Nine ways to show a character’s personality

Virtually infinite ways exist to show a character’s personality, but all should follow one simple, guiding principle: It must reveal and be grounded in the character’s motivations, that is, what matters most to him. In the showing example from yesterday, Jane clearly places great value on caring for others (the way she treats Melissa) and has fun by pushing her abilities (rock climbing). The narrator also has motivations in that he wants to impress Jane and that he respects her.

Here are some common ways to reveal a character’s personality in a story.

The protagonist’s name could have a symbolic association, such as through the way it sounds or by its actual meaning. For example, if you write men’s adventures stories, your protagonist probably should have a strong sounding name like Cody or Chase. Or maybe you would name him Dirk, which also is a type of dagger, though be forewarned, most readers won’t pick up on a name’s actual meaning (but it’s a nice Easter egg).

These can consist of innate features such as height, hair color, and gender, or acquired features such as hairstyle, clothing and tattoos. Too often, novice authors present innate features that are bland that don’t reveal anything about the character (He stood 5’11”, brown wavy hair, and blue eyes.); always ensure that that any innate features given present a vivid and meaningful picture – for example, a character who feels alienated might be described as He stood 6’7”, with hair past his shoulders to hide his long neck and a faded blue. Acquired features always are a better option for writers as they show decisions a character has made or they manifest his mood, such as From the backside, his long, ebony-colored hair melded into the ankle-length black trench coat he always wore suggests the character belongs to the Goth subculture and hence maybe is someone looking for meaning and for identity.

The everyday decisions a character makes about his life can tell a lot about him. An accountant is serious and prefers to play it safe, a middle age man who plays competitive sports on weekends longs for his youth, a housewife who prepares elaborate Italian meals from scratch just like nonna did values her heritage, traditions and family, the teenager who always sleeps in his clothes on a ragged couch in the basement rather than his room upstairs shows dissatisfaction with his family and their middle class lifestyle.

Habits and mannerisms
Habits and mannerisms often offer subtle yet highly memorable manifestations of a character’s personality. Someone with a facial tic, for example, might be nervous. In the hands of a master writer, though, habits and mannerisms can be deliver clues about a character’s inner workings and develop the story’s plot. A tic, for example, can indicate that a character who is cool and collected on the surface actually is subconsciously nervous and so is hiding something.

Inner life
With the exception of a diary, the most direct way to know a character’s true motivations and intentions is to get inside his head and present to readers his thoughts, inner monologues and introspections. An alternate, less direct way is to share his perspectives and responses to experiences he has through the story. While this usually requires longer scenes and the reader must infer from it his inner life, but this route, as it typically must be presented via dramatic action, also is far more satisfying to readers.

Interactions with others
What a character says and does when others are around tells a lot about his personality. Through dialogue, a character’s inner life and values can be shown, as he expresses them verbally. Actions always speak louder than words, of course, so what he actually, physically does always shows his true colors. Indeed, most of your depiction of a character ought to be delivered through his physical actions.

The way a character speaks can be just as significant as what they say. For example, you might describe the quality of the character’s voice or his tone. Or he may have favored words or phrases that represent his core philosophy or reveals his attitude. He may have an accent that tells about his heritage. Always be careful to avoid stereotypes when describing speech patterns, however, especially when showing accents and regional dialects.

Attitudes of other characters toward him
Characters who have a long associations with someone will base their view of him on past interactions and heard stories. The backstory of what led to that view usually doesn’t need to be told, as the past behaviors of the character in question can be inferred by current reactions to him. For example, a detective who grimaces upon hearing a character’s name or an uncle who just shakes his head as hearing the character propose his latest get rich quick scheme shows that in the past the man in question has proven himself untrustworthy or even has been a con artist.

Past history
A person arguably is a culmination of their past experiences, and so the same should apply to your character. His parents, when and where he was born, his brothers and sisters, where he grew up, where he went to school, his first love, the jobs he held, and more all shaped the character’s personality. The trick is to only quick slip in a necessary detail from his background rather than weigh down the novel with a long backstory. For example, having a character note in passing how the autumn trees remind him of his childhood days at Lawrence Academy tells readers that he came from an extremely wealthy family.

You need not use all of these techniques when describing your character. In addition, avoid giving in them one large lump of a backstory. Use them instead when appropriate in the story, by weaving them in one at a time when needed to establish a character’s motivations during an action scene.