What are Character Traits?

What a character!

In order to learn what character traits are, we need to understand the different types of characters. Whether it’s the white whale in Moby Dick, the tiger in Life of Pi, or Harry Potter in The Prisoner of Azkaban, every fictional story you’ve ever read is character driven. And, if you think about it, characters are not always people – or animals for that matter. Characters can be monsters, spirits, a storm, or even that creepy semi-truck in Steven Spielberg’s Duel.

Why do we need characters? Because their needs and motivations are central to the action. Characters do things. They want things. They pursue goals. And all of this drives the story forward. But, what actually creates a character in a piece of literature? How do they come to life in our minds while we’re reading? The answer is simple: character traits. So, what are character traits anyway?  Read on!

What are character traits?

Character traits are the many different aspects of a person’s personality and behavior. Everyone – fictional and otherwise – is an amalgam of dozens of different traits. Stop for a moment and think about a fictional character like Harry Potter. How would his friends describe him? They might say he’s strong, patient, loyal. Now think how he would describe himself at times. Nervous. Sad. Uncertain. While these descriptions are contradictory, they can all still be part of the same character. Character traits are the good and the bad, the noble and the selfish, the right and the wrong that make up the complex – and sometimes conflicted – personalities of real people and fictional ones, as well.

Luckily for us, while real, flesh-and-blood people have hundreds of character traits that intertwine and clash, literary characters usually have far fewer. Literary characters aren’t real people, after all. As much as we can come to love them, they are essentially just symbols used by the writer. Literary characters are there to represent a part of the story and, as we mentioned above, move it forward. They represent the good forces in a story, our hero – Harry Potter. They represent the forces that stand against him – Malfoy. And, because they are symbolic, and therefore simplified, it’s much easier to identify their character traits.

Why are they important in a story?

Fictional character traits are the core values that drive the character’s choices and actions. While a character might sometimes do something unexpected, we instinctively know that their core values will guide them as they move through the story’s plotline and face its challenges.

By identifying a character’s core traits, we can more fully understand the story as it unfolds. We can watch, for instance, as someone we’ve come to know as honest has to make a decision where he’s tempted to lie. We can read about a character who has been basically selfish, as she has to make an unselfish choice. By understanding their character traits from earlier in the story, the tension of the story is heightened. We can literally feel the struggle these characters are experiencing. Without that understanding, there would be no tension. We wouldn’t know why the characters were in pain, why their choices were difficult, and wouldn’t appreciate the growth they ultimately experienced.

What kinds of character traits are there?

There are literally hundreds of character traits – both in real life and in literature. Each one has meaning of its own, of course, but that meaning deepens when different traits appear in a single character. A greedy man is just greedy, for example. But a greedy man who is also terribly timid elicits more sympathy when we read about him.

The list of character traits describes all of the good and bad in the human race, and is as extensive as the words you can think of to describe anyone and everyone you know. Daring. Dependable. Quirky. Brave. Timid. Lonely. Nervous. Gentle. Happy. Eager. Outgoing. Introverted. Goofy. Congenial. Selfish. Sulky. Loud. Conceited. Imaginative. Controlling. Sincere. Cooperative. Sneaky. Quiet. This list could go on and on.

One good way to think up different character traits is to simply sit and think about a favorite literary character. For example, let’s take Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. What comes to mind when you think of him? Words, such as, “determined,” “kind,” “generous,” “funny,” “open minded” and “sympathetic” probably top your list.

Activities for teaching character traits

As early as the third grade, the Common Core State Standards requires that children be able to understand character traits. Specifically, the Common Core Literacy Standard for third graders states that children should be able to “describe characters in a story,” including their motivations, individual traits and feelings, and also explain how those traits drive the story’s main events.

That’s a tall order for someone who is just learning to read longer sentences, bigger words and more complex paragraphs. However, if you want to help your child understand character traits and why they’re important in a story, here are a few simple activities you can try.

  • Make a chart – When your child has finished a short book, start by discussing character traits, what they are and how we can recognize them. Need a hint? It’s by what the characters do. Firstly, help her make a chart with three columns. Secondly, label the first column “name,” the second column “actions,” and the third one “traits.” Thirdly, help her identify two or three of the main characters in her book. Then have her write out some of the actions those characters took. Finally, do some brainstorming with her. What do those actions tell us about each character?
  • Take a look inside – Start by using a light to cast a silhouette of your child’s head and shoulders onto a paper taped to the wall. Make a quick outline on the paper. Now let her fill her silhouette with her own character traits. She may need some prompting, but once she starts writing “funny,” “smart,” “likes animals,” she’ll develop a clearer picture of just what character traits are.
  • Take a character’s place – Starting with a fresh story, ask your child to imagine that she is one of the characters in the story. Have her create a simple costume – so she can really “get into character.” Now have her act out a scene from the story and ask, “How did the character feel?” Was the character jealous? Mad? Scared? Identifying those feelings and what caused them can help her pinpoint character traits.