Writing a great story starts with thinking up great characters. This sounds easier than it is. Two tools that can help are the positive and negative trait thesauruses.
Building a character
Some writers might have characters that spring from their minds wholly finished, much like Athena was born whole from Zeus’s forehead. For us lesser mortals, creating a character is more work.
Most books describe creating characters as an offshoot of the plot: the story you’re trying to tell must match the characters. The character has a flaw, which he or she slowly overcomes during the story; an arc that reaches a climax near the end of the book.
But then what? How do you think of a flaw? What other traits should you add to the character to round them out? How do you tie that into the story?
I’ve already written about combining character arcs and plots. Today, let’s look at the characters themselves. I’ve recently bought two books that really help with creating characters.
The negative trait thesaurus
Giving a character a ‘flaw’ sounds easier than it really is. You see, you’re not just giving them a flaw, you’re giving them life. A flaw doesn’t just appear, it’s the result of something that happened in a character’s past.
The negative trait thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, offers a list of possible flaws to use as inspiration. Not just that, it adds a foundation to them. It links the flaws to the so-called hierarchy of needs, from psychology, and links them to lies a character tells themselves.
This idea helped me a lot to improve characterization. Characters don’t have flaws like ‘I’m selfish’, no, they tell themselves a lie like ‘Caring about others will make me get hurt’. On the outside the effect looks the same, but by linking the flaw to a lie, you also highlight the internal workings of a character. Flaws are linked to something inside the character that makes their flaw rational to them: the lie.
Also, by formulating the flaw as a lie, learning to let go of their lie becomes the character arc. In the above examples, the first would result in the arc ‘the character overcomes their selfishness’, which is pretty generic.
The second results in the arc ‘the character learns that you can care about others without getting hurt’. This is far more concrete and workable.
The positive trait thesaurus
The positive trait thesaurus is the other side of the negative trait thesaurus. A character’s good traits are the traits they use to overcome their flaw. That doesn’t mean they are the mirror opposites: the opposite of ‘selfish’ is ‘unselfish’, but you can’t create a character who has a flaw ‘selfishness’ and give them ‘unselfishness’ as their good trait.
Positive traits serve two purposes. They make us actually like the character. Nobody likes people who are just flawed; you need something to make readers care. Secondly, the character can use their positive traits as tools to overcome their flaw/lie.
The positive trait thesaurus gives a large list of possible positive traits. They are divided into four categories: morality, achievement-focused, interactive, and identity. Again, these are ‘borrowed’ from psychology. You can view them as layers (like an onion) of the character, with morality on the very inside, and identity on the very outside.
Combining the two
By selecting some traits from the positive and negative trait thesaurus, you can quickly brainstorm characters.
The next step is to create a good backstory that explains how they got these traits and voila, ready to start your story. The way you match a positive trait to a negative one leads to your own unique story.
A character with ‘selfishness’ and ‘caring’ as traits could overcome their selfishness by being shown that it hurts those around them (A Christmas Carol). A character with ‘selfishness’ and ‘determination’ might overcome his selfishness by putting all his effort into achieving something good (The Silver Linings Playbook).
The positive and negative trait thesauruses are great writing aids. They are not recipes that should be followed to the letter, of course. However, they do help in brainstorming characters.
For me, they helped make implicit choices I used to make explicit. In other words, the books helped me make more conscious decisions about characters, which helps me make my stories better.