Have you ever read a book or seen a movie that had such great characters that even now, months or years later, you still think about them?
That’s the real magic of storytelling. Being able to write a character that sticks in someone’s heart and mind all their life is incredibly exciting. Of course, what exactly sticks in a character for one person may be different for someone else.
But there are a few trends. If you study memorable characters that have endured over time, you’ll find that certain character traits show up again and again. This article contains 7 traits in particular that can help your characters carve a spot in the minds of readers (although there may be more than these 7!).
I got this information at a writing conference and I’m excited to pass on what I’ve learned (with my own added commentary and examples)! The talk was given by Michael A. Stackpole. I haven’t read any of his books, but listening to him talk, I could tell he’s incredibly knowledgeable about writing. Check out his website!
Before we get into the good stuff, let me start this off with two caveats:
Don’t make all of your cast all seven of these character traits. In MOST cases, that’s just bad writing (but there are always exceptions). Pick one, maybe two. Or none. Or bits and pieces of several!
Remember, none of the things listed are set-in-stone the only way to have an enduring character. They’re just guidelines.
Don’t assume that giving your characters one or two of these character traits will instantly make them a great, well-rounded character. It’s not that easy.
Strong characters have a lot of complexity and need a lot more depth than what I can explain in just one list.
And with those warnings, I give you 7 Traits of Enduring Characters!
1. An air of mystery.
There’s something about this character that we don’t fully know. If your character has a dark past, it’s usually best to keep most of it in the dark—at least for the first half of the book. Don’t tell us everything upfront. Make us wonder.
Questions keep us guessing. By human nature, readers want answers. So they’ll keep reading to find out more!
Think of Strider (Aragorn) from The Lord of the Rings, the first time we meet him. He’s dark and mysterious and up to something. We don’t even know if he’s good or bad yet. Aragorn ends up fitting some of these other traits too, but right off the bat, this is the first one we see.
2. Worthy of redemption.
This can apply to anti-heroes, villains, or anyone else applicable in your story. They’re a big jerk, but a tiny spark of humanity can sometimes help bring them to life. Maybe they’ve got a soft spot for someone or something, or maybe they truly believe they’re doing what they’re doing for the greater good.
It can even make your villains scarier, because it makes them harder to pin as nothing but an evil monster—it’s not black and white like that. The real villains aren’t always so obvious.
This ties back to the idea that it’s absolutely essential to give character flaws to the people in your writing project! The best characters are complicated and have multiple layers, so it’s hard to form an immediate opinion about them that stays the same chapter to chapter.
This can become a really gray area of morality, since some characters do things so awful that some readers will NEVER forgive them, regardless of their redemption arc.
But a character like Loki in Marvel’s Thor movies is a good example. His bitterness causes him to lash out and do awful things, but Thor still believes his brother is capable of redemption. He still sees the good in a family member who he loves so much.
3. Highly loyal, or highly treacherous.
Either you know you can trust them, or you know you can’t. This is one of those traits that you probably shouldn’t give to everyone. After all, people aren’t always reliable and consistent in their choices. Your characters should be the same.
That said, a character trait like “highly treacherous” is not as predictable as you might think. Just because we can’t trust someone doesn’t mean we know what they’re up to. We’ll be anticipating their move but completely unaware of what they’re planning—which is actually a great place to build tension.
Even if we do have some clues for what they have in mind, you can use that to build dramatic irony. You know things that the protagonists don’t! When played correctly, this can make us very afraid for your main characters.
As far as highly loyal, sometimes it’s nice to have that one character that is a “safe spot” for your character. You need to take breaks from the tension every now and then!
Example 1 – loyal
Back to Lord of the Rings, we have Sam, who is infinitely loyal to Frodo. When Frodo is trying to leave the Fellowship and go on his own, Sam follows Frodo’s boat into the water even though he can’t swim and almost drowns as a result.
When the end is near and both are completely spent, Sam finds the strength to carry Frodo partway up the mountain. This incredible, selfless loyalty and friendship endears Sam to viewers.
Example 2 – treacherous
Queen Levana from the Lunar Chronicles fits the opposite side of the spectrum as someone highly treacherous. She is loyal to absolutely no one and will lie, manipulate, and mislead to get what she wants. She claims loyalty and faithfulness to her kingdom, but knowingly imposes harsh living conditions on the vast majority of her kingdom. She claims loyalty to the man she’s in love with, but manipulates him just as much as everyone else and twists the promises she made him to her own benefit.
4. Consistent, but capable of surprises.
People are usually pretty consistent based on their personality traits (especially when it comes to character core values). They tend to make choices based on their core values, which can vary a little, but for the most part they stay on the same route.
At the same time, they’re not flat—they’re capable of making an unexpected choice when the right situation arises. This keeps us on our toes!
Since we’re talking about Lord of the Rings so much… how about Merry and Pippin? They’re consistent in their role of comic relief, and in the earlier movies, they’re not capable of much (they don’t have special skills or combat training).
Despite this, they show themselves to be quick-witted and brave when the time calls for it and they pull off incredible, unexpected feats.
5. Highly self-sacrificing.
These characters accept the challenge. When no one else will volunteer, they step up. When it comes to the life of someone they care about, they’re willing to risk their own welfare.
This kind of character trait can make for an interesting read when we know they’ll give 100% when things get rough—even die if they have to.
(Seems like a great way to drive your plot forward using characters…)
One of the most obvious examples here is Katniss from The Hunger Games. She speaks up and volunteers for almost certain death to save her sister’s life. This sort of knee-jerk reaction that she had to speak up is one of the first impressions we get of her, as readers.
6. Part of a love story.
This doesn’t have to be a romantic love story—just any powerful relationship. The lengths your character will go through for their friend/lover/family member/etc can make them more enduring as a character, because of the worth in their relationship.
Romeo and Juliet; Katniss and Prim; or even Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Really, it’s more about the relationship and the lengths one will go to save/protect the other.
7. Succeed at the impossible.
They are an expert of their task—they can do things most couldn’t dream of accomplishing. Sometimes there’s a little bit of wish-fulfillment in a character meeting this trait, which is why you can’t have it in every member of your cast.
Occasionally, however, it’s nice to have someone who’s really good at what they do. Especially when faced against an incredibly powerful villain, its fun to read them face off against their heroic foil. We want someone to cheer on!
This describes a TON of main characters, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Think about Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, Frodo Baggins, Furiosa, Celaena Sardothian… the list goes on.
Anyone who’s overthrown an empire/government, anyone who saved the world from certain doom. You’ll also notice that many of these characters are an expert at a certain task or skill. When they’re in their element, we have someone we can root for because we’re confident in their ability to come out on top.
Related article: The 5 Core Features that make up a Dynamic Character
A lot of iconic characters possess 2-5 of these traits, so remember—you’re not limited to one, and you don’t have to squeeze in all 7. For more, be sure to visit Michael A. Stackpole’s article on enduring characters.
Do you think there are any other character traits that you see in memorable characters that should be included in a list like this? Which traits do you see in your own main characters?