God is in the Details.
Have you ever thought about “character details”? What makes one character leap out on the page, and another sadly forgettable? That’s what we’re hoping to explore in this clinic. I’d like to start by considering the Static Trait.
Static Trait: The Little Things
One time years ago, I sat down and filled out a huge detailed bible for my characters. Eye color, height, body build, favorite clothes, favorite songs, family, friends, high school, job, car… Boxers or briefs! You name it, I probably had it written in this bible. Despite all this knowledge and all this detail, the characters didn’t mean anything to me. In the end, I killed them. I threw out that story. Literally, those files are gone from my computer. And I never once mourned their loss.
If you made me kill Gregar, Rhaekhar, or Shannari from the Shanhasson trilogy and told me I could never read their story again, never walk in their heads, never feel their emotions…I would be devastated. I’d bawl like a baby. I would grieve for them. I know this, because I did murder them once. One time I despaired of ever having the chance to finish their story and I filed it away. It felt like my heart was cut out of my chest. I dreamed about them. I heard their voices clearly in my head. I didn’t have to drag out a character bible to check what Gregar’s favorite color was or how many friends he had in high school, yet I could sit down and write a scene in his POV and KNOW it was him, inside and out, without effort.
As for boxers or briefs, if you’re curious, Gregar prefers neither.
That’s the kind of character I want to write — and as a reader, that’s the kind of story that ends up on my keeper shelf.
What I’ve come to learn over the years is that DETAILS MATTER. However, they have to be the right details. Making a body-type chart and listing favorites simply doesn’t work for me personally. The details I want and need to know about are the ones that make a difference in how the character reacts. What do other people see when the character is stressed, afraid, angry, or in lust?
Exercise. If you’re a writer, take out one of your stories and look for a scene where two characters are interacting in some way. If you remove all the names and dialogue tags, and hand those pages to a reader, could they see definable differences in the two characters? Could they tell who was speaking just by the detail you provided?
Those little defining details are what we’re after. It’s what makes each character unique and individual. These character details remain unchanged throughout the story arc, and if used well, you can bait the hook for your reader in the most suspenseful moments of the story.
It’s called a static trait. It’s some little, everyday thing a character does without thinking. It’s part of who he is, deep inside. This trait never changes, despite whatever growth and horrors you’re putting him through in the story. Removing this trait would be like cutting off his arm or blinding him. He would be forced to become a different person without the trait.
Example: In Kung Fu Panda, Po eats when he gets nervous. Seems like a little thing, right? But everything about Po fits this trait.
He huffs and puffs up the stairs.
He seems to be the kind of person who’d rather eat than exercise.
While he might dream of being a great fighter, we don’t seem him DOING anything fighter-like in the beginning of the movie.
He even works in a restaurant!
From the very beginning, we see him with food and eating. The more nervous or upset he gets, the more he eats. So what did I mean about skillful character development baiting the reader (or in this case, the viewer)?
It happens when that innocent little static trait begins to affect the plot.
- How does Po make friends with the surly and skillful bunch of fighters? He makes them noodles. They have a companionable dinner.
- How does Master Shifu discover the secret to inspiring Po’s training? He catches Po climbing to the highest shelf in the kitchen to reach the last bit of food!
- And the scene that makes me laugh out loud every time the monsters make me watch it: the dumpling scene. Master Shifu uses food to train Po. They fight to the death over the last dumpling.
It fits. It works. I remember every little detail (okay, I’ve watched it dozens of times because it’s one of the monsters’ favorite movies). But every action he makes fits this trait. If a bad guy surprised him, what would he grab? Probably a chop stick. The audience sees it, over and over, and so believes it.
That’s the secret to the details you define for a character. The static trait makes him unique; how you use it to unfold the story is what makes him compelling and unforgettable. I don’t care if you define a comprehensive bible of traits, if none of them lie at the heart of the character and how he reacts not just once but over and over through the story, then all those details are worthless.
The real magic occurs when the audience sees a scene developing and begins to SCREAM (at least in their heads) because they know exactly what’s going to happen.
In The Return of the King Gandalf refuses to let Merry and Pippen see the mysterious ball he took from the other wizard. We already knew those two were trouble. From the very beginning of Fellowship, they were getting the other hobbits in trouble. They simply can NOT stay out of things. So weren’t you just shaking your head and moaning in agony as Pippen snuck it away from Gandalf? You KNEW Pippen couldn’t resist. He had to look at it! That curiosity is his static trait.
How about the fantastic Notre Dame football movie, Rudy? He never quit. It didn’t matter how many times the bigger, more skillful players knocked him down, he got up again. His heart would not stop. He’d sooner die than quit. So near the end when he swears he’s going to quit, we know that he’s dying inside. His dream is dead. His heart is dead. Yet he still goes back, doesn’t he? And it’s that return that fuels the other players to take a stand and win him the jersey. The final moments in the last game are driven by their admiration for his static trait.
Near the very beginning of Maverick, we see Mel holding his hand over the deck of cards, trying to use his mind to cut the deck to the exact card he wants. He plays with a deck, absently, in several scenes. Then the final hand of the big poker game, he refuses to even LOOK at the card. Weren’t you holding your breath? Were you hoping, praying, wondering, if he’d get the Ace of Spades he needed? Did he really KNOW it was there? And I couldn’t help but give a happy little sigh when Annabelle kissed him goodbye and he drew the Queen of Hearts.
That’s the magic that makes your character breathe on the page.
Static traits make the character unique and immediately identifiable. They never change. They begin to affect the plot in little ways. And then the skillful writer will put the character into a situation that will have readers screaming with excitement, fear, or both because they know exactly what’s going to happen.
A few keys to success:
- Make the static trait something small and everyday that’s not noticable to the character. It’s habit. It’s something he does without realizing it.
- Show this trait early in the story after introducing the character.
- Show it numerous times in little ways throughout the story.
- Make the big play near the end of the story where the entire outcome hinges on that static trait to have your audience breathless and on the edge of their seat.
Can you give more examples of static traits in movies or books? Think about your favorite movie or book–does the protagonist have a static trait? Discuss at will!