Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The Writer’s Way: A secret to creating characters: Enduring Traits

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 12•20

A  rainy week in the Pacific Northwest with snow on the way (hooray!) and I’m starting slow today, drinking my morning Earl Grey tea. In my book Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction I dove deep into the topic of character traits. I explained that main characters will possess a hierarchy of personality traits and their primary  traits–the ones that define them–will remain stable throughout the story.  And this is important: these traits will be tested again and again as a story progresses. While your protagonist might change by the story’s end, these traits will not. This creates the cohesion a story and character arc needs.

It also creates delicious tension. Because if a protagonist has a personal moral code, what will he or she do when faced with a moral dilemma?

I’ve been thinking about these enduring traits lately and how these traits are showcased again and again as the story progresses into Act 3 and the climax.

Here’s an illustration from Katniss Evergreen of The Hunger Games YA dystopian series with a focus on the first book in the series. I’m using Katniss (again) because she’s forced to survive under crushingly brutal circumstances,  and her traits, introduced in the first moments of the story, amplified in the inciting incident, are deepened throughout the story. They’re evident in the climax when Katniss and Peeta decide to commit suicide rather than live under a corrupt and depraved regime.

Profound questions hang over the story–why does a heartless society turn children into ruthless killers for the entertainment of elites? How do the citizens go along with it? What does this suggest about human nature or is this only a sick dystopian version of humanity? Can murder ever be justified?  Since this isn’t a happily-ever tale, what becomes of these killers when they return to  society?

With such extreme life-or-death stakes, it’s necessary to craft a complicated, bigger-than-life protagoist with complicated traits.  Suzanne Collins made Katniss lionhearted. How else could she survive in such a savage culture?

Katniss’ main enduring traits:

  • Courage
  • Intelligence
  • Resourcefulness
  • Loyalty
  • Integrity
  • Compassionate

The Setup: In the opening moments of the story, readers and viewers find Katniss heading out into the woods to hunt an illegal act made necessary for survival. This foreshadows her skills and reveals her grit and independence.

The inciting incident that kicks off the story happens during the yearly Hunger Games ceremony. Katniss courageously chooses to take Primrose’s place when she’s ‘reaped’ and participate in the deadly  Games in her stead. Prim is her younger sister, their father, a miner has died in a mining accident, and Katniss struggles to help keep the family alive. Luckily her father taught her how to hunt because he’d traded game in District 12’s black market.

Complications and Reversals: Katniss and Peeta arrive in the Capital to begin training for the Games, gain notoriety and thus admirers and backers,

And then comes the dreaded test–because fiction requires tests–competing in the Hunger Games Arena. She avoids the traps in the first moments in the arena and takes off on her own, showing her strategic thinking.

Trapped in a tree by the Careers, her resourcefulness and prowess with a bow comes into play when she knocks down a nest of tracker jackers, deadly bio-engineered insects. The attack kills off some of her competitors as the survivors take off, desperate for relief.

She’s turned the tables with the help of Rue, and they become allies. But in a key scene, Rue is murdered and Katniss’ compassion comes into play when she honors her friend by laying out flowers on her body. These sort of gestures are naturally not allowed amid the barbarous Games.

Katniss’ courage is again displayed when after honoring Rue, she faces the cameras signaling her defiance and sparking a revolution. Because a protagonist’s actions should cause ramifications and consequences.

When Peeta, also an ally, who has befriended her family in past, is injured, Katniss rescues him and nurses him back to health.

Her courage and resourcefulness highlighted when she returns to the cornucopia, creates a distraction, and steals valuable supplies to keep herself and Peeta alive.

The Not-so Happy Climax: A moral dilemma further underlines her key traits and values as her and Peeta refuse to bend to the evil system of the ruling government.

Katniss growths throughout the story, but her enduring traits remain the same. It’s one of the keys of writing consistent and potent characters.

A side note: while Collins has been criticized for some aspects of her series, one thing that she gets right is her world building, how there is no safe place in this twisted culture. It creates nearly relentless tension and haunts every part of the story. If you’re working at increasing tension in your storytelling, her techniques are worth examining.

Here’s a link to Bullies, Bastards & Bitches on amazon.

Here’s a link to Bullies, Bastards & Bitches from Writer’s Digest that includes free downloads.

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Stay inspired

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