Being a Better Writer: Trait Dominance

This is going to be a short one today. Two reasons. One is that I’m still sick, and don’t feel great. The second is that I’ve also got a work shift today I have to be at in a little over an hour. It’s going to be an interesting day.

So, let’s not waste time (also, I really hope my head is there enough to at least make sense with this). Last night, I watched a review of a film which noted a major flaw in a character: that they were dominated by a single, overwhelming trait.

It wasn’t that they didn’t supposedly have a character outside of that one attribute. But the problem was that the writers were so sure everyone wanted to know about that trait that it came up in every scene, in every bit of wording … crud, at the end of the film, the character was still acting on this trait and reminding everyone “Oh, by the way …”

And yeah, that ended up really jarring for all involved. As the reviewer put it, it was both pointless “character development” that was shoved at the audience and distracting from everything else that the film was supposed to be about.

Thing is, this isn’t an uncommon problem. I’ve read books where the same thing happens; where the author is so determined to show us one side of a character that it becomes the only side we get to see. After I finished that review, in fact, I spent some time thinking on how a lot of stories have fallen to this weakness and ended up making a perfectly good character weaker than they needed to otherwise be, or would have been had they not been so badly thrown off-balance.

Because that’s what it is: A balance problem. Often it’s not that these characters were just one-note without any other development. There usually was all this other development. It was just buried when one aspect of their character was magnified to an insane degree.

In a way, it’s a bit like a teenager, really. Anyone else remember being in high school or middle school (or your country’s equivalent) where young kids, in an effort to “be someone” to everyone else, blew their identity out of proportion. I sure remember kids doing it, and if I’m honest I did it myself a few times.

That’s what these characters are like. It’s a similar issues. It’s not that there isn’t a depth of development and character there (though just like in real life … not always) but that they’ve shoved that aside in favor of presenting one note that they really hope will appeal to the audience. For much the same reasons too. Creators worry about the audience not enjoying a character or not appearing “in with it” or “cool enough” for the “real readers,” so they twist a character, amplifying the “one thing” that will get them in with the cool crowd.

The problem? Well, problems, really? You can probably guess. Much in the same way ninety-nine percent of us grew out of this one-note behavior, audiences do too. As each of us would quickly grow bored looking at only a tiny, zoomed in bit of color from a massive work of art, such characters quickly outstay their welcome and become annoyances that can turn a reader away rather than keep them invested. There’s no room to grow when all a character shows is the same trait. There’s no other aspects to look at, and hence no depth. Which in turn makes the character flat and dull.

The worst of it is that they didn’t need to be. Again, these are characters that have other attributes. We’re just not allowed to see them. There’s a laser-focus to the work that says “Look at this! No, look at this! We don’t care about any of that other stuff! This is the character!”

Then your reader gets bored, puts the book down, and walks away. And we don’t want that. None of us do!

So, how can we avoid having our character taken over by a singular trait? Well, for starters, we can remember to keep all of them in focus.

For example, I’m going to use Anna from Colony. Anna is, if you’ve read the book, a capable mercenary who was very literally a child soldier. And she’s good at what she does. This is something that is a common theme through the entire book—and with good reason: she’s the team’s combat expert. With her, it would have been very easy for that aspect of her character to be overwhelmingly dominating between the action scenes and the danger the characters are put in.

But there are plenty of times when she as a character is able to show other sides of herself. Personally, as the creator, one of the most establishing moments for her (and a number of readers agreed) was the scene where she first reveals how sensitive she is about the scar on her shoulder because the same action that saw her gain that scar also took her older brother from her. There are other scenes that show this side of her character, but it’s the first one that really drives home why she does what she does and what some of her deeper motivations are. Anna cares about her family. Deeply.

I think an important part of mentioning this bit of character is that it doesn’t just “come about.” Anna isn’t sitting there, almost looking at the audience going “Hey, guess what, I care about my family too.” The audience is introduced with Anna to her first trait, this dangerous, very combat capable mercenary, and then other aspects of her character grow out of that and around it. Always connected—she does what she does for her family, after all—but as the story goes on her character grows and moves in new directions. We pull away from the single, laser focus of one small part of the “picture” and start to see other bits and pieces of the tapestry, as well as how everything weaves together.

I’m not trying to toot my own horn here (though in all seriousness if you’ve not read Colony by this point you need to pick up a copy and fix that ASAP), because any good character will be written in a similar manner. Not in the same revealed approach, but in the way where the audience gets to see the larger picture of their character.

Look, I get it. It can be tempting, in the same line of reasoning that made it so in middle school, to “amp up” on aspect of a character to a ridiculous degree. To fit in with the “cool kids” audience. But … look back on those years. Did any of that acting out ever actually pan out? Or did it just become a source of cringeworthy memories?

If you’re honest, it’s probably the latter. And like in the review I watched last night, the audience knows what’s going on. Even if they don’t actually know what the root problem is they know there is a problem. One-note characters aren’t fun. They’re dull. They’re unimaginative.

They’re fake. And none of us want that. We want real, breathing, living characters that are real people to our audience.

So, how do we go about making a one-note character not a one-note character? How do we tone down that trait dominance?

Try taking a long look at them. What makes them tick? Are they dominated by one aspect of their character because all the other aspects of what makes them tick are, by contrast, very small or unexplored? Or are they one-note because they’re not developed enough to have any other personality?

Either way, it’s fixable. Pull back and look at the whole picture. Start asking yourself questions. Why is a good one. Why would the character have this trait? In Anna’s case, it led to a bunch of other aspects of her personality, such as a deep love for her family. Why does your character act the way they do?

Then start asking other questions. How did your character get here. What other things might they have an interest in or in what other ways might they act?

These seem like broad questions, but the truth of it is that characters are broad themselves. One character may act one-note to hide some other aspect of their personality, while another might be one-note because they’re young and still trying to find new things.

But ask questions. Start to develop said character. Build up their personality, shore it up, until they’re more than just one single trait. Sure, they can have a dominant focus, but don’t let it be the only thing about them. Remember what I said earlier about magnified out of control? Yeah, that.

All right, one last thing, and then I need food. And rest. Unfortunately, I will go to work instead.

But what about a character that is supposed to be one note? A character that is supposed to be dominated by a single trait because it’s their flaw? What do you do then?

The answer is pretty simple: Let the audience know you’re aware of this. Let it be an acknowledged flaw, either by other characters, or even by the one in question. Characters who let their lives be dominated by a single trait are real (just check Facebook or some popular subreddits on Reddit). They’re just deeply flawed personalities. And if we acknowledge that and have it play off of the rest of the story? Have them working to overcome it or at least have other characters play off of it? Or even explore the growth behind it?

Well, that sounds like a story!

Right, running short on time. Basically, don’t let your characters be completely dominated by one singular trait or feature. No matter how much the “cool kids” of the day seem to like it. Give them depth. Work outward to other aspects of their personality.

Or, at the very least, acknowledge the flaws of such a character, and work from there.

Good luck. Now get writing. And if you’ve enjoyed this post, consider supporting on Patreon or buying a book!

2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Trait Dominance

  1. how would you go about doing a character who’s acting one note, but making sure the audience doesn’t think they’re actually one note and end up putting the book down?

    Like

    • As a protagonist or a side character? With a side character you might get away with it until the reveal, but with a protagonist (and with the side, honestly) you can drop some hints that all isn’t as it seems. With a protagonist you can get in their head to show otherwise, and externally you can have moments that suggest they aren’t as honest about it as they seem.

      Liked by 1 person

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