Three must-have writing reference books for character development

Struggling to develop a well-rounded, likable and flawed character? Stuck using the same descriptions and body language over and over again? Look no further!

Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have created a series of thesauruses to help other writers solve the development issues that plague us. And I can not recommend them enough!

In order to spread the word and joy of my new find, I’ve included a few of my favorite and most useful nuggets of wisdom from each below. But to do this, I’ve enlisted the help of one of the most well-formed characters in literary history – Elizabeth Bennet.


The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes

“While a character’s hardship or pain may generate some sympathetic feelings from the audience, only genuine empathy can spark a reader-character bond. Add punch to a hook by showing the hero’s personality in a positive light.”

positive attribute
/ˈpäzədiv əˈtriˌbyo͞ot/
noun
traits that produce personal growth, help a character achieve goals through healthy means, enhance one’s relationships and benefit other characters in some way

According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, every action or reaction is motivated by one of five inherent, human needs.

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The quest to meet one’s needs is universal – something every person on the planet can relate to – so use this to motivate your characters.

Let’s take Miss Elizabeth Bennet. While her basic physiological needs are met, she is at risk of losing some of the finer things in life. She must marry well to provide for her younger, crazy, and immature sisters. That’s a lot of responsibility. Add in a selfish and neurotic mother, and you have a character desperate to find where she belongs. Because of her family, she also longs for the respect of others and the freedom to be herself.

Once you’ve identified a primal need, a character’s positive attributes can be identified from one of four categories: morality, achievement, interactive or identity.

Elizabeth is strong and responsible because the weight of her family lies on her shoulders. She is fiercely loyal but independent, longing to break free. And her sensibility, sharp wit, and charm go along way to make her relatable to her audience.

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The Positive Trait Thesaurus breaks down all of these attributes and more by providing possible causes, associated behaviors, attitudes and thoughts.

Plus, a few tips and tricks you may not have thought about before:

  • Give your hero an attribute that seems useless or weak and have it become their greatest strength.
  • Identify one positive attribute as primary and others as secondary to keep the character from becoming messy or forgettable.
  • Character’s aren’t always honest with others or themselves, but true strengths and weaknesses will be evident in his thoughts.
  • While your protagonist should overcome their flaws, make sure her positive attributes remain steady.

The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws

“Authors can become so attached to their heroes that they don’t want to think of them as weak. But without a flaw, the hero has no way to improve or fail, and the reader has nothing to root for.”

flaw
/flô/
noun
traits that damage or minimize relationships, do not take account the well-being of others, and tend to be self-focused rather that other-focused

Flaws are put in place to sabotage your hero, to block them from getting what they want. They also create contradictions, limit growth, and add friction with your supporting cast. While positive attributes are important in creating a likable character, his flaws are where the story is truly found.

In Pride and Prejudice, they’re mentioned in the very title.

Take another look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because that is just as important here. Flaws are created by lies – an untruth the character believes about himself – which originates from a wound. It can be from his past, his upbringing, some traumatic event, but it should center on one of five basic needs.

When Elizabeth’s pride is wounded early on by Mr. Darcy, she falls back and lets her flaws take charge. She lets her judgmental personality keep her from seeing who Mr. Darcy – who has arrogance issues of his own – truly is: her perfect partner.

But flaws don’t have to just be negative. In fact, they can be applied to highlight strengths as most flaws are double-sided. Elizabeth’s pride can shine through as confidence and bold charisma, while her prejudice means she’s also highly loyal and idealistic.

Eventually, Elizabeth recognizes her mistake, and she and Mr. Darcy live happily every after. Important characters shouldn’t be the same people at the end of the journey that they were at the beginning. And the first step in overcoming their flaws is identifying and showing them.

This corresponding thesaurus lists every flaw you could ever need with the same rich details of the positive attributes. Dark and Twisty characters, here we come!

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Not super relevant to my P&P example, but I couldn’t leave it out.

 

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

“Because above all else, readers pick up a book to have an emotional experience. To create breakout fiction, writers must come up with fresh ideas to express their character’s feelings.”

Did you know that 93% of all communication is nonverbal? This includes three main categories including body language, visceral reactions, and thoughts.

One weakness – in my small opinion – in Jane Austen’s writing style is the lack of such communication. Her dialogue excels, but what about the rest?

“It is amazing to me,” said Mr. Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”

“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”

“Yes, all of them, I think… I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”

“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy… “I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen in the whole range of my acquaintance that are really accomplished.”

“Nor I, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley.

“Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”

“Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.”

“Oh, certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and, besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”

“All this she must possess,” added Darcy; “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

“Are you so severe upon your own sex, as to doubt the possibility of all this?”

“I never saw such a woman.”

Now compare the same scene to the movie version…

Note how Darcy only looks up from his desk when speaking to Elizabeth, how condescension pours from Caroline’s scoff and swagger, how Elizabeth snaps her book shut and later challenges Darcy’s serious words with coy smile. Wouldn’t the written version be so much better with a few nonverbal cues added?

As Angela and Becca write “Through the use of sensory details, a well chosen simile, specific verbs, and body cues that correspond with the featured emotion, readers can see and feel [it].”

But if you are anything like me, you often find yourself stuck using the same body language over and over again: rolling of eyes, clenching of fists, raising of an eyebrow.

Luckily, this thesaurus compiles every root emotion you may need and provides new and interesting ways to describe them: physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and more.

A few other key aspects to keep in mind:

  • Know your character. Make sure the emotional responses are specific to him or her as each character may react differently based on their other personality traits, relationships and past wounds.
  • Avoid melodrama by recognizing that emotions run from mild to extreme and must follow a smooth arc of escalating from one to the other.
  • The face may be the most easily seen but don’t forget the rest of the body.
  • Avoid cliches and don’t be afraid to experiment!

Angela and Becca have two additional references in the series – The Rural Setting Thesaurus and The Urban Setting Thesaurus. I haven’t tried these out yet, but I am sure they are just as helpful. If you’ve had a chance to read, share your feedback in the comments below! 

4 thoughts on “Three must-have writing reference books for character development

  1. beccapuglisi says:

    Wow! The application of our books to such a well-loved and well-done literary giant like Pride and Prejudice is high praise. Thanks for the shout out. I’m so glad you’re liking the books. I hope they serve you well with your writing :).

    Liked by 1 person

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