Personality Traits: Nervous, Depressed, Intelligent/Ignorant, Boring/Eccentric

Marc McCutcheon’s book  Building Believable Characters is a great tool for writers to create believable characters. I’m in the section of the book called the PERSONALITY TRAITS INVENTORY. Today’s traits are Nervous, Depressed, Intelligent/Ignorant, and Boring/Eccentric.

 
The next personality McCutcheon covers is NERVOUS/SHY/SUBMISSIVE. This is different from introverted. The nervous/shy/submissive character has nervous ticks like fidgeting, trembling, clenched jaws, blushing, or stuttering. They are apologetic, deferential, won’t make eye contact, and solicitous. If your protagonist suffers from this personality trait, you’ll need to find a way to make him sympathetic so the reader won’t walk away. I once began a book where the protagonist became morbidly obese, and everyone (including his parents) mocked him for it. I put the book aside and never finished it because I felt too uncomfortable to identify with the hero. If you decide to use this personality trait for your hero, he definitely has a flaw to overcome. If the final conflict of the story is a confrontation, then your hero has a lot of preparation and growth to experience before the book’s end. 
 
SAD SACK/GLOOMY GUS is the next type. This person mopes around, slouches, sighs a lot, complains, has a “poor me” attitude, never seems happy, and generally drags everyone around him into a funk almost as deep as his own. Be ultra-careful with this character! In real life, people like this are hard to put up with. I know one of these people, and I avoid her like the herpes virus. This character is not only unsympathetic, she’s down-right toxic. Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh might suffer from a bit of this, but he’s sympathetic because he genuinely cares for his friends and will do anything to be helpful, even while he’s grumbling. If you use this character trait, couple it with positive traits to balance her negativity, or she’ll be nasty.
 
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(This image courtesy of wikipedia)
 
The next two personality traits are INTELLIGENT and IGNORANT. I’m pairing them because they both have the same danger: they can lead to stereotypical characters. The brainy nerd who wears glasses and is socially awkward. The ditzy blond who couldn’t find her way out of a paper bag with a map and a flashlight. The bumbling, naive country boy who’s built like a John Deere tractor but can’t spell CAT if you give him the C and the A (I stole that one out of a Robert P. Parker book). Intelligence or lack thereof can be an important part of your character, but avoid the stereotypes. To do that, pair the intelligence or ignorance with other traits that you don’t expect to find together. Bumbling but loves sports. Intelligent with a secret belief in UFOs or astrology. Bookish, but loves punk music concerts. The more variety you add, the better the character and the further away you get from stereotypes.
 
I’m also listing BORING and ECCENTRIC together for the same reasons above. A boring personality talks a lot about himself or about other mind-numbing subjects, has poor listening skills, might be prone to babbling, speaks in monotone (remember that teacher from Ferris Bueller played by Ben Stein?), never changes his routine, and is afraid of change. On the flip side, the eccentric is weird, original/individualistic, doesn’t care what others think, could be mad/insane/deranged, enjoys excess and extravagance, and may enjoy shocking people with unconventional behavior. These characters make great comic relief in secondary characters because of their uniqueness. If used for the protagonist (or antagonist), pair these traits up with something more normal/likable like a devotion to pets, exceptional generosity with money/time, or immense compassion. 
 
I’ll stop here. Did you find anything interesting to use? Can you come up with examples from books you’ve read where the author took one of these toxic personalities and created a fabulous character?
 
-Sonja
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4 thoughts on “Personality Traits: Nervous, Depressed, Intelligent/Ignorant, Boring/Eccentric

  1. I would agree that the ‘sad sack’ will take a lot of work make into a strong protagonist – everyone likes to THROW pity parties, but no one likes to ATTEND them. 😉

    Good thoughts on the intelligent/ignorant/boring/eccentric personalities – easy to make into stereotypes, easy to use as secondary character comic relief, but needs to be far more well-rounded to be a good main character.

    The nervous/shy/submissive one got me thinking. It’s fun to play with fantasy and create a character with undesirable traits like these who magically becomes a confident, strong, outspoken person by the end of the book. However, it can be just as good (and perhaps more realistic) to, rather than having the character become a completely different person by the end of the book, instead have them find the way to overcome their struggles as the situation demands, though not necessarily change personality entirely. Example: I have a story in which the main character is spacey/forgetful and has a crippling phobia. At the end of the story, she’s still spacey/forgetful and has a crippling phobia – but in the climax, when people’s lives were on the line, she was able to find the courage to face that phobia and do what needed to be done in spite of her fear. It doesn’t mean the phobia magically went away, but when the situation demanded her to overcome that fear, she was able to find the strength to do so.

    I’m not a fan of the American cultural concept in fiction/media that, if a protagonist has a character trait that is generally deemed ‘undesirable,’ then that trait must be gone from their personality by the end of the story (and might even be the whole point of the story – the person who was weird became ‘normal,’ huzzah!). It plays into the idea that only one type of person is allowed to be heroic – the confident, bold, assertive, dominant personality. And if your protagonist doesn’t fit that personality, then you better at least move them closer to that personality by the end of the book. I’m not personally a fan of this because I believe that heroism goes deeper than that. Maybe a shy person who has trouble speaking up for himself has to find the strength to speak boldly to resolve a problem – and that will be an awesome struggle and great work for him to overcome (in terms of story and character arc) – but does it mean he stops being a generally shy person entirely? Does that mean shyness is bad? Does it mean a person who is shy is inherently flawed and needs to be fixed? I’m not sure I’d say yes to any of those (barring shyness to a point of preventing, say, a basic level of normal functioning – a person who is so shy they can’t even step out of the house might consider working on that, for instance).

    Loosely related: I love the recent Disney movie Frozen, and recently noticed the wonderful truism revealed in one of the songs (“Fixer-Upper,” a song about how a person might have their flaws, but love can ‘fix them up’).

    “We’re not sayin’ you can change him,
    ‘Cause people don’t really change.
    We’re only saying that love’s a force
    That’s powerful and strange.
    People make bad choices if they’re mad,
    Or scared, or stressed.
    Throw a little love their way.

    And you’ll bring out their best.”

    I find these lyrics incredibly true. We like to fixate on the idea of ‘changing’ someone for the better, but that’s not typically a realistic expectation. But love can bring out the best in all of us.

    • Wonderful thoughts, Aggeloi. Thanks for sharing. I agree with you that negative personality traits don’t HAVE to change by the end of the story–but the one that stands in the way should at least be conquered at the critical moment. I haven’t seen the movie Frozen yet, but I will.

  2. Another interesting thought: whether a personality trait will be interpreted as ‘negative’ or not will depend on culture, at least to some degree. Someone who is uncomfortable maintaining eye contact, doesn’t like to speak up, prefers not to talk to strangers, etc might be viewed as ‘stilted’ in America, but would be quite polite and proper in Japan.

    • Good point. In Greece, “personal space” is a foreign concept. It’s perfectly acceptable to stand ultra-close to the person you’re speaking with. In the US, if someone stands too close, we tend to back away.

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