5 Character Traits I Love
If you can, think back to your favourite book. That special one you hold high above all the others. Probably a novel you read for three days straight, snarling at anyone that dared to ask why you were beginning to grow moss on your skin.
You recall the one?
In all honesty you probably loved it for a wide variety of reasons, but I’m assuming there was something about a certain character that really topped it off. Maybe a trait you connected with, or envied, or even one you were almost afraid of. Whatever it was though, there was something about the character that kept you turning the pages, even as you began to melt into the couch and your family finally stopped trying to get you to eat.
After all, who really needs food when you have a good story to keep you going, am I right?
Nope, don't listen to that. We all need food, it’s science.
Whatever it was though, there are certain character traits that when done right, are almost universally awesome. And with a master behind the wheel, each one of these traits can easily come to make an entire story.
1 - Secretive / Mysterious
Although many of us may say otherwise, we love secrets and mysteries. There’s a small place in every human heart for the dark and hidden truths. If you deny that, it only means yours is buried a little deeper than the rest. I’m not entirely sure why we love secrets, human nature maybe, or evolution, or perhaps even some form of peace in a busy world, but we all do.
Who knows why?
Certainly not I, for I am but a simple lover of stories. But what I do know is that people love reading about secrets almost above all else. It’s why in book after book and movie after movie there’s always an otherwise irrelevant and redundant storyline in the midst of what you would assume to be a far more pressing crisis.
For example, in a book about the end of humanity or some apocalypse or another, some tend to better follow the trail of secret love affairs, rather than the main person trying to save the other seven billion of us. Because I mean priorities, right?
I think we see it so often now that we don't even really question it anymore. I’m not saying this happens in every story or that in moderation it’s even a bad thing, because its not, but I’m sure you know the feeling when you’re like, “could they have picked a more inconvenient time to talk about this?” Again, I’m not saying that writing in this kind of arc is bad, but sometimes I feel it’s too much for my simple mind.
Fate of the world in your hands? Hang on, gotta go tell Jenny I never really liked her.
Personally, I think I would try to avoid the imminent crisis first than go on with the conversation, but to each their own I suppose.
Anyway, that’s all to say humans are drawn to mystery like Mike Tyson and Luis Suárez are to eating people.
I’m going to use Harry Potter as a quick example here (but know this is forcing me to stretch my memory farther than I have in months). I liked reading the series, I really did, but there were at least twenty times throughout the novels that perfectly fit this concept. Scenes where, despite the Dark Lord’s pressing invasion and will to dominate basically everything, they take time to: profess love, complain about each other, share secrets, complain some more, etc. And believe me, I get that everyone would want to talk about other things, especially if the world’s future looked so gloomy, but there were enough times in the Harry Potter books so that even after all these years since I last read them, I can remember feeling like they probably had more pressing matters to attend to.
My point is characters like these all too often shoot the breeze with comparatively inconsequential things because we as humans enjoy reading about the simple secrets, even if the world is otherwise crumbling.
2 - Clever / Witty
There’s nothing better than a witty character. Although I think it’s also true that we all at times enjoy the underdog, or the classic weak to strong story, at heart there’s no one who doesn't love it when the main character can dance circles around everyone else. There’s just something about following a character who’s an entire tier above the rest that makes the reader feel rather powerful themselves, no? Maybe it’s because we’re simply grateful to understand the cleverness, or consider ourselves ‘in’ on it, but regardless of what it is, it definitely makes for enjoyable reading.
Although I think wit and cleverness in a story go much further than just that too.
Some of the best packed punches in any novel are those that finish with a flourish of wit that even the reader didn't see coming. The best ones are so seamless and perfectly executed that you stop just to try and wrap your mind around it. I’m sure everyone’s done that at least a few times throughout their reading careers, and wonder how the hell they hadn't seen that coming before. There really is an ‘Ah Ha!’ moment.
I think it’s in part because writing witty is like preforming street magic, or at least that’s how I compare the two in my mind. There’s one hand that dances and flourishes to keep the attention, when the real magic is happening in the other hand. I believe the masters of wit and cleverness write just like this. They feed us as readers just enough to keep our eyes and minds where they want them, as they curl their other hand in a literary fist pulling back to hit us hard.
But hey, we don't mind in the slightest.
3 - Ruthlessness
All writers have a certain level of craziness, true, but when I say I enjoy ruthlessness in a character I don't mean it because I enjoy whatever things the character does or inflicts to others or whatever.
I’m not that crazy.
I say it because on some level, all humans are intrigued by ruthlessness and cold hearts. But it has to be done just right for us to enjoy. Too much salt and we find the character repulsive and sick, too little and we find him weak.
In a past post I mentioned a TV show called House of Cards, and it’s main character played by Kevin Spacey. If you haven't seen it, do yourself the favour and do so. If you have, you may see where I’m heading.
Frank Underwood is a corrupt, murderous, uncaring and cold human being. He is in reality not the kind of man you would want to ever know, at all. But despite all of this, despite the fact he should be in jail for life, we all root for him. And not even halfheartedly, we full on wish him everything he wants. And it’s because he has the perfect level of ruthlessness in him. Just the right amount for us to not necessarily forgive but to at least overlook his crimes. In ruthlessness there is often an abundance of stone forged direction and decisiveness. Alongside wit too, it’s these two characteristics that make it so (perhaps frighteningly) easy to overlook who he is and wish him all the best in his endeavours.
4 - Opportunistic
*Mild Game of Thrones spoilers ahead*
Opportunism really is quite complimented by both wit and ruthlessness, but can also be in itself a beautiful character trait. Readers love to follow someone who takes whatever they can get wherever they can get it. And better yet are those who manipulate the situation, or pull hidden strings to create their own opportunities. Those are simply so much better to read. At first I was going to talk about Dune again, and I thought maybe even some Shakespeare, but writing this I thought of an entire world that’s brimming with opportunistic characters. And probably one more common.
Westeros of A Song of Ice and Fire is perhaps the greatest example I can think of. Basically every character in that world takes everything they can at every turn. Let me show you:
Daenerys - Begins as a sister to an insane and cruel brother, forced to marry a war chief. Uses war chief to ultimately have her brother killed. Uses war chief’s funeral pyre to hatch dragons (admittedly unknowingly). Uses status from war chief to become leader of clan. Uses dragons to become leader of another army. Uses said army to conquer city after city.
Cersei Lannister - Marries Robert Baratheon to become Queen. Ensures Robert is drunk during a hunting trip so he is careless, and mortally injured. Ensures her son is placed on thrown. Although her son is technically ruler, she definitely makes the decisions. She then has Littlefinger betray Eddard Stark when he threatens to expose her. Uses sons power to secure and entrench her own power.
Littlefinger - Manipulates basically all the Starks from the very beginning. Uses them to secure his position of power behind the thrown. Uses power behind thrown as leverage to secure the Lordship of Harrenhal. Uses lordship to prepose marriage to widowed Lysa Arryn. Use charm and desperate situation to bring Sansa, knowing she may be valuable. Uses Sansa as an alibi when he murders Lysa, and secures control over The Eerie via Lysa’s son.
There’s a billion other examples of characters acting on opportunities, almost every GOT characters has in one way or another, but from what I recall those where the longest sort of ‘domino affect’ opportunistics. It really is at heart a rather political series, and what are politicians if not opportunistic?
Cersei Lannister actually says that: “In the game of thrones, you win or you die,” and I think that’s probably her most famous saying. It does rather well to sum up the theme of grabbing ahold of opportunities as they come, and squeezing the absolute life out of them. To leech any and all success from every situation, and man but does it make for some awesome reading.
5 - Dark Charm
Its almost like it’s okay to be a psychotic character as long as you have a certain level of exterior charm, regardless of how insincere or false it really is. That’s because people love, myself included, reading of characters that carry themselves with confidence and sinister charm, no matter how inwardly evil they are at heart.
In any book, or even movie really, it’s easy to outright hate the antagonist that comes across as little else but brutish and violent. Without even one redeeming quality, they are the very picture of what we’ve learned to hate in stories. But there’s something else to be said for the bad-guy characters that maintain even a small level of civility and charm. Even if they’ve done worse things than the simple brute character, they are just that much harder to outright hate. Take any of these characters, all antagonists in their own stories.
Hannibal Lecter from Red Dragon by Thomas Harris - He’s definitely a sick and terrible person but besides his culinary taste… he’s a rather classy fellow.
Randal Flagg from various Stephan King works - In all his various literary materializations (and different names), there’s something about the way Flagg works that makes it hard to hate him.
Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - All criminal masterminds, no matter how villainous, are hard to hate.
Darkened Rahl from Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind - I always had a hard time trying to cheer for Richard against Rahl, there was something about the empire he built that I liked.
President Snow from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - Again, it’s obvious he’s an evil guy but there’s something about his collectiveness and sense of control that set him apart.
Capricorn from Inkheart by Cornelia Funke - He’s a YA villain sure, but I remember him best from all those books growing up. Honestly, the man just didn't want to go home.
The Joker (Comics/Movie/Books) - I mean we all hated the fact we had to hate him, right?
Although a sinister charm does indeed enhance a villain, it’s by no means required. Plenty of masterpieces have simple and straight forward bad-guys, it’s totally doable that way. Just as there’s certainly many more charming villains out there too, but I hope those above just go to show how a little dark charm can make even the cruelest of characters harder to despise.
Personally, I’d take a Joker and Moriarty over a Voldemort and Wicked Witch any time.
There you have it, a few of the traits I personally think make for a great character. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. Maybe there are others you would have added, or maybe those five are enough. Maybe you’re even thinking: ‘this guy’s about as sane as an emu on acid.’ To which I would probably reply with a soft laugh and nod of agreement saying: ‘that’s a very creative simile, well done.’ But who knows? I can’t speak for you, only you can. So if you have any other ideas or traits in mind, leave a comment! Let me know!
Otherwise, thanks for reading.