Why Cool Character Traits (Just for the Sake of Cool) Are Not Cool

Why Cool Character Traits (Just for the Sake of Cool) Are Not Cool

We’re all looking for high-concept ideas for our stories and character traits these days. You need to come up with something unique that’s going to make your story stand out on the bookshelf. Plus, who among us doesn’t like a little extra “cool” in our stories–just because?

But hold up right there.

“Cool” for the sake of cool ain’t cool.

Think Twice Before Adding “Cool” Character Traits to Your Story

It’s easy to believe the hardest thing about coming up with a good idea is, you know, coming up with it. But that’s only the beginning. It’s not enough to come up with an awesome or interesting idea for your story. What’s even more important is coming up with a way to use this great idea.

For example, I’m going to have to pick on Jupiter Ascending again today. Whether its idea of Channing Tatum as a killer werewolf-hybrid-alien was cool or not, I leave up to you. But it was certainly intended to be cool.

Channing Tatum Jupiter Ascending Caine

By far the most interesting thing about this character was his supposedly uncontrollable proclivity for ripping out the throats of nobles. It’s what created the Ghost in his backstory. It hints at risks in his relationship with the royal protagonist. It’s dark and dangerous and, in a sense, “cool.”

It’s emphasized to the point it seems like foreshadowing. Surely, he’s going to do some throat-ripping later on in the story. Surely, this interesting aspect of his character is going to end up mattering to the story.

But… nope. The idea never goes full circle to be realized in the story’s second half. Indeed, the important character trait is never even used in the story.

Are You Taking Full Advantage of All Your Best Ideas?

Consider your story. What aspects are you most proud of? Which of your protagonist’s character traits are most interesting to you? Now, look again. Have you done more than merely mention these aspects and traits? Are there scenes late in your story that actually use these traits?

This principle really comes down to two important techniques:

1. Foreshadowing

If you emphasize something in the first half, you must then bring it to fruition it in the second. This is especially true when that something is cool enough to pique reader interest and whet their appetites.

2. Showing vs. Telling

In Caine the Werewolf-Hybrid-Alien’s case, his past as a crazy throat-ripper turned out to be all backstory (which raises another inherent, if unrelated, problem of the backstory being more interesting than the main story). The problem is that the important Ghost in the backstory ends up being told to readers instead of shown. This supposedly important character trait is never proven to readers, and, as a result, ends up carrying far less weight within the story than it could have.

The last thing any of us want to do is unwittingly waste our best ideas. Make sure you’re taking full advantage of all the character traits that are most likely to interest your readers.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think are your protagonist’s most interesting character traits? Tell me in the comments!

Why Cool Character Traits (Just for the Sake of Cool) Are Not Cool

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. In Archomai, Jeremiah is the main character. His traits are, his amazing courage, his goodness, and his self-sacrifice. I tried something a bit different in the story. I never describe Jeremiah. When he enters the kingdom of Archomai, he sees his reflection in a stream of water, and he remarks, “It is me, but I am older.” My hope is that the reader will see their own face in the reflection or someone close to them. By so doing they become a part of the story. Time will tell if I made a mistake of not.

    Happy writing and thanks for your tireless work of instruction. I for one have benefited greatly from it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      What a great line! I totally love that. It speaks more to the character than his appearance and is totally accurate while creating all kinds of subtext.

  2. I’ve worked to avoid having too much awesomeness in a character or story. Years ago, “Weird Tales” rejected one of my stories saying “it was good, but had too many wonders.” I didn’t know a fantasy could have that problem 🙂 But, ever since I’ve tried to make sure that any “wonder” is integral and organic to the stories I put them in.

    I have a character who is a prophet. She’s considered an elite prophet, because all of her prophecies come to pass, and she can accurately interpret the prophecies of other prophets. She’s also an ancient immortal, part of a race of immortals. She is old enough that she’s witnessed the precession of the equinoxes from her planet — this means she’s seen the constellations shift position in the sky.

    The story is partly a mystery, unraveling the key players and aims of a primordial war. Because of her age, it matters when the prophet says something “is new under the sun.” It makes it plausible when she comes up with strategies to deal with certain situations. It gives her credibility when she holds back certain information from the other characters, because she’s trying to avoid a Greek-style prophecy trap, where trying to prevent a prophecy brings it about instead.

    The entire story is about figuring out the key to her latest prophecy, in which she foresees an epic battle against mysterious beings. Where do these creatures come from? Why are they attacking? How can they be stopped?

    I’ve tempered and checked her in ways that I hope makes her more “real” as a character. Yes, she’s wise, but I show she’s not omniscient. She’s experienced at political intrigues and has seen many wars, so she’s a great strategist, but her current strategies depend on the competence and good faith of her friends.

    I want to make sure that the readers root for her to win and believe she can win without her seeming “ridiculously overpowered,” to borrow a phrase from anime/video games.

    • It’s a good idea, I’d love to read about it. To me it sounds a bit like Dorian from the Nightangel Trilogy, who’s also a highly skilled prophet.

      The thing I loved about Dorian was that his predictions came true, but he also often talked about what would happen if certain criterias were not met.

      What made the character one of my favorites is the fact that he was obviously a good guy, but he was also rather flawed. His friends called him out on trying to play god and I adored the line when we said that it was true, because he even did it right at this moment

      Maybe you want to compare your prophet to Dorian, I’d be eager to see the results! 🙂

      • Thanks! I had to Google the character you’re referring to. I will save the book until after I finish mine so I don’t get unconsciously influenced.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’re on the right path! The thing about giving characters “cool,” or larger-than-life traits, is that they *must* be balanced with larger-than-life flaws. The great part of all this, though, is that those big flaws often end up being even more interesting than the positive traits–which, actually, is why Caine’s failed cool traits in Jupiter Ascending were so disappointing. The throat-ripping tendency was definitely a flaw with ramifications that would have been interesting to explore.

      • One of my betas is a female college student in India (oh, the wonders of the Internet!) Last year (before I knew anything about “Storming”) she told me the premise of a story she was working on. A young, smart rich, Indian entrepeneur nearly runs over a mysterious girl who can’t remember anything. My beta was talking about giving the hero all kinds of traits or powers, but I suggested, “He’s smart, he’s rich, he has connections. Those are his powers. In the story, put everything at risk, including his life. It will be more interesting to read if he can lose everything if he decides to protect the girl from the mysterious forces which pursue her.”

    • I have two novels going. (It helps me get over writer’s block.) But my first and dearest is Mark in “Time Flies.” His ability as a martial artist, while evidenced in the first scene, (he’s teaching kids) is well hidden, even from himself, because of his humility. It comes into play later as he must disarm an Elizabethan soldier and his ape-like henchman.

  3. My MC descends from a people (Tvarmen) that once conquered the domain of a lesser developed and geological isolated population. During the centuries their genetics mixed with the locals. Now only from time to time, when nature works its way, people with the traits that mark them as descendants from the intruders are born. People might be of mixed origin but never know. The tell-tale signs only develop when a certain genetical “threshold” percentage is met. The signs vary according to the power/amount of foreign DNA and show in different degrees from only subtle signs to full-blow noticeable changes in appearance. And they appear only when the person reaches maturity which would be between the age of 16-19 for girls and 17-20 for boys…
    Among these traits that stem from the gene pool of the invaders are traits that are connected only to the ancient royal family line which is now valued god-like. They hold the ability to tame/connect with corvidae birds – one bird will fix itself onto the mind of one person – much like a familiar/daemon/soulmate with wings – and will follow around, like a pet but a clever one!
    The society’s leaders are all Tvarmen, who live in very restrictive patterns, strongly effected by rituals and ceremonial structures (much like a church). But their number is dwindling so they force anyone who shows signs of Tvarmen origin to join their Order in the hope to maintain their grip on power. Over the time some rituals and social events have developed to “search” the population of 15 till 21 year olds for suitable “candidates”
    This is something my MC is going to try and resist. So this trait she’s got will add to the story in terms of conflict and momentum. At first her efforts to remain hidden and unnoticed and later on her struggles within the Order …. and now I won’t spoil any more details ;P

  4. I really like this post! I’m writing a book at the moment. It’s a YA Fantasy Drama, which isn’t what I usually write and it’s been tricky to develop the characters as you say. Although you talk about making “cool” characters, what I struggled with most of all was the action scenes. I kept thinking how can I make this better, more (for use of a better word) epic and then I just said to myself, I have to give my characters more barriers, more hurdles to jump over and after that it sort of all slotted together. Who knows if I achieved “cool” or not, but I enjoyed writing it and it feels right to me. It’s been a long, long process, but I have finished it now. It’s my first attempt at properly writing a book, so hopefully after it’s been proofread I’ll be able to find an agent/publisher (well, here’s hoping!). I have plans for two more in this series, but in the meantime I’ve just started a blog dedicated to another world I’ve created. I’m still getting used to the site, so it’s a little on the plain side, but I’d love it if you could give it a read and see what you think. Thanks, Bethan.
    storiesbybethan.wordpress.com

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m actually doing a post next Monday about looking for that slightly different angle on something in order to make it unique. Although the post isn’t about action scenes, it was basically inspired by the need to come up with new angles on the basic have-at-’em fight scenes. Ingenuity is important for action scenes, especially in a book, since readers won’t be able to “see” cool choreography and such, as they would in a movie.

  5. Wazzup!

    My protag needs some help. I’m still very satisfied with his character development. BUT I think his most interesting trait will be something that happens to him later in the story that changes him radically in order to meet a need. Not exactly what he wants though. This change will directly challenge the lie he’s been living and force him to confront a truth that he doesn’t want to face. I guess it’s more of what he will become or potential to be.

    Ugh…I guess that doesn’t sound like a trait. He definitely wants justice though. He kind of a reluctant hero, protector type. He could be a brutal
    warrior when he needs to be, but also shows compassion and understanding. This will also be his weakness that inhibits him from reaching his full potential until he undergoes the radical change of being unbeknownst to him.

    I hadn’t planned any foreshadowing yet but definitely sounds like a no brainer. Severus my protag, will also be a hybrid but not a werewolf or anything of the sort. So this is a gteat post for me!

    Thx

    • That should read “I’m still not satisfied with his character development”. Sorry!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Don’t worry about introducing the “cool” trait late in the story. If you build up to it consistently (and foreshadowing plays a huge role in that), then readers will appreciate the development all the more because it will most definitely matter to the story.

  6. This was a great downfall in my writing in college. My stories would always come back with notes saying, “This is cool, but what’s the POINT?” It makes sense. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, that’s ultimately what I feel Jupiter Ascending suffered from: overdose of cool ideas with no accountability to actually *do* anything with them that mattered.

  7. When I saw the title, I was hoping you’d develop your point in just this way. You didn’t disappoint. 🙂

    I’d say that’s exactly what it is. “Cool” is an easy thing to recognize–but those traits are also too easy to tack onto a character (or worse, throw them against the wall and say the mark they leave is a character) without doing the *work* to make that coolness believable. Writing lets us announce that someone is an assassin or a rebel or a bad boy, and then pretty much leave it at that and expect readers to be impressed. Doesn’t work.

    If there’s one thing real life should have taught us about this, it’s that if someone has to say they’re cool, it’s because people haven’t already noticed. Because there’s nothing cool about them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This idea kind of goes in hand in hand with the regrettable preconception many writers have that just because a character is the protagonist, readers will automatically invest in him. Doesn’t work that way. Readers will be on your side–but only *after* you’ve proved yourself and your characters to them.

  8. Stephen Mc Devitt says:

    Sometimes a character can be TOO cool to be cool. Super serious, improbable lifestyle and a dreary expressionless reaction is not cool. Sometimes it’s better if the character was more camp with stupidly outrages lines and comes off as a out-of-touch to everyone around oneself.

    • I agree! I have trouble relating to characters who are too tough and too emotionless. They don’t seem real, nor do they ever seem to be in any real danger, so I don’t feel at all invested in what happens to them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, the moment a cool character gets self-reverential or takes himself too seriously, the whole thing falls apart.

  9. Love it! This reminds me of something I was reading in Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction. She argues that the image of an egg in a cage makes sense and has “artistic unity,” while the image of a shoe in a cage is just random. Likewise, giving a character cool traits just for the fun of it is random, while cool traits that actually matter in the story contribute to the artistic unity of the work.

    This is great stuff. I have a character I’m sometimes slightly in love with (who I suspect is kind of based on a boy I was slightly in love with about ten years ago). Anyway, I need to examine what part of his traits and backstory actually matter to the story at hand. He’s not the MC, and no reader is going to have quite the same connection to him I do, so I’ve got to figure out where his story fits into the unity of the bigger story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love that! Great analogy. Basically, she’s talking about metaphorical unity–which extends far beyond the use of *actual* metaphors within the prose.

  10. Great article! So true, in fact, I’ve been told that I might have imbued a few of my characters with too many cool aspects, that said, at least I used them and heaped on the flaws too.

    This is a great page, glad I stumbled on it. Keep fighting and writing!

  11. Good timing on this one.

    I cowrite with a friend, and I just yesterday I went into our joint notes document and wrote a a line that said “remove all the parts about Character X doing Y, because nothing ever comes of it, later. …and ten chapters later I think it’s stupid.”

    I wanted to tell him I knew it was useless before he figured it out and had to tell me. 😉

  12. (Found your blog recently and love it!)

    Symon is both overly protective and overly trusting. I think this is most interesting because it puts him in tricky situations where he’s sometimes trying to protect the wrong people, the ones who can’t be trusted. Imagine stepping in front of someone to keep them safe without even considering that an enemy might be at your back.
    The hard part is, I can’t let him realize this trouble too early on, else he wouldn’t have these traits at the climax in book 3. My current thought is to let the traits grow with him and become more and more of an issue as the trilogy progresses.

  13. Another problem with giving a character pointless “cool” traits is that it can make you look like you’re trying too hard.

    Probably my favourite trait for my main character is that she’s very protective of those she cares about. She’s generally level headed, has a good sense of humour and has a tactical mind. When you threaten, attack, try to kidnap or worse yet, kill someone she loves, she loses all of that. That’s when she’s most dangerous, and although her rages sometimes put herself in danger, most people won’t last very long against them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very true. We want cool traits to be an inherent part of the character, to the point that neither the person nor the story would work without them. Otherwise, the traits are too random to really fit.

  14. I do not know whether my character’s traits are cool or not. My lead character never gives up. She looses an eye and it costs her. She looses a close friend and it almost breaks her. However, she always manages to get to her feet again and carries on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Does she get a patch? That’s always cool. 😉 Seriously, though, she sounds like a resonant and empowering character.

      • Yes, she has an eyepatch. And that was before I saw Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. I created an image of her with a 3d programme but I do not know whether you like links to other sites on your website.
        Moreover, while writing a scene in which she overhears a conversation between two other characters, she reminds them: “I’m half blind, not half deaf.”
        I never planned to write that, it just came up.
        Sometimes writing is great fun. Sometimes it is, well, a burden but I’m so glad that finally I am able to give my characters a voice. I do not know if I ever get published but for the moment – to quote Teddy Roosevelt – I am willing to “fail while striving”.

  15. It’d be nice to see a character archive. Present their traits, flaws, strengths, weaknesses, impact on the story etc. What impact they had on us, emotional response.

  16. I’m not really sure what you mean by a ‘cool’ character, though it seems that most of the correspondents on here are fantasy writers. The references sound to me to be ‘fantasy’ characters and books/TV/Movies, although none were familiar to me as it’s not a genre I read from choice. (I have edited a few fantasy books for my publisher, but of course as new novels, they weren’t familiar titles).
    I write series ‘crime’ fiction (for want of a better term). I like my characters to be ‘real’ in that they are believable and their character traits are based on people I’ve known. Yes, they have their flaws, as do we all, and that is to me the essence of creating good characters.
    My main protagonist is a high end prostitute, who also happens to be a biker. Her partner/sidekick is a guy who has a private income from a business he owns (but which is run by a manager) whose enjoys meaningless recreational sex in ‘massage parlours’ (as they are called here in the UK) at the cheaper end of the market. Despite their dodgy background, these are the good guys with many redeeming aspects to their make up. Both characters were actually based on real people, though as a composite – more than one real person’s details have been combined into each of these.
    My police characters, that the couple and their other friends interact with, have been checked over by real serving or retired police officers for accuracy, as like anything in my novels, I like to get the details believable. Get the facts right, and the reader will believe the fiction.
    My ‘bad guys’, or antagonists, are not always entirely bad. In fact, unless they’ve appeared in earlier novels, the reader won’t immediately know that they’re bad guys. Even then, most of them have been given characteristics that make them likeable… at first. – A bit like real people then, right?
    For me, a character’s back story doesn’t present a problem. They all get one. If it doesn’t really get used in the plot straight away (with a new character), it’ll be used in later novels (even the characters that become victims.) so they all get well constructed histories with families/friends of their own. I tend to use minor characters from one book as more important ones in a later one (and vice versa). Occasionally this requires me to go back into an earlier novel (awaiting publication) to add some detail that becomes relevant to the later book. I changed the age of a very minor character in one, so that she’d be suitable for her major role in the ‘three years later’ sequel. Of course, once a book has been published it has to stay the same, but due to the time it took originally to get a publisher, I now have four books ‘ready to go’ at present that I could alter if needed, as long as I liaise with my publisher and send him the amended MS.
    Maybe ‘cool’ characters are more for younger fiction… if fiction has age ranges. I’m old anyway, though I still think like a teen to twenty something… but it’s a teen to twenty something of the sixties and seventies, when we still ‘did’ things, rather than simply ‘consume’ them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      By “cool,” I just mean an character trait that is out of the ordinary in an interesting way–which would definitely seem to apply to your characters, in a positive way.

      • Thanks for the compliment. Like every writer, yourself included I’m sure, I try to keep on the ball. The last novel written revolves around a weight loss scheme involving some unusual research programmes. When pornographers and drug dealers get involved, and the Sicilian organised crime families take an interest, then murder seems to become inevitable. I had a lot of fun with some of those characters.

  17. E.R.Amiama says:

    This is part of my last novel. I mention some “cool” characters:

    I want to do a different work to which I have outlined above. My debut was a revamped version of Macbeth. By chance, this is a tragedy about treachery and ambition. Besides misadventure is not as great as in the great Shakespeare, the most original in it, is that the actors perform in the XXII century. To give a tinge of comedy, I have drawn two men who suffer from OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder and also that one of them is a vampire, but not a psychopath.

  18. Very thought provoking. Liked how you explained this.

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