Character growth or change is integral to great stories. Giving characters bad as well as good character traits means your characters have tendencies and predispositions. It also helps to spark ideas for backstory, for how they acquired their dominant qualities in the first place.
Here are 7 useful good character attributes:
First, what do we mean by ‘good character traits’?
Often you’ll see terms like ‘good character traits’ bandied about without any explanation of the term itself. When we talk about positive character traits, we mean any of the following:
- Features of personality or value system that benefit people and others: Qualities such as kindness, empathy or nurturing
- People’s qualities that a culture or society deems ‘noble’, ‘virtuous’ or desirable
- Personal qualities that help people or characters attain their goals – constructive (rather than destructive) elements
All three points are important, as a villain or social outsider may have a different value system. A sadistic leader, for example, may see empathy as weakness, rather than a good character trait. Their view may be that the more you care, the more you risk compromising your own goals or vision.
Here, we’ll focus on characters’ qualities traditionally viewed as benevolent, admirable or ‘good’.
Kindness is one of the most common good character traits in fiction. The Oxford Dictionary definition:
‘The quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.’
Why is kindness a good character trait?
Kindness helps us to:
- Create empathetic, reciprocal friendships or allies
- Uplift others, even when it isn’t purely for our own interest
- Increase our own well-being, satisfaction and stability (according to researchers)
How could kindness aid your character?
A main character who is kind is able to win people over easier. They find friends and allies easier because they see when others need help and are willing to step up.
This could serve your character’s own goals as they find others willing to assist because of mutual liking.
A secondary character who is kind may be a ‘helper’ figure, who supports your main character and provides them with the wisdom, care or material aid they require.
A key related good character trait when we talk about kindness is ‘courage’. It takes courage to treat others with warmth and compassion consistently. This is particularly true if we are fearful of them or in pain ourselves.
Kindness in your character could give them:
- The strength to weather obstacles and disappointments because they strive to care and understand and take comfort in this approach
- The means to forge the connections they need to grow and experience success in their goals and tasks
Example of a kind character
The helper character Samwise Gamgee in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fantasy saga is a classic example.
As Frodo’s friend and sidekick, Samwise offers unwavering support. In the process of venturing into dangerous lands with Frodo he discovers courage and tenacity beyond his bumbling, affable but at times fearful early characterization.
Among good character traits, courage is important, especially in characters who must overcome inner conflict. Courage is:
‘The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery; strength in the face of pain or grief.’
That last part of courage’s definition is why courage tends to go hand-in-hand with the first positive character trait, kindness. It’s easy to be kind at our best, but much harder to be courageous when pain or grief feeds anger or fear.
Why is courage a good character trait?
The ability to do things that frighten you means you will not easily be cowed by fears such as:
- Physical danger: E.g. Mortal injury, dangerous terrain, vicious or ruthless opponents
- Rejection: Whether romantic, professional or social
- Humiliation: Such as that experienced after rejection or being shunned for mistakes
Courage is thus important for characters in many genres, from romance to action/adventure. The prying detective cannot be deterred by ominous threats. The passionate lover cannot be chased away by ambiguous signs of possible disinterest.
Courage fortifies your characters in their steadfast pursuit of their goals. It helps them to continue even through passing pain or grief. When Tolkien’s party of adventurers suffer the devastating loss of one of their party, they forge onward towards the villain’s heartland, determined. This is courage in action.
How could courage aid your character?
Courage could lend your character the commitment to persevere. A courageous character is able to persevere despite discomfort. This is the character who sticks their neck out when a group decision is wrong or unethical and says so.
Courage is key to good leadership, as it enables people to say or do what is true, honest or brave, even if doing so makes them unpopular.
Example of a courageous character
In Tamora Pierce’s YA fantasy The Song of the Lioness series, her character Allana of Trebond disguises herself as a boy ‘Alan’ so that she can switch places with her twin and train for knighthood.
Alanna/Alan’s decision requires courage due to not only the trials of becoming a knight but the danger of her gender switch being found out. She is unsure of what consequences could result. Her courage and determination, despite normative gender pressures and cultural practices, enable her to become the first female knight in the land of Tortall in centuries.
Of the many good character traits, perseverance is vital. As writers, we can relate, as we have to persevere to finish what we start.
Why is perseverance a good character trait?
Perseverance is linked to courage in that both require showing up and ‘doing the damn thing’. Yet perseverance is a matter of commitment as well as action. It’s continuing to take the small steps that will lead you to your goal. [Complete the steps in the Character and other sections of Now Novel’s dashboard process to develop your story.]
Characters who persevere either reach their goals or gain new, useful insights through failure.
A character who opens a bakery that flops spectacularly may apply the negative lessons gained to their next, successful venture.
Characters who persevere often have other related traits such as:
- Optimism: Looking on the bright side helps them to find the resolve to keep going, like an actor who keeps auditioning even if they don’t get the part
- Stubbornness: Although stubbornness may also have negative effects (if it becomes inflexibility), willful determination is key to pursuing goals as far as possible
- Commitment: To an ideal, profession, desire or aim
How could perseverance aid your character?
- Reveal to other characters that your character is trustworthy or ambitious and thus admirable or desirable
- Give your character the stamina they need to overcome all conflicts and obstacles and reach their goals
Example of a character who perseveres
Any good detective worth their badge is a good embodiment of this character trait. A detective like Louise Penny’s inspector Armand Gamache is always up to the task. In A Rule Against Murder, Gamache is staying at a hotel on summer vacation when there is a murder. Even though the detective is holidaying, he takes up the investigation without fail.
4. Good humour
Good humour is key to weathering life’s knocks and finding the amusing and surprising in people and situations.
When we talk about someone having a ‘good sense of humour’, we often mean they’re able to laugh not only at situations and others, but themselves too. This is why we have the tradition of the ‘comedy roast’, where comics and celebrities volunteer to be made fun of mercilessly on stage.
How could good humour aid your character?
A character who has a good sense of humour has several abilities:
- Speaking truth to power: The figure of the joker or jester often overlaps with that of adviser. If you look at Shakespeare’s plays, the ‘Fool’ is often the wisest character who sees the truth of situations and can communicate it to kings and paupers alike, thanks to the lightness of their approach
- Diffusing conflict: Jokers and jesters often have an uncanny ability to diffuse tension and conflict by replacing anger with laughter
- Entertaining others: Good-humoured characters are often sought out for their satisfying or distracting company
As the examples above show, humour can give your character a rare ability to ‘tell it like it is’ without getting in trouble. This is a staple of stand-up comedy, where comedians often share edgy or controversial opinions yet get away with these because the edge is smoothed by wit and playfulness.
Humour can thus give your character the means to hold a mirror up to others (like a jester to a King), without getting in too much trouble if the other character doesn’t like what they see. Characters who have a sense of humour are also useful for making difficult or distressing situations and topics easier to navigate and discuss.
Example of a good-humoured character
This type of character is also often the sidekick figure, as in Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote (1605). Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza, is a simple farmer who documents the crazed Don’s exploits. The Don attacks windmills astride his exhausted horse, imagining them to be giants. Sancho’s dry recounting of these events adds hilarity. His earthy wit underscores how outlandish and bizarre Quixote’s actions become.
Among good character traits, flexibility is also important. It enables characters to navigate situations and relationships.
Flexibility, specifically, means:
‘Willingness to change or compromise.’ (OED)
How could flexibility aid your character?
The word ‘compromise’ is often treated almost as a bad word. After all, characters may talk about a security system being ‘compromised’ meaning having a flaw or weak point that has been breached.
Yet the true meaning of flexibility or the willingness to change or compromise is being open, not necessarily in a weak or negative ‘open to attack’ sense. Flexibility is a good character trait for the lover and the scientist alike. Change in plans? Experiment doesn’t work out? The adaptable character takes it in their stride and tries another approach.
Flexibility can aid your character by:
- Promoting harmony:It’s easier to maintain good relationships with people who can admit they are wrong, or collaborate with you to find middle ground
- Helping them change tack when things aren’t working: Take an inventor as an example. If their invention keeps malfunctioning, being flexible allows them to try a different solution without being fixated on one method
Flexibility is the opposite of being controlling or dogmatic, of needing to have everything your way. Characters who are flexible grow and develop because they’re willing to see challenges and situations from multiple perspectives and are better able to find common ground.
Thus flexibility is a good character trait for creating relationships and characters in stories that feel real. [Create characters that feel real and get How to Write Real Characters, a practical workbook with exercises for developing rounded, more interesting characters.]
Example of a flexible character
Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a good example of a flexible character. Although she is idealistic, she is also open to review her firm opinions. We see this when she discovers and acknowledges that Mr Darcy is not the cold-hearted man she at first assumes.
Integrity is another key good character trait. It means:
‘The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.’
Characters who have integrity work from a place of self-awareness and truthfulness. They stand firm in the values they hold, rather than simply going with popular or powerful opinion.
How could integrity aid your character?
A firm sense of integrity allows characters to behave consistently with their own values. A character who doesn’t have integrity, for example, might cheat on a spouse to ease their own feelings of inadequacy or frustration, even though they may be aware communicating these feelings openly is the kinder, more courageous or vulnerable option.
Having integrity enables your character to:
- Speak out against injustice: Characters who have integrity are natural whistle-blowers, watchdogs and activists – they hold the corrupt to account
- Inspire others to take a stand: Characters with integrity are also good leaders, as they live the values they hold
- Pursue their goals with awareness: These characters know themselves enough to know what they value and desire and actively pursue these ends
This character trait is good for characters who are admired by others, from freedom fighters to social activists and charitable types who strive to live up to their ideals.
Example of a character who has integrity
Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s classic novel Middlemarch is a typical example of this character type. Dorothea’s faith and spirituality drive her to do good deeds. For example, she strives to improve the living conditions for her uncle’s tenants. Even so, her integrity and high-minded ideals can come across as holier-than-thou and imperious, as we see in interactions with her more worldly sister, Celia.
This last point is a reminder that each of the good character traits mentioned here have their shadow side – possible flaws or negatives that come bundled with good traits. A brave character, for example, may be foolhardy or impatient with vulnerability.
Forgiveness is one of the positive character traits that are often associated with having wisdom. To forgive means:
‘To stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw or mistake.’
When characters are unforgiving, they dole out punishment rather than give others the opportunity to learn or grow. Forgiveness is closely linked to the idea of ‘faith’ because often it entails having faith that another who has indulged a flaw or committed a mistake is capable of redemption.
Forgiveness is thus also commonly associated with humility as it shows a person’s ability to place their ego or pride second to moving forward without baggage.
How could forgiveness aid your character?
In stories, forgiveness is often a trait associated with kindness and being merciful. Being forgiving means that your character can:
- Maintain relationships through rough patches: When others wrong or offend them, they don’t leap to punish them or cut them out of their life. Forgiveness is the foundation for second (or third, or fourth) chances, and for good character relationships
- Reap unexpected rewards by ‘being the bigger person’: Tales from faith and folk tales are full of instances where characters reap unexpected rewards from judicious, careful use of their power to punish
Forgiveness enables a character to see and understand other characters from a more complex and open vantage point. Instead of sorting people into heroes and villains, the forgiving character sees patterns of constructive and destructive history and choice that make up people’s actions.
Example of forgiving characters
Literature is full of forgiving characters. In C.S. Lewis’ classic Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series, Edmund Pevensie is a Judas-like figure who betrays his other siblings to the series’ villain, the White Witch. Yet witnessing the witch’s cruelty as she turns residents of Narnia into stone awakens good character traits in Edmund. He asks his siblings’ forgiveness and they grant it. Each of the other Pevensie siblings demonstrates forgiveness.
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