In Part 1 of the Aspectsof Character series, I discussed archetypes and stereotypes in writing that are ingrained in readers’ minds and aid them in unconsciously developing first impressions of the characters. Writers can use these character prototypes as a foundation for a character, but in order to bring the character to life on the page, they are going to need more depth. The next important aspect of character is personality, outlook, temperament, or (and I think this is the best word to describe it) attitude.
The way a character approaches the world defines their motivations, actions, and reactions to their surroundings. It determines how they interact with other characters, how they deal with stress (or tension in the plot), and how they view themselves. When building a character it is very important to know which of the following traits they lean toward:
…and many more.
These traits are obviously not all-or-nothing; it is a continuum, a spectrum. For example, to build upon the character I created in my first post (the archetypical child, African-American, Christian) I will make him extremely extroverted. Now that we have assigned this trait to the character, the reader can begin to develop a better picture of him. As an extrovert, his attitude toward himself is much more confident, and he is much more comfortable in large groups of people than on his own.
Obviously one trait like this is not nearly enough to constitute a personality. To give the character more depth, the writer should know where on the spectrum of bravery, logic, optimism, and so on that this character stands. For the sake of the example, I will keep the character simple, giving him only one other trait: optimism. The optimist/pessimist scale is one of the most important means of giving personality, in my opinion. Knowing how hopeful a character is in a situation will help determine their willingness to persevere, the way they react to stress, and what emotions they may feel in any given situation. Because this child is an optimist, he is hopeful that good things will happen in the future, he responds positively when faced with negative situations, and he has faith in the kindness of humanity. He is outgoing and has a generally positive attitude.
Once you have given a trait to a character, the next step is deciding where on the spectrum they fall; in other words, you must know the extent of their optimism, the extent of their extroversion. The writing of the story, putting the character into difficult situations, will help the writer learn how far the trait will go. If this extroverted, optimistic child is in a group of people older than him, let’s say a group of six teenagers, he will probably feel fairly comfortable talking to them. But what if the group is solely made up of males, no females? Let's say, the child is faced with a group of six buff teenage male football players (Warrior archetype, anyone?). Perhaps he will become a bit nervous and begin to withdraw. In this situation, we learn not only the extent of his positive attitude, but we also learn a bit about the things he fears. Knowing how deep a character trait extends in the personality develops the character even further than simply labeling them as optimistic or extroverted. A writer must know in which situations the character no longer feels at ease or comfortable with their identity. When we see that an extremely extroverted character begins to withdraw, we can see the obstacles blocking them from achieving their main objective. If an outrageously ambitious character begins to have doubts about the project that has been the center of her life for the duration of the novel so far, we learn about the things she fears, and we see what is at stake.
As a writer, it is important to know the deeper motivations of the character, the reasons why an optimistic character begins to doubt the pleasantness of his surroundings or his future. This is where a back story can begin to develop. When and why did these traits manifest?
The stronger a character’s attitude (whether positive or negative), the more the reader feels for them (whether positively or negatively). However, it is also possible for a writer to go too far. A character that absolutely never gives up on anything, no matter what, is not believable, and a reader will not sympathize with them. This is also as detrimental as a prototype character with hardly any personality.
To sum up: A character’s outlook on life and where they fall on the spectrum of various personality traits can be used to either subvert or support a reader’s first impression and to develop the reader’s perspective of the character. Revealing the extent a trait dominates the character’s personality reveals the things they feel confident about and the things that make them uncomfortable. The attitude of a character defines the relationships they have with others, both the way they perceive others and the way others perceive them.