Five Things to Think About When Choosing Traits for Your Defining Character Moments
First impressions matter. In fact, first impressions matter even more in stories where readers have been conditioned to take a character’s actions in their first major scene as defining. Therefore, it is important to be deliberate in this defining character moment, so we at Pages of Fiction have decided to give you some things to think about when you choose which aspects of your character to highlight at their introduction.
Is the trait(s) representative of the character? At first, this seems obvious, but it’s a question worth asking. This is most often broken in characters introduced in desperate situations. It’s not at all uncommon for people to do things they normally wouldn’t do in these cases, and it’s usually good writing to have them do so IF the readers have the necessary background to know that the action is abnormal. However, if a character is introduced like this, you leave the readers with the wrong impression of who they are and lose the punch that an out-of-character moment would cause. This may require you rearranging scenes or changing the parameters of the desperate situations so that the character can act more in-character.
Is the trait(s) integral to who the character is? Readers are conditioned to believe that the first things they know about the character are core to who that character is-and for good reason. We need to get the big stuff to our readers fast so they can understand what’s going on. Therefore, make sure whatever you highlight in your character defining moment is something that is important to the character. Not only will this prevent misconceptions, but it will also help with pacing. If you get the important information out first, you can jump into your main plot quicker and more seamlessly.
Is the trait(s) integral to at least one upcoming plot? Readers are also conditioned to expect these early traits to contribute to a plot in some way. They could be a part of a character arc, the main plot, or a subplot. They could change as part of character development or not. They just need to affect the story or be affected by the story (or both!). Additionally, similar to the previous point, getting these plot-important traits in early will let you move to your main plot faster and streamline your pacing.
Is the trait(s) presented in an interesting way? You want your character defining moment to be memorable, and, for that to happen, it has to be presented in a way that will catch readers’ attention. While describing how a character savors their morning coffee in nauseating detail would tell you a lot about said character, that passage would likely be boring to readers. Make sure your defining character scene holds enough excitement and/or novelty to keep readers engaged.
Does this trait(s) produce the preferred emotional reaction from the readers? All characters, villain and hero alike, should have virtues and flaws. However, you do want to start out on the right foot with your characters. Generally, if you plan for a character to be well-liked, you’ll want the good traits in the defining moment to outweigh the bad (and vice versa for a villain). From here, you can, of course, complicate things (and there are certainly exceptions to this rule as well). However, you should be aware of the effect your highlighted traits will have on your character’s initial likeability.