ideas from everything I read and was so ‘influenced’ by some authors that I was practically plagiarizing them. I had the Stereotypical Fantasy Characters – the brooding hero with the tragic backstory (and YES I still lOVE HIM leave me alone), the Feisty Independent Heroine (who was actually just a bitch, honestly, pardon my French. She was) and the sarcastic, hapless comedic character who didn’t….really further the plot in any way. Obviously the FMC needed a brother, so….there we are, I guess? Oh, and it was an ALLEGORY, PEOPLE, because Intellectualism™ a la the Door Within series. (Also I’m fine with allegory; I like a certain amount of allegory. We’ll get to that in another post.)

The point is, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve been writing since I was twelve, I’ve completed over ten novels and started + shelved a dozen others. I’ve tried just about everything. So here are some tips to help move your writing out of the….I don’t even know what to call that space. The Bad Place. These will help move you from The Bad Place to The Good Place; let’s call it that.

ONE: GRAMMAR IS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT

‘That’s what editors are for.’ I see this one a lot, even from writers who aren’t necessarily newbies. But here’s the thing – if you don’t have a good grasp on grammar, your writing will lack a certain amount of depth, description, and sophistication. (I don’t mean you need to be Arthur Conan Doyle or quirk your pinkie; it’s not that kind of sophistication.) Your writing will not be as good as it could be. That’s just the way it is, and it doesn’t have to do with typos. If you don’t know how to use grammar, you will not know how to write as well as you could. You can write passable things, sure, but there will be a childish quality to the writing that people will notice. (And I say they will because I do, every time. Every single time.)

Is grammar hard for you? Don’t despair! I didn’t even realize indentations were a thing until a year into my writing and my mom pointed out they were supposed to exist in a manuscript, and I realized – I’d been reading since I was a few years old, but hadn’t been paying attention to structure. Pick up a book (a good book, a book you know to be well-written and not just your average YA fantasy novel. Not that one. But not Jane Austen; that’s another load of…well, structure wasn’t much of a thing then, either). Pick up a Charles de Lint book, or a Patricia McKillip or an Allison Croggon book or even Brandon Sanderson. Pay attention to things like indentations. Pay attention to spacing and structure and pacing; pay attention to turns of phrase, the difference in each character’s speech and sound. Grammar can be fun and it doesn’t mean you need to sit down and take a course from beginning to end (unless you have a real issue with it in which case, you might have to).

TWO: SHARE YOUR WRITING

This one is hard. It still is hard, actually, although it’s gotten significantly easier over the past decade. But you have to do it. You cannot – I repeat, YOU CANNOT – reach your fullest potential as a writer if you don’t have feedback. And this means all kinds of feedback. It means finding some people who will tell you the truth. Do NOT share your writing with someone who tells you how MAGNIFICENT and MARVELOUS your writing is each time, without any critique. You know why? Because they’re lying, and they don’t want to hurt your feelings. If you’ve sent out ten chapters in a row with no constructive criticism from someone, they aren’t helping you. You want truly constructive criticism? Find a family member. Generally I don’t give manuscripts to my mom until they’ve been revised, edited, and proofread because I want it to be as good as I can make it, but once she reads it there’s nobody more helpful because she’ll tell me what’s wrong with it. ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ ‘There’s too much of X element.’ ‘Did you mean to do this here?’ But when she comes to me and says, ‘I need more,’ or proceeds to bring up her favorite characters for the next few weeks, there’s nothing more encouraging.

Find somebody who will tell you the truth. Will it hurt your feelings? Yes. Especially if you’re just starting out and don’t have a good grasp on things, because there will be more negative than positive for a while – but if this person loves you and wants to see you succeed, listen to them. Take their advice. Take a deep breath, strap on your helmet, and dive in. It’s more comfortable to believe your writing is just fine. But comfort won’t get you anywhere.

THREE: TREAT YOUR WRITING SERIOUSLY

Obviously writing should be fun. Writing is incredible. But let me show you a few phrases that might sound familiar to you – “Haha yeah, gotta follow the plot bunnies!” “My poor charries!!” “I know this doesn’t really FIT but it was so CUTE.” “Yeah I know this isn’t perfect, but I mean…”

No. Stop. Stop making excuses for your writing, and stop treating your book like it’s some kind of over-excited Pomeranian puppy. Remember, I did all these things and my writing never got better because of it. THAT I can promise you. (Nor have I ever seen anyone else’s writing get better because of it.) Plot bunnies? They’re an excuse to be lazy and not have to come up with any actual solid plot. Your poor charries? Oh honey. Ohhh honey. It doesn’t FIT but it was so CUTE? Yeah, it sucks, but cut it out. Cute or otherwise, if it doesn’t move the story forward it has no place. I don’t care how adorable it was, and neither will your reader once they finish the book and go, ‘You know…there were a bunch of scenes in there that made no sense, though.’ And as for ‘Yeah, this isn’t perfect, but’ – no ‘buts.’ No. If you know something you wrote was lazy, sloppy, or unresearched, then you have no excuse. Fix it. Make it better. I don’t care if this is just a first draft, your first draft should be as good as you can possibly make it. If you get halfway through a first draft and realize you don’t like it, or you already know the whole plot but that it needs massive revisions, then stop! Start another book, or shelve this one for later. Be flexible.

And just….please don’t call your characters ‘charries.’ It really does encourage you to not take them seriously, which you should. People don’t connect with Charries. They connect with characters.

FOUR: TORTURE IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR DRAMA

I mean sure, torture is dramatic and my books have a fair amount of it in different ways, but one thing I see amateur writers do c o n s t a n t l y (and I did this myself) is substitute physical pain for other kinds of drama. I mean I know – it’s hard to write genuine, believable pain, drama, and angst when you’re new at it, but don’t settle for just torturing your characters. It’s an amateur mistake and I’ve seen some new writers rely on it so heavily that they honestly creep me out a little so…tone down on the torture. Here’s a tip – try embarrassment instead. We all HATE to be embarrassed and most of us suffer from secondhand embarrassment, too – which is why it’s an important element to write. In The Last Samurai (one of those historically horrendous movies I will still watch) one of the characters is subjected to having his hair cut by enemy soldiers. It may not sound like much, but to him, it’s an abject humiliation. They don’t torture him – they just cut his hair, and the impact is far more powerful than if they’d stood around kicking or punching him.

FIVE: DON’T FOLLOW THE LIGHTS

I’ve seen new writers (and accomplished writers – looking at you, YA section in the library) do a Thing. This Thing is to have more character than they know what to do with, and try to give each character their Very Own Spotlight. This is absolutely fine if you’re an experienced writer – I love huge casts and weaving their storylines together. But it’s painful when I see someone who can barely write one character’s point of view try to write seventeen. The result is that each POV sounds relatively the same, gives nothing new to the plot, and winds up frustrating to the reader (this is one reason why, terrible plot aside, I never could get into the Divergent books. Everyone sounded exactly the same – but this is very common in young adult novels). Focus on writing one point of view. Focus on keeping it simple. Discover your strengths as a writer and pursue those – work those up so that eventually you can start turning your weaknesses into strengths, too. But don’t pile your plate three feet high in an over-ambitions attempt to Do All the Things. I have to remind myself of this even now, after almost fourteen years of writing. If you have an overload of ideas for one novel, step back and take a look at them. Maybe you actually have TWO SEPARATE books here! (I know I often do.)

So there we are – the five top tips I could think of off the top of my head. The point of this post was not to be discouraging, but to tell you I’ve been exactly where you are and made all the mistakes new writers make, and if someone had been able to point me in the right direction my literary life would have progressed faster than it did. If you LIKED this and have your own questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them in another blog post!

Oh, and here’s my last tip – don’t stop. Keep writing. Keep writing through both the gold and the trash. Keep it up.

& You’ll Be in a World of Pure Imagination (or, a brief workspace tour)

Things happen when you sprain an ankle and have a hard time hobbling anywhere – they pile up. Things pile up on desks and chairs and the floor and by the time you can walk easily again, your once-organized chaos has reverted back to a simpler form: catastrophe. Now that my foot has healed, I buckled down to clear out and re-organize my workspace so I can paint, draw, and write without using a ball of string to find my way out again. Since I love seeing tours (be they in video or picture form) of art studios and workspaces, I decided to make a small tour of my own. Commence away!


I need to keep my space whimsical but functional, with bits and pieces that inspire me. It all tends to gravitate toward the magical; like ‘if Gandalf had been a Ravenclaw Professor.’ Probably teaching the History of Magic and Charms.

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On the right side of my desk I have a box containing all my watercolors (the top is decorated with a Celtic-style sun/moon emblem, made by my friend Ian). On top of that is a box that holds the pencils and pens I use for my artwork. Standing on the box are a little brass leprechaun from my friend Hannah George, and a rat skull from a coffee shop in Omaha. Sitting on the waterproofed slab of wood are various jars holding sea salt, water, dip pens, paintbrushes, feathers, rulers, and two magic wands for all my painting + spell-casting needs.

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To the right of my desk, siting on my vintage steamer trunk, is the printer (covered with rabbit fur to help it match the rest of the room) and a letter tray; the letter tray holds all my ink bottles, water droppers, watercolor tins, tape, and odds and ends. It also features another jar of feathers, a volcanic stone mortar + pestle, a hornet’s nest, Boba Fett, the Ancient One, a Predator, a Galor-class Kardassian Warship, and AARRRGH! from Trollhunters (my favorite show in the world next to Prison Break).

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On the left side of my desk I have a stack of Chinese calligraphy paper upon which sits some vellum envelopes, a box of colored pencils, a stack of leather-bound journals, a wooden raven, several bottles of glitter, my crystals, and Vortigern, the skull I use when give art lessons. (Leaning against the pencil box is George’s foot. George is a decorative skeleton whose body resides in Florida. George’s foot is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. Don’t ask me why.)

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After that comes the crate with my various pads of art paper, sketchbooks, envelopes, and extra journals. It’s guarded by Jareth, Newt, and Snart; as well as Gringott’s. Also seen are my waxes and seals, and two jars of miscellany, including my pipe and a fan (printed with samurai. It doesn’t get much cooler, iron war fans excepted).

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Underneath my desk lies the rest of the artistic miscellany – the leather folder in which I stuff my completed artwork; old sketchbooks, jars of magic things (from Melody, who gifted me George’s foot), old sketchbooks, paper cutters, and the like. I also have my favorite art + design books lined up; John Howe, Alan Lee, Tony Diterlizzi, Ed Org, Alphonse Mucha, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, and others. Sitting on top of ‘The Hobbit: Art & Design’ is my Loch Ness Monster, Vincent; a gift from my bro Lauren and knitted by her sister. (His name is Vincent because he’s dark blue + glittery and therefore starry.)

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The walls feature a unicorn, masks, Thorin’s map, a Carnival poster from when my dad was a sophomore in high school, a painting of Big Ben (painted by my sister), Studio Ghibli prints, keys, lights, and some paintings I’ve done for myself – Frankenstein’s Creature (specifically Luke Goss’s portrayal from the BBC Miniseries), Jareth the Goblin King, Prince Nuada, and Reylo.

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And there you have it! My workspace keeps me inspired; not only because I curate things I love but because so much of what you see was given to me by friends and family (seriously I think maybe half of what you see was bought by me + for me).

What does your workspace look like? Please let me know in the comments!