Character tip: give them an essential nature, something that stays the same, even if everything else is different.

I recently read a horror script where the main character’s only trait was “rape victim (1).” Her only character traits weThe other day I read a horror script where the main character’s only trait was “rape victim (1).” Her only character traits were “suspicious, traumatized, didn’t like being touched.” Had she not been raped, she would have no character traits at all(2).
Leaving aside the fact that this makes for a boring character, it also shows a questionable approach to character creation fundamentals. It’s a failure to give a character traits, to give them an essential nature.
A well-designed cartoon character has irreducible features that make them identifiable in other forms. Well-designed characters do the same with traits.
Think of yourself: you are a person with a gender, a race, a job (or lack of one), a backstory. All of these things define you. But imagine if you were a bank robber, a submarine commander, a medieval Sheik, a Jedi knight, or a wombat. You’d have a different life, but there’d be something indelibly you that remained, no matter what form your spirit took (3).
It should be the same with your characters. Build them around a clear trait that’s independent of backstory. This helps you avoid stereotypes. If you find yourself writing a significant character who’s the “sassy gay roommate” or “hulking thug” give them something off-model. Make them stoic, selfish, driven, lazy… Something innate and indelible, something that gives them a personality beyond their mere circumstances. If not for the sheer rightness of it, then at least because it’ll be easier to repurpose them if you need them for another project.
The primary trait may remain consistent even as a character evolves and changes throughout the story. An example is GROUNDHOG DAY, where Phil Connors, a cynical, bitter, weatherman who hates small towns becomes not that. By the end, he’s a romantic, and he loves the town enough to want to move there with his new love. His cynical nature remains. He’s quick to add “We’ll rent first.”


(1) This is a common problem with writers and even actors, who have a tendency to substitute “I was raped” for character development/backstory.
(2) The female version of this is the male villain who has no traits other than straightness, whiteness, and “privilege.”
(3) Some may say that this smacks of pseudoscience and mysticism. The point is that this is a romantic notion of Jungian archetype that people generally prefer to believe. In storytelling, emotional truths trump empirical ones.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: