Character Personality

I’m working on a new character breakdown, trying to capture his personality in ink, so I have a strong foundation when I start scripting him. What do you think of what I have so far?

Heres Johnny!

  • Johnny is not just smart, he’s SUPER smart.
  • Since his near death experience, Johnny’s held a deep appreciation for life and values every moment.
  • Johnny struggles to get out his dad’s (a world-famous NASA astronaut) shadow.
  • He’s often overwhelmed by strong personalities.
  • And is tight lipped about his shady past.

Is Johnny’s personality coming through?

Does this sound like someone YOU could capture in dialogue?

Many folks would say sure, but if you’re a regular reader of my site, you know the kung fu we practice here is an ancient and powerful art. And rarely do we accept things as they first appear.

 

The fundamental building block of story is characters. If your characters aren’t engaging, if nobody empathizes with them, your story is DOA (Dead On Arrival—good movie—the original 1950 one).

Throughout this site (and my books) I put a lot of emphasis on developing and showcasing character personalities (and their arcs, but that’s a different discussion).

I realized the other day, personality is something we take for granted. A critical aspect often overlooked or muddled up when writers sit down to structure their characters.

A little clear direction in detailing your characters’ personality will go a long way in creating an effective, engaging cast and dramatically improve your writing.

So first, let’s define personality…

Personality: Characteristics and qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.

Personality really comes down to expression. Any way we express ourselves, is a conduit to reveal personality.

Self expression is primarily delivered through what and how we say, and what and how we act.

Our actions include how we respond to a situation, but also our habitual appearance, mannerisms, habits and other behavior.

Because we generally have to think about something before we express it, what we think, why we think it and how we perceive the world around us are the currents that influence this expression. Our thinking is directly responsible for our preferences and dislikes, two cornerstones of personality, that include everything from what we eat to the kind of music we listen to.

While we all struggle and juggle the same basic emotions, a lot of us even share the same situations and life experiences, and have similar qualities to each other… in the end, our complexity and the way we own our characteristics make us all unique.

The big trick when defining your characters personality is to dig out distinct points of expression.

As a writer, when you paint your character’s personality with broad strokes (like Johnny’s opening list), you get a lightweight, two-dimensional character.

“Johnny isn’t just smart, he’s SUPER-smart.”

At first read, that sounds real special. An endearing character personality trait, but is it really?

Ask ten different people what a smart person is and you’ll get ten different answers. Talk to ten smart people and you’ll see ten different personalities. So how does defining a character as super-smart, help you capture their unique personality in writing—it doesn’t— not really, all it does is open a door for you to write whatever comes to your mind under the umbrella of “super-smart.”

And people don’t express themselves with whatever comes to mind regarding a specific quality or trait (that chamelon-like quality would be a unique personality trait all its own). By it’s very nature, our habits and characteristic behavior are things we repeat, our default course of action, initiated from a place of comfort and familiarity.

So “super-smart”,

  • Is the character a math genius?
  • Maybe they have an incredibly extensive vocabulary?
  • Maybe they speak 20 languages…
  • Or have a literal encyclopedia of information in their head… (maybe it’s all accurate but useless information).
  • An insane memory could be the trait of a super-smart person,
  • So could the ability to solve puzzles or riddles.
  • Some super-smart people could probably take apart a vacuum cleaner and put it back together again without a hiccup.
  • A highly logical mind might also make you super-smart.
  • Someone able to play six games of chess at one time is smarter than me for sure…

The list goes on and on.

I’m betting if you take any one (or a few) of the smart points I just listed and replaced them with “Johnny is super-smart” you’d have a much more three-dimensional character. Someone with a real emerging personality.

When it comes to defining your character’s personality, don’t rely on ambiguous background/history elements, labels or elements that imply subtext.

Instead use these those elements to justify and lead you to a specific expression.

So have your feelings on Johnny’s starting point for a character’s personality changed?

Let’s go ahead and pull some specific expressions out of those other few points:

“Everything Gonna Be Alright” Johnny:

  • Since his near death experience, Johnny’s held a deep appreciation for life and values every moment.
    Johnny isn’t quick to judge people. He’s non-argumentative, even when he strongly disagrees with someone.    
  • Johnny struggles to get out his dad’s (a world-famous NASA astronaut) shadow.
    Johnny drives flashy cars and wears expensive clothes, trying everything he can on a superficial level to distance himself from his “by-the-book” military father.
  • Often overwhelmed by strong personalities.
    When confronted by strong personalities Johnny retreats, keeping his ideas and opinions to himself and following the majority decision.
  • Is tight lipped about his shady past.
    Johnny gets uncomfortable to the point where he changes the subject when questioned about his past. If pressed, he goes into a flight mode and takes every measure to physically remove himself from the conversation.

I bet you can envision Johnny a little better now.

The added distinct points of expression really begin to bring the character to life… because, they’re giving him genuine personality.

And here’s the real, rub. Let’s go back and do it again.

 

“Shaolin” Johnny:

  • Since his near death experience, Johnny’s held a deep appreciation for life and values every moment.
    Johnny is a practicing Buddhist monk. He spouts Zen sayings at every turn.    
  • Johnny struggles to get out his dad’s (a world-famous NASA astronaut) shadow.
    Johnny has very few material possessions. He donates all his money to charity and actively protests against the “establishment”.
  • Often overwhelmed by strong personalities.
    Johnny will support any position when challenged openly, but at the first opportunity he will do whatever he originally intended to do.
  • Is tight lipped about his shady past.
    Johnny’s past makes him highly emotional. Recalling it quickly puts him in an overwhelmed, somewhat catatonic state. If he’s pressed further, he becomes wildly violent.

Would you say Everything Gonna be Alright Johnny and Shaolin Johnny are significantly different personalities? Even though they both came from the same, somewhat generalized original breakdown?

So would I.

And that’s why the key to capturing character personalities is in the distinct expressions we assign to them.

Personality isn’t defined by descriptive adjectives, a list of life incidents, or labels of what we think… it’s defined by how all of those things manifest in us. If you focus only on the first half, you’ll never have a complete, rich, engaging character.

When I’m editing or story consulting on character bios, I often look for, and break them down in the following categories, noting how the character trait can be improved by narrowing each instance down to a: specific, clear and coherent manifestation of ability, intention, behavior or manner.

QUALITY

PERCEPTION

ACHIEVEMENT/EVENT/EXPERIENCE

GOAL

BIASES/PREJUDICES

BEHAVIOR/HABIT

ATTITUDE

When you’re building your own characters from scratch, it isn’t necessary to categorize their traits with these headings… the important thing is that you take each trait to one (or more) expressions.

That said, grab an old character bio, break it down like this and take a look at which elements you intuitively pushed through to an expression and which ones you left vague. If you spend a few minutes bringing each vague one to a distinct expression, I bet the character will feel like he/she is leaping off the page and you’ll be itching to write a new scene!▪

BEFORE YOU SCRAM!

I haven’t done this in a while. How long do you think it took me to write this article?

Well to be honest I don’t know myself, I stopped paying attention 6 HOURS IN. It’s not like I just have tons of notes lying around ready to dump into an article. Much of the time, I’ve never even articulated the processes I use in my work that I decide to talk about. And then of course there’s the rewriting and making sure the examples make sense. (Try it, it takes forever.)

A lot of times in forums I get hard core attacked for promoting my books. Unfortunately these folks are never around to see just how much freakin’ time, energy and dedication it takes to put this FREE writing craft section of the site together, not to mention help aspiring writers with their direct email and PM questions.

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To snag a quote from Robocop, “Thank you for your cooperation.”


About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.

 

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