One of the quintessential steps for my concept creation came from a fill-in character sheet for Dungeons & Dragons. Stuffed in a corner underneath a large section letting you describe your character’s appearance, there was a small box labeled “Personality” and beneath it in fine text were instructions that read “List 6 words to describe your character.”
Six words to completely encapsulate the essence of your entire character’s life and backstory.
It seemed sparse and inadequate. The surprising thing is how much you can say with six small words.
The power of six words
Six words give you enough to focus on what is most important about your character’s personality and provide a big picture of who they are. It gives you three for the broad strokes and three for the contradictions that add depth. It makes you concentrate on what is essential, stripping away the superfluous and leaving only the intrinsic soul behind. Distilling the essence of your character.
Of course, to do this you need to know your story well enough and your characters. When you have finished your first draft, take some time to really figure out your story. Often the story you set out to create is different than the one you created. This means, along with changes in your plot, your characters will need to be changed or focused. Honing a character is not something to attempt early in your development process. It is reductive and can limit creating real and complex characters.
While editing, try distilling every character down to six adjectives. It will crystallize who each character is. This can help you to determine if characters are too similar, serving too many roles, or too ephemeral.
If characters share more than two traits, consider whether or not they are playing the same role in your story. Although family members may be similar, more than two traits describing their core may make them feel redundant in the story. Look at their purpose and see if you need both.
If you need both characters, consider ways to shift their personalities to make both feel more like individuals. Then consider where changes in the story could highlight these differences. Try to include as many differentiating moments as possible so your similar characters stand out when you have finished revisions.
If it is impossible to narrow it to six, the character may be serving too many disparate purposes in the story. Each character should have a focused role that only they can perform. The six traits should reflect and amplify this role. If you can’t get it down to six it may be because you have them performing too many roles and these need to be split into other characters.
Look at what the character is doing in the story. Can you split it into two characters? Just as a thought experiment consider what changes adding a new character will make to the story. Will it emphasize the main character’s storyline?
If you can’t split the character, consider what actions that character took that are not essential to the main plot. Can you remove any that would prune adjectives? Is there a different path to move the plot forward where the character reuses an adjective? Try to really look at what you need to make the character work.
If you can’t manage to get to six words that aren’t synonyms, even for those pesky tertiary characters, it is likely you have a cardboard cutout instead of a real person. I often find the synonym issue when I try to hone the concept too early in character development. When the character has a richer story, other facets of their personality emerge and I need more words to incorporate them.
A good rule of thumb is if the character has a name they should have a personality. By fleshing any named character out and then honing to the six adjectives you can add nuance in even short encounters and make each person in your story feel real.
Remember there will be other adjectives that describe the character outside these six, but there should be six that identify them and are essential for the story. The cap of six then forces decisions on what is most important about the character and which traits are essential to drive the story. Anything beyond those six traits is wiggle room for edits, to rework or remove, without losing the character’s coherence.
It is amazing what you can accomplish with six words. Also, it’s hard to find an excuse to not to do this step. It is only six words.
For an example, I am going to use the three main characters of the Harry Potter series: Harry, Hermione, and Ron. The first step is simple. List adjectives that come to mind when you think of them. For me, usually two or three come fast and then I have to start thinking a little more about what makes them who they are. Keep going until you think you have it all.
Unloved orphan- more a circumstance than a trait
Heroic- but how: brave, loyal, headstrong, athletic, selfless, protective, and determined.
He is also sheltered and meek early on in the story.
Inquisitive, strong-willed bordering on stubborn, and intuitive, taking correct action instinctively.
He is kind and compassionate.
On the other hand, he is hot-headed, lashing out with such fervor that even Hermione and Ron fear
his temper at times.
Unforgiving-seeking vengeance against those who he felt did him wrong
Retaliatory-He lashed out in emotional rage against those who hurt people he cared about. Both duels he initiated were in these heated moments.
Untrusting-He always feels he has to do things on his own and doesn’t turn to his friends or Dumbledore when he could. You could call this independent, but it goes beyond a positive into a negative characteristic
Suspicious-He had a very stark view, especially early on in the books, sorting people into evil and good, based on sweeping judgments. For instance, all of Slytherin was evil. Many of his suspicions turn out to be warranted, but they were before any betrayal or evil actions had occurred.
Loyal-She is the only one of the three that sticks by the others through thick and thin throughout the books.
Just, Socially minded, rule-following. Hermione has a strong sense of justice and tries to sway others to her system of belief making her come off as high handed.
Hubristic/ Confident about her abilities and at the same time she is insecure.
Sensitive to the feelings of others as well as being sensitive to comments from those she likes or respects.
Meticulous/ perfectionistic, hard-working, tenacious, and responsible-making her the ideal academic
Compassionate-Combined with her sense of justice and sensitive nature, this trait lead her to develop S.P.E.W. and reach out to help those in need.
Argumentative-especially with Ron
Violent- She lashed out quite a bit in a physical way against people. (slugging Malfoy, siccing a flock of birds on Ron.)
Hot-headed-Ron’s temper frequently gets the best of him
Funny- Ron’s humor is central to his character and can be cutting.
Middle-child syndrome. Underappreciated and seeking recognition
Lackadaisical- He almost makes laziness an art, depending heavily on Hermione to pass his studies.
Average-Ron’s average ability and intelligence was played up adding to the feel of the middle/ forgotten child even his circle of friends.
Self-sacrificing-Without the level of recognition that Harry and Hermione receive, in a lot of ways I feel Ron sacrifices are more meaningful, but that may just be me.
Immature-Many of his negative traits spiral out from his immaturity including his hurtful humor and his lack of desire to take responsibility.
Insensitive-He makes remarks without thinking and causes harm to those around him. This is especially true of Hermione but he also recoils from Professor Lupin when he discovers Lupin is a werewolf. It is one of the traits of the typical wizard but lacks the tact of someone who is also sensitive.
Insecure-Ron insecurity leads to problems in his life and relationships. Harry gave him the potion to calm his nerves during quiddich. Ron’s insecurity drives him to prove himself because he fears he will not be loved as much because of his average ability. Eventually, this insecurity also drives a wedge between he and Harry.
More than a List
In the drawn-out description, all three were brave and loyal. These are the traits that bind them as friends. They still exist as part of their character even though both didn’t make my list of six. I felt Harry’s protective nature outshined his loyalty. However, that doesn’t mean Harry wasn’t loyal. His anger often got in the way of his loyalty which is why I chose not to have it on his list. Just because you don’t include a trait in the six doesn’t mean it can’t be there. This is just a way to help focus your characters to serve a coherent role in the story.
When considering the six adjectives, think about what is driving the story forward. Without Harry’s headstrong and untrusting nature, the group may have reached out for help more often. Without Hermione’s sense of justice, she may not have gone along with the missions. Without Ron’s insecurity, he may not have bonded so closely with the others early on and the tension between the three friends later would not have occurred. The traits that drive the story forward should be on your distilled list and they should show throughout the story and not just in plot-critical events, like Ron’s insecurity.
Once you have this short-list you can look at your scenes and see that you are showing the character’s uniqueness through their reactions and actions. You can check if you are showing the traits you intend to and make sure their weaknesses or misbeliefs are highlighted. With each editing pass, the adjectives that make it to the top six could change. Remember character development is as fluid as the rest of the process. If you need to change who the character is you can. Just make sure the story reflects this.
Main image- Snowflakes by Aaron Burden, modified: resized to banner width
Six by Ines Hegedus-Garcia
Sisters by Eye for Ebony
Over-reaching by Cristian Newman
Mannequin by Rene Böhmer
Harry Potter by Rae Tian
Round Glasses by Mag Pole
Lost in the Woods by Taylor Bryant
Books by Kurt:S
It’s Your Move by Dustin Gaffke, modified: cropped
Pet Rat by freestocks.org
Change by Peder Cho