Can You Define Your Characters in One Word?

Most of the time, we exert ourselves to make our characters as deep and dimensional as we can. Because the best characters are usually those who are complex and even dichotomous, writers want to create characters who demonstrate all the contradictory intricacies of real-life humans. That said, and despite our best efforts, we’re never going to be able to truly pull this off. If for no other reason than because of the space and time limitations of a story, our characters are always going to be far less multifaceted than are real people. (Actually, when you come right down to it, we have no choice but to simplify our characters, since if we tried to present all the contradictions of a real human being, our readers would end up bewildered…)

In recognizing this limitation, we can actually use it to strengthen our characters and, more importantly, strengthen our readers’ perception of them. Today, I want you to do something really far out and think about your character. (I know, I know, that’s a big stretch for all of you writer types). What I want you to think about is how you would define your characters if you had to limit your definition to just one word.

Of course, this one word is not going to cover all the bases when it comes to this character. Well-drawn characters will always offer more than just one dimension. But, usually, we can narrow them  down to particular traits that sum up the essence of their personalities.

For example, Heathcliff is vengeful, Han Solo is sarcastic, Scarlett O’Hara is conniving.

If you’re familiar with these characters, then you know there’s much more to them than just this. But these are the traits that largely define these characters, and because their authors concentrated on these traits until they became larger than life, these are the traits for which we remember these characters. These are the traits that make them memorable.

And who among us doesn’t want to create a character that is just as enduring?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What one word best defines your characters? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. My current hero is complex in a variety of ways but not enough to confuse the reader hopefully. I would say the trait that defines him is “brave,” even though he can be afraid of what he’s facing at the time. He still stands his ground no matter what.

  2. Bravery is intrinsic to good characters. He can be many horrible or unworthy things, but if he doesn’t have a streak of bravery – a survivor’s soul – readers probably won’t find him worth their time or interest. So that’s a good word to be defined by!

  3. I created my protagonist by using a character definition questionnaire. I answered the questions based upon me. When finished, I read what I had written. My reaction was: “What a miserable person.”

    One word definition of my protagonist: Less.

    (Recently, at a fast food restaurant, when the nice person behind the counter asked for my name to put on the order, I said, “Les.” She would not accept the name because she did not think it was a real name.)

  4. Names come in all shapes and sizes these days! I actually used “Les” as a nickname for a character in A Man Called Outlaw, although she was a woman.

  5. One word: lonely.

    I was actually a little surprised to find myself writing this, because she didn’t start out that way.

  6. Amazing how characters start evolving the better we get to know them.

  7. Interesting challenge, to describe your protag with just one word. Damn hard to do! 🙂 I’d say the word that best describes my heroine is “determined”. But a very close second would be “stubborn.” Thanks for making me do some brain gymnastics about it, K.M. 😀

  8. Honorable. Though not perfect. 😉

  9. @Vero: Determined and stubborn are both good, since they offer flip sides of the same thing. Instant built-in strength and weakness!

    @Melissa: I’m a sucker for honorable, imperfect characters. 😉

  10. I’ve been trying to develop “an elevator pitch” for my novel in anticipation of a conference. This is a good way to think about the character part. Alas, I think going from “handicapped math genius” to “concientious” may not be an exciting shift, even though Jinxx’s primary concern is being a good (and Godly) person. Oh, the struggles of brevity!

  11. The trouble with the one-word exercise is that are so many one words that could describe the character (handicapped, mathematician, genius, conscientious). They’re all equally true, but usually it’s in the ones that describe the character’s inner state that really get to the heart of things.

  12. Jute and Fina Jinn? Magical applies to both, but then they are twins.

  13. Heroine = frozen. Hero = compromised.

  14. @Joan: Great names!

    @Incy: “Frozen” would be a good one for one of my recent heroines as well.

  15. Tough one! I think the hero of my WiP is more ‘idealistic’ than anything else. His idealism affects his every decision: who to kiss and whose life to save.

  16. Idealism offers a lot of story possibilities. You can take it one way and have the world sober up that idealism, or take it the other and have the idealism become a light within the world.

  17. Felicia R Johnson says

    I think the one word that describes my character is “just.” He wants to see justice done and is quite willing to punish those who have done wrong.

  18. Thank you! A great way to view the character in a new light. My two main characters are “Rebellious” and “Heartbroken.”

  19. My protagnist is insightful in that he knows people. So, in a word, I would describe his character as “knowing” 🙂

  20. T.C. O’Neil says

    MC Julian Nero Silanus is an angsty young adult whose essence revolves around the word “damaged.” Other characters embody the words “ruthless,” “insatiable,” and “driven.”

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