Giving Your Characters Believable Qualities
One of the most known rules for creating fictional characters is making them realistic. Besides their appearance and actions, how can you achieve this? You need them to have personalities that are consistent, a story that’s interesting and easy to follow along, and one or two qualities that add to their character and make them stand apart from the others.
What are qualities or characteristics? In this instance it means a feature belonging typically to a person, a place, or a thing that helps to identify them. I found several lists of examples but I wrote out one I felt contained some of the more common qualities given to characters.
- Alertness– Being aware of what is taking place around them so they can have the right responses.
- Attentiveness– Showing the worth of a person or task by giving their undivided concentration
- Benevolence– Giving to others basic needs without having a personal reward.
- Boldness– Confidence that what they have to say or do is true, right, and just.
- Cautiousness– Knowing how important right timing is in accomplishing right actions.
- Compassion– Investing whatever is necessary to heal the hurts of others.
- Creativity– Approaching a need, a task, or an idea from a new perspective.
- Decisiveness– The ability to recognize key factors and finalize difficult decisions.
- Deference– Limiting their freedom so they do not offend the tastes of others
- Dependability– Fulfilling what they consented to do, even if it means unexpected sacrifice.
- Determination– Purposing to accomplish right goals at the right time, regardless of the opposition.
- Diligence– Investing their time and energy to complete each task assigned to them
- Discernment– Understanding the deeper reasons why things happen.
- Discretion– Recognizing and avoiding words, actions, and attitudes that could bring undesirable consequences.
- Endurance– The inward strength to withstand stress and do their best.
- Enthusiasm– Expressing joy in each task as they give their best effort.
- Faith– Confidence that actions rooted in good character will yield the best outcome, even when they cannot see how.
- Flexibility– Willingness to change plans or ideas according to the direction of their authorities.
- Forgiveness– Clearing the record of those who have wronged them and not holding a grudge.
- Generosity– Carefully managing their resources so they can freely give to those in need.
- Gentleness– Showing consideration and personal concern for others.
- Gratefulness– Letting others know by their words and actions how they have benefitted their life.
- Honor– Respecting those in leadership because of the higher authorities they represent.
- Hospitality– Cheerfully sharing food, shelter, or conversation to benefit others.
- Humility– Acknowledging that achievement results from the investment of others in their life.
- Initiative– Recognizing and doing what needs to be done before they are asked to do it.
- Joyfulness– Maintaining a good attitude, even when faced with unpleasant conditions.
- Justice– Taking personal responsibility to uphold what is pure, right, and true.
- Loyalty– Using difficult times to demonstrate their commitment to those they serve.
- Meekness– Yielding personal rights and expectations with a desire to serve.
- Obedience– Quickly and cheerfully carrying out any given tasks.
- Orderliness– Arranging themselves and surroundings to achieve greater efficiency.
- Patience– Accepting a difficult situation without giving a deadline to remove it.
- Persuasiveness– Guiding vital truths around another’s mental roadblocks.
- Protectiveness– designed or intended to protect something or someone from harm.
- Punctuality– Showing esteem for others by doing the right thing at the right time.
- Resourcefulness– Finding practical uses for that which others would overlook or discard.
- Responsibility– Knowing and doing what is expected of them without issue
- Selfishness– lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.
- Self-Control – Rejecting wrong desires and doing what is right.
- Sensitivity– Perceiving the true attitudes and emotions of those around me.
- Sincerity– Eagerness to do what is right with transparent motives.
- Thoroughness– Knowing what factors will diminish the effectiveness of their work or words if neglected.
- Thriftiness– Allowing themselves and others to spend only what is necessary.
- Tolerance– Realizing that everyone is at varying levels of character development.
- Truthfulness– Earning future trust by accurately reporting past facts.
- Virtue– The moral excellence evident in life as they consistently do what is right.
- Wisdom– Seeing and responding to life situations from a perspective that transcends their current circumstances.
Characteristics of Established Characters
If you take some of the more well-known characters, you can easily decipher which characteristics the author poured into them. They won’t always be positive qualities, but that makes for a more realistic character. All qualities can be used in a negative context as well; it just depends on how they’re used with the character’s personality/ story goal.
Harry Potter, for example, shows loyalty, bravery, and arrogance. He has a lot, and different ones will stick out to each reader, but these are the ones that stand out for me. On the same hand, Ron is known for his loyalty. Hermione for her intelligence and resourcefulness.
Another example is Jonas from The Giver by Lois Lowry. He is given his job in the community because of his intelligence, integrity, and courage. There are other qualities that pertain more to the book itself, but these are the main ones.
Looking at some classics, in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff shows us his wildness, intelligence, and self-awareness. Catherine is clearly shown as egotistical and melodramatic. To Kill a Mockingbird gives us two different characters in Scout. She starts out showing naïve curiosity which turns to intelligence, courage, and compassion as she ages. Atticus is a well-known character for his kindness, caring, and desire for justice.
You can see their qualities based on their actions throughout their story. Loyalty means showing commitment to someone or something during difficult times, as stated above. Harry’s loyalty shows strongly when it comes to Dumbledore. He risks his life to bring Cedric’s body back as well, showing he’s loyal to his peers.
Fitting Qualities into Your Characters
It’s easier to pick apart an already established and well-loved character in order to see what qualities they possess. However, it’s harder to create that sense in your own work. How can you pick ones that fit? How do you bring them to life with your words?
Building character profiles is a solid tool when it comes to understanding the characters you’ve created. Those are a whole ‘nother post (coming soon). Once you have a solid character with a set personality you can figure out what qualities they possess. Are they instinctively protective? Quick tempered? Forgiving?
You need to look at the personality your character has. If they have a shy, bookworm type personality they won’t have very aggressive traits. They might show intelligence, decisiveness, or creativity. A character that is very brass and loud won’t have a strong sense of meekness.
One of my main characters, Lucky, is known for his protectiveness. In order to establish this without saying it outright, I put in scenes showing it. He instinctively shields someone when an explosion occurs. He puts himself in danger’s way in order to keep another character from harm. He’s always watching for danger to others and the times he’s unable to protect people it hits him hard. He struggles with guilt and feeling like he failed them. By the time we’re halfway through the novel, it’s clear that is one of his strongest characteristics, even though it’s never said.
I chose other characteristics that fit with this; alertness, intelligence, leadership, resourcefulness. He’s isn’t all sunshine though. Some of the more negative characteristics of his are over-confidence and not always the most observing of people’s thoughts/feelings. He doesn’t handle loss well either. If I were to have given Lucky the characteristic of being selfish, it wouldn’t sit well with his protective nature. Instead of thinking of those he cares about he would be focused on his own wants and less prone to use himself as a shield in an explosion.
On the other hand, the story’s other main character is Mack. She struggles with severe social anxiety. She’s quiet, observing, intelligent, sensitive, and a quick learner. She is a follower. Even though she picks up on things quickly, her anxiety can get in the way, usually in ways people don’t think about. She’s very much so Lucky’s opposite but they end up balancing each other out and leaning on the other for support when their world goes to shit.
Examples of Showing Qualities in Actions
There are many ways to show characteristics through actions. Every character is different, but if you truly understand the qualities you are trying to portray it will be easy to incorporate them. All qualities can be taken negatively or positively, depending on the character’s personality.
Selfishness tends to be thought of negatively, but there are some instances where it can be a likeable selfishness. Katniss from The Hunger Games continually shows selfishness throughout the books. She is only doing the games for her sister, then later Peeta. She shows no interest in being the mockingjay until it involves her family. It may be seen as altruistic because it isn’t centered on her, but she’s really just doing everything for her family.
Characters can be too loyal that it becomes negative. Jamie Lannister in The Game of Thrones is so blindly loyal to his sister that he does everything asked of him by her, even if it means murdering innocents.
Self-control can be shown in a character keeping themselves from beating another to a bloody pulp even if they deserved it. Hospitality is shown by offering what is theirs to others. Intelligence doesn’t always have to be book smarts; a character can be street smart. They can know information about subjects that isn’t necessarily considered the norm, but if it fits the story it can be an important quality.
Personalities and characteristics go hand in hand. If you don’t have your character’s personality down and understand it, you won’t be able to give them the qualities that make them real. The reader will be able to tell there’s a disconnect. Build your character profile, figure out who they are, learn about qualities, and combine them into something awesome.
Stay tuned for more character building posts.
Go forth and conquer,
About the Author: Jensen Reed is a writer by night as she clings to the final bits of caffeine in her system after a day of wrangling her two young sons. An all-around nerd, she dabbles in numerous writing and reading genres. Her current WIP is an apocalyptic trilogy where she subjects her characters to the perils of a zombie outbreak. She edits and beta reads for friends when needed and loves to inspire others with quotes, messages, and ideas.
For short stories, memes, and writing tips you can find her here: Author Jensen Reed