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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5 thoughts on “Three Things that Are Not Character Traits”

  1. So much yes to this post. (Even though Will Herondale will always hold a special place in my heart)
    I get fed up with any character that has a single character trait, even if it is genuinely a trait.
    I dont get characters who are always noble, no matter what. The most morally upright people I know, don’t ALWAYS make the right choice and characters who do that freak me out.
    Funny characters are great, but they have to have a purpose beyond being funny. It’s exhausting and boring being funny all the time.
    They need multiple character traits. Pile them on!

    Like

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