by Jenny Hansen
Every writer strives to create characters who leap off the page as unique, compelling, fully-formed people. We spend hours, days, and sometimes years to make them believable.
Recently, I attended a day job webinar that gave me new tools and perspectives for fiction. (I love it when that happens.)
The course detailed the eight characteristics every person needs to successfully navigate this “adulting” thing and realize their full potential. Here are my thoughts about tweaking these traits to help our own heroes and heroines as they journey through our stories.
We want our characters to be whole by the end of the story, or at least whole enough to fight another day. The list below, shared by a long-time social worker, contains the qualities people need to be fully actualized [aka happy], and some exercises that will help them “get there.”
The conundrum of happy characters often lies inside the artist. Most creative spirits are forged from adversity. As Richard M. Nixon said, “The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire.”
We want to put our characters through these hot fires of hell. We need to hold them to the flames to keep readers reading. But most writers also want their characters to find happiness by the time they write The End. It's especially difficult to keep our eye on the happy prize when the world around us is chaotic.
How do you mess with a character’s happily-ever-after under these circumstances?
Below are quotes, questions and affirmations for each quality that may spark ideas for your own characters. The smart writer will pick a few traits and ensure that their character is terrible at them.
Note: Angela Ackerman a post for us about a character’s unmet need, which is a great counterpart to this post. A character’s "lacking" qualities or their unmet need is the stuff of a great hero’s journey.
“Curiosity is one of the great secrets of happiness.” – Bryant McGill
An enquiring mind is a wonderful thing. People with highly developed curiosity are often healthier and happier. People with a well-developed sense of curiosity are often more mindful of their world, and more accepting of themselves.
“Out of crisis, comes clarity.” – Randolph O’Toole
The actual definition of clarity is “the quality of transparency or purity.” It means to have clearness, wisdom, an understanding of your world or situation.
In fiction, if you have a mentor in your book, they likely have clarity. How would this look on the page? What might this mentor say to your main character?
“It is confidence in our bodies, minds, and spirits that allows us to keep looking for new adventures.” – Oprah Winfrey
Character affirmations to help underscore your character's confidence:
“The creative adult is the child who survived.” – Ursula Le Guin
Mantras or sayings for a character brimming with creativity:
“Feelings are just visitors, let them come and go.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Everyone has a friend or family member who goes from zero to everything when it comes to their emotions. Calm is the opposite of that. Calm takes a moment to assess. Calm looks inward before it looks outward.
Does your character have calm? How do they use to progress your plot? Perhaps they lack calm. How does that hurt them?
If they have this superpower, here are their mantras.
“Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and than you think.” – Christopher Robin
Courage is what every great hero is made of. It's about willingness, effort and potential failure. It is about finding a way where there is no way.
How would a courageous character look?
William Faulkner said, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”
“If I am not first for myself, then who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” – Rabbi Hillel
Love and compassion for others starts with love and compassion for one’s self. It is the hardest thing to remember for many of us and the easiest thing to forget in times of stress.
Characters who have compassion as their superpower should know the following:
“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” – Jack Kornfield
“Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self.” – Harriet Lerner
Do you have a character with a strong community or one who keeps to themselves? Do they want to be connected, but don't know what that looks like? Perhaps they build a community for others but don’t feel they deserve one of their own.
How does your character connect? What is their love language? Is it their time…gifts…actions?
Here are some philosophies the connected character might live by:
What is your main character's superpower trait? What are they terrible at? What other traits would you add to the list? Share your thoughts down in the comments!
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By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 18 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Way too much great stuff here to even mention - but this one hit me close to home.
“The creative adult is the child who survived.” – Ursula Le Guin
That was my favorite quote too. Thanks Laura!
Right there with you on this one, Laura. My mantra has always been, "Growing old is inevitable, but growing up is optional." If we want to keep our creativity, we have to keep the kid alive. The world looks so much more interesting through the eyes of a child. Never forget how to laugh, play, and look around you with innocence and wonder.
LOL. Growing up is highly overrated in my book. 🙂
This is something which works for my current project. You're always spot-on with what I need.
Awwww, thanks Denise! Which quality will you have your main character be terrible at?
Connectedness. Has to the real reason to stay and put down roots.
Oh, man, what a perfect essay! It came at just the right time. Jenny, this one is a keeper because I need to think about two, no three, characters in my current WIP and this has provided a structure. Thanks!
I'm delighted to hear it, James. I like it when something makes me re-examine my characters in a new way. Your storyboarding post last week did that for me, so I'm happy to return the favor. Good luck to you!
Just want to mention that using just part of Rabbi Hillel’s quotation and leaving out the second sentence distorts its meaning. Perhaps today even more than ever.
“I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am not for others, what am I?
And if not now, when?”
Another famous one of his:
That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Law. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.
Thank you so much, Brad! That quote was actually given to me and I hadn't seen the rest. It is profound and I really appreciate you sharing it with me. I agree - it is very timely. I will go look up more of his work.
p.s. Brad - I corrected that quote. It should be shared in its full glory.
I am also a fan of keeping the inner child alive and happy, even if that does occasionally get me in trouble.
Lots of great information here. Thanks!
Thanks, Ellen! And I can't imagine you getting into trouble. Do tell...
LOL. Give it time.
I've always had a soft spot for A.A. Milne insights. The quotes throughout the post are great.
My character deals with becoming brave and living outside their preordained expectations.
I like this list as I can use it to diagnose one of the minor characters I want to make stand out.
Ooooooh - great idea to craft the minor character this way. Every character thinks it's THEIR book, so I always like letting a minor character shine. Particularly because I usually want to do a spinoff book. 🙂
Awesome post, Jenny! Connectedness - My character has walled himself off from others, protecting himself from hurt. His heart is closed off, until he's forced to work with others for something he truly wants. Love the Harriet Lerner quote.
That's fantastic, Barb. And by making him crappy at Connection, you've opened up so much plot possibility. Go you!! (And I adore all of Lerner's books. She makes such hard concepts so easy to understand.)