As my third book review in a row, today I’d like to call attention to A Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D, because, for writers, I regard it as a handy reference for adding traits to help round out characters in development. I’ll be decribing the First Edition, which rests on my book shelf, though the book currently for sale is a second edition.
On page five of the book, the author lists its useful purposes, among which are:
- Add traits to existing characters by locating traits the the character already possesses and seeing what other traits are usually found in that type of individual.
- Double-check traits if you are uncertain they would be found in one character.
- Choose some traits at whose existence you merely hint.
- Add abnormality to a character.
- Check the lists to see how a character would behave in extreme circumstances.
- Play up opposite traits to have a character act against type.
- Use the traits to help create external attribuyes, like clothes, interests, or mannerisms.
- Get ideas about ways characters grow and develop from the constellation of traits.
- Give characters accurate careers and interests.
- Show another side to a character.
- Create authentic adult flashbacks to childhood.
- Add spice to group or family life.
- Create multiple characters who can play off each other.
This book takes a different approach than Prof. Indick’s Psychology for Screenwriters, which I previously reviewed. This book is oriented in a more clinical manner and focuses on contemporary life styles, career roles, and character traits, floating free of the classic theoretical foundations of psychotherapy described in Indick’s work and taking these matters as observed givens.
As Prof. Edelstein observes, roles influence traits, and traits influence roles; situations influence traits, and traits influence situations; and relationships influence traits, and traits influence situations. To describe this double-triangular matrix of influences for writers from the perspective of a psychiatrist is a great service to help us create believable character actions in different contexts, to create characters from a diversity of cultural backgrounds, and, at the same time, to break up stereotypes and cliches.
Your consultations will commence with Chapter Two, which describes twenty Adult Styles — Adventurer, Bossy, Conventional/Conformist, Creator, Dependent, etc. Each style is described in a brief, overview fashion and fleshed out with lists of Internal characteristics; Interpersonal; and Normal -> Extreme variants. Then, there are brief summaries of the childhood style and the adult style in each category.
Chapter Three covers Child and Adolescent Types, describing the shifts in psychological orientation that occur at different stages of development. In the adult, barring serious trauma, three years might not usually mean much difference in behavior, while writing believable behavior for a five year old will be drastically different than for a two year old or an eight year old. This chapter lays out the map, including the gender differences.
Chapter Four gets into abnormal behaviors, ranging from retardation to common neuroses, i.e., anxiety types, phobias and compulsions, and dangerous psychoses like schizophrenia and psychopathology. Again, we’re briefed on each of the conditions and lists of behaviors follow, food for thought for the writer as to what to “show, not tell” about their characters’ behaviors.
Chapter Five describes Criminal Traits. Did you realize there are sixteen styles of murderers? I hadn’t given it that much thought, but there they are. This chapter covers the gamut from arsonists to white collar criminals. This chapter also describes the motives of perpetrators, from the mildly awful to the genuinely evil.
The remaining chapters continue with Sexual Styles (normal and abnormal, nothing spared); Love and Marriage (from choosing a partner through parenting and divorce); Turn of Events (various environmental, circumstantial, and developmental problems explored); Physical Disorders (memory and sleep disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, STDs, and so on); Career Traits (choices, problems, traits of people in forty-six contemporary careers); Group Influences (family types, traits of leaders and members, roles of group members, etc.); and Nonverbal and Verbal Communication methodologies (body language, dress, names).
As you can imagine, there’s quite a range of reference here to help you build the “individuals” you want to populate your screenplay. Though I recommend putting in the bulk of your research work in the front end, before actually writing the screenplay, and developing your characters pretty richly right after developing your grand concept, this book may come in handy for repeated references at different stages of writing the screenplay when you’re looking for food for thought to keep things consistent and believable enough to be convincing — even if it’s “crazy” you’re writing.