November 26, 2013

7 Tips for Using the Trait Thesauri — Guest: Becca Puglisi

Covers of the Positive and Negative Trait books with text: Writing Tips with the Trait books

I have a special treat for everyone today! I’ve mentioned many times that I love The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (of The Bookshelf Muse/Writers Helping Writers fame) for expanding my “showing vocabulary” when it comes to character emotions.

A few weeks ago, I shared how their new books, The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus, contained tons of new character development tips that I’ll definitely be using for character creation. But I wondered if the new books could be used during the drafting or editing stages too, like how I use the ET on a near-daily basis.

Angela and Becca answered my call for help, and Becca is here today to share her tips for how to use the two Trait Thesauri books during all stages of writing, not just for character creation. (*psst* This is a long post, but a keeper—and read all the way through for a giveaway.) Please welcome Becca Puglisi!


Using the Positive and Negative Trait Thesauri during Drafting and Revision

First off, let me start with a great big pom-pom shake for all the NaNo’ers out there! I’ve always wanted to participate, but since November is a terrible month for me, I’ve decided to do my own NaNo in January. I’m super excited to work on my story idea, one that started with the good ol’ What If? scenario.

My stories are, without exception, plot driven. And yet, as a reader, it’s not the plot that holds my interest. It’s the characters.

This is why I believe that for a story to succeed, you’ve got to get the characters right. For readers to connect, the characters have to be believable, relatable, and consistent.

This is one of the reasons Angela and I chose to follow up The Emotion Thesaurus with a resource on character traits. Our books, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws, are geared to help writers build strong, realistic characters.

These books can be quite helpful in the creating and outlining stage; this post from Davonne Burns is a great tutorial on how to use them to create characters during the planning process. But these resources can also be helpful during the drafting and revision stages.

So if you’ve started a story—or even finished one—and you realize that you need to beef up your characters, I’d like to share some tips on how to use The Negative and Positive Trait Thesauri to get the job done. For clarity, I’ve included a partial excerpt from the the Negative Trait volume at the end of the post for the extravagant trait. (Pssst: The fields referenced below can be found in the entries of both books.)

During the Drafting Stage

  • Build CONSISTENCY by using the Associated Behaviors and Attitudes field.

This field contains an array of possible actions and reactions that might make sense for your character. Take extravagance, for example, from The Negative Trait Thesaurus. Associated behaviors and attitudes for an extravagant character may include lying to cover one’s expenditures, scorning money-saving methods, not taking care of one’s possessions, or being ignorant of how others live.

Tip: As a brainstorming tool, this field can help you come up with sensible actions for your extravagant character so you can paint a consistent picture of her personality.

  • Add INSIGHT by using the Associated Thoughts field.

Characters aren’t always forthcoming. They often try to hide their flaws or even their positive attributes from others. It can be challenging for us to show our characters’ true traits when they’re working so hard to keep them hidden. Thoughts, though, are unfiltered; they’re a great way to reveal to the reader who the character truly is.

Tip: Use this field to brainstorm thoughts that can add contrast to behavior and clarify for the reader who the character really is in his heart of hearts.

  • Add CONFLICT by introducing characters who clash (refer to the Traits In Supporting Characters That May Cause Conflict field).

Conflict is absolutely pivotal to a successful story; it’s one of the things that keep readers turning pages. One great way to add tension is to introduce characters whose traits conflict with the hero’s.

Tip: If you know your hero’s defining trait, consult the associated Traits In Supporting Characters That May Cause Conflict field to see which flaws and attributes may create the most fireworks.

During the Revision Stage

If you’re anything like me, once you’ve reached the revision process, you’ll begin to notice some issues with your character that need addressing. The Trait Thesauri can be a big help in fixing some of these common problems.

  • Add DEPTH to flat characters with the Negative and Positive Aspects fields.

Characters are rarely all good or all bad. Flaws have positive traits associated with them, and positive attributes can have negative elements. Tap into both the positive and negative sides of your character’s defining trait to add depth.

In the Positive Aspects field of the extravagant entry, we see that characters with this flaw are often generous; they’re frequently involved in fun and exciting events (like parties and expensive trips) that can add interest to your storyline; these characters can be highly social, life-of-the-party types, which may draw others to them.

Tip: To add layers to a flat character, explore both sides of his defining traits—the positives and the negatives—and you’ll add depth without sacrificing consistency.

  • Make sure your character has a FLAW to overcome (refer to the Overcoming This Trait As A Major Flaw field).

While much of your character’s conflict will come from external sources, an internal conflict will add interest to readers, because while most of them haven’t had to defeat a dragon or dismantle a bomb, readers understand flaws and the struggle to master them. To increase the possibility of readers connecting with your character, consult The Negative Trait Thesaurus and choose a flaw that makes sense—one that the hero must overcome by the end of the story.

Tip: If you’re not sure how to help him defeat that flaw, the Overcoming This Trait As A Major Flaw field (which is only found in the Negative Trait volume) can give you some ideas.

  • Add ENVIABLE or LIKABLE traits to increase reader empathy with The Positive Trait Thesaurus.

While characters need to be flawed, they also need to be likable, admirable, or intriguing in some way. Traits like intelligence, wittiness, courage, and loyalty are largely admired and will resonate with readers.

This is where The Positive Trait Thesaurus comes into play. Look for qualities that make sense for your character and add them to her personality.

Tip: These positive attributes will smooth out the rough edges of your character’s flaws and increase the chances of endearing the reader to her.

  • Make your character more REALISTIC by understanding why he is the way he is (refer to the Possible Causes field).

Some authors make the mistake of randomly assigning traits without having a clear idea of why their characters embody these qualities. Attributes and flaws don’t just spontaneously appear; they form out of past factors. Environment, genetics, role models and peers, wounding events—all of these determine which traits a character will exhibit. If you’re not sure why your extravagant character is the way he is, check out the Possible Causes field of that entry for some ideas, then dig deeper.

One of the causes listed is “wanting to impress others.” Ok. Why does he have this need? Maybe it’s because he grew up in a family of overachievers who always stole the limelight. Maybe by throwing his money around, he gains the attention that he never received growing up.

Another possible cause: “the inability to say No to loved ones.” Why does this drive him? What happened in his past that makes it so hard for him to simply say No?

Traits don’t exist in seclusion. They emerge due to events and influences from our past.

Tip: Figure out why your character is the way he is, and you’ll be able to write him in a believable fashion.

I could write more on this subject, but it’s time to wrap things up. Angela and I have learned so much from the writing of these books. We really believe that they can be helpful at all stages of the writing process, and I personally can’t wait to put what I’ve learned into practice on my next project. Best of luck!


Sample (Partial) Entry from The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writers Guide to Character Flaws


DEFINITION: exceeding the limits of sensibility or need

SIMILAR FLAWS: excessive, profligate, wasteful

Great wealth
Equating the appearance of wealth with self-worth
Wanting to impress others
Ignorance regarding the value of finite resources
Wanting to make others happy regardless of the cost to oneself; being overly generous
The inability to say No to loved ones

Not keeping or not sticking to a budget
Letting someone else handle the finances
Being in financial debt; spending more money than one takes in
Throwing lavish parties
Spending large amounts of money on others
Not bothering with money-saving methods (coupons, choosing generic brands, etc.)
Not taking care of one’s possessions
Impulse buying, or purchasing things and then not using them
Throwing out perfectly good items
Taking expensive trips
Making excuses for one’s decisions
Lying to cover one’s extravagance
Paying with cash and throwing away receipts
Manipulating spouses, parents, and others to get them to buy what one wants
Being wasteful with other resources (water, electricity, time, etc.)
Ignorance about how others live

I don’t need this but I have to have it. Money is no object.
I’ve earned a little spending spree.

ASSOCIATED EMOTIONS: anxiety, conflicted, defensiveness, denial, desire

POSITIVE ASPECTS: Many extravagant characters are truly generous at heart, wanting to share what they have to make others happy. Because of their willingness to spend money freely, they’re often involved in exciting activities: parties, vacations, shopping sprees, etc. This makes them life-of-the-party characters, and easily likable.

NEGATIVE ASPECTS: Though they might be popular, it is difficult for extravagant characters to tell true friends from scavengers. If there is an ulterior motive behind their wastefulness (insecurity, a desire to maintain appearances, etc.), they can easily fall victim to those willing to manipulate them. Resources are never infinite, and if extravagant characters aren’t careful, their waste can lead to financial ruin, affecting not only themselves but family members as well.

OVERCOMING THIS TRAIT AS A MAJOR FLAW: Extravagance is only desirable when one has resources to waste. When the resources run out, so must the wastefulness. But inconveniencing oneself isn’t always enough; characters can run into personal difficulty and still not change their extravagant ways. It’s more difficult to see one’s wastefulness affect loved ones in a drastic, traumatic way and not come away changed.

TRAITS IN SUPPORTING CHARACTERS THAT MAY CAUSE CONFLICT: cautious, jealous, resourceful, responsible, socially aware, stingy

Covers of all 3 Thesauri


Becca PuglisiBecca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Emotion; The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes; and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through WANA International, and can be found online at her Writers Helping Writers website.


Wow! Fantastic information, Becca. I can’t wait to try out these techniques. I love the DEPTH tip of using the Positive Aspects of a negative trait to show both sides with consistency. Thank you so much for sharing!

Now as promised, Becca will also be giving a PDF copy of one of the new Trait Thesauri (winner’s choice) to one commenter. To enter, just leave a comment before 5:00 Eastern Time on Wednesday, November 27, 2013.

Have you used the Positive or Negative Trait Thesauri yet? Did you use them just for character creation, or do you have other tips for using them during drafting or revision? What’s your favorite tip of Becca’s? Do you have any questions for Becca? If you win the giveaway, do you know which Trait Thesaurus you would want?

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Comments — What do you think?

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[…] and revision stages. So I’ve addressed that gaping hole in the writing blogosphere with a guest post at her blog. If you’re on the fence about the usefulness of this book or would like some tips on how to […]

Crystal Thieringer

I love all of this. I’m fighting with a character right now, and looking at it from this logical standpoint will work for me. I’ve only recently figured out what her story is–and that’s good because I’m planning on writing the whole next book about her. But she gets introduced in this book, and having this type of information is useful. I’ve not used these books yet, but the Emotion Thesaurus is getting more dog-eared every day. Thanks ladies!

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Hi, Crystal. Weirdly, I used to think that characterization was a strong point of mine because I was pretty good at showing my character’s traits and sticking to them. But I’ve realized that if you don’t put real thought into what those traits are and why the character has them, it doesn’t matter how good the writing is. Good luck! And I’m glad you’re getting your money’s worth out of the Emotion Thesaurus :).

Angela Ackerman

Great post–I hope this helps people see the possibilities. And…is it totally weird that I can’t wait to use these books myself? LOL, Like Becca, I have always been better with plot than character, and so I am greatly looking forward to applying what I’ve learned writing these two books as I turn back to my own fiction.

Thanks for having us, Jami! 🙂

Sharon Hughson

I’ve been so focused on getting the fast draft of my book done for NaNo that I haven’t even been thinking about craft books. I’m really thankful for this helpful post, though, because I don’t think I’ve been using The Emotion Thesaurus to its full potential.
I think I have more trouble making the negative flaws mesh with positive traits to make a character more likeable or more believable. Which book would help me most with this problem?

Diana J Febry

Some brilliant ideas there. I especially like the idea of conflicting traits in supporting characters. Thank you for the tips.

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Hi, Sharon! If you struggle more with adding in those positive attributes, I would suggest the Positive Traits Thesaurus. Each entry focuses on a positive trait and is similar in format to the ‘extravagant’ sample in the post, giving lots of ideas on how the trait can be integrated for your character. There’s also information in the front matter that explains why positive attributes are necessary for every character and how to go about choosing the right combination of traits for your character. I think that for the front matter alone, the Positive Attributes volume might be more useful for you. Best of luck with your NaNo novel!


Thanks for the post. I use the Emotion Thesaurus several times a week, but didn’t know about the new books. What a fab idea!

Rhenna Morgan

I loved the emotional thesaurus so much that I bought both of these the day they came out. Such an amazing value/help to any writer who values breathing depth into their characters.

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Oh, thank you, Rhenna! I’m always glad to hear that people don’t have buyer’s remorse when they purchase our books :). Best of luck with your writing!

Christina Hartmann-Benchoff
Christina Hartmann-Benchoff

As a blind writer the emotional thesaurus and now the positive and negative trait thesaurus are worth their wait in Gold! I love them and the emotional thesaurus is one of the best reference materials I’ve ever bought. I’ve put the two trait thesaurus on my Christmas list. Thank you ladies for all your hard work on these and please keep them coming!!!!

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Christina, you don’t know how happy it makes me that our books are being such a practical help. I must say that I hope Santa comes through for you ;).

Davonne Burns

As usual the advice is stellar. I may just print this off so I can refer back to it as needed. 😉 These books are amazing resources and mine now have a permanent home next to my computer.

And thank you so much for highlighting my blog post! I was able to follow up with a second one using the Positive Trait Thesaurus.

I will definitely be taking this advice to further improve my plot and characters!

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Thanks again, Davonne! If we ever need a publicist, I’ll give you first dibs on the job 😉

Davonne Burns

Thanks Becca! I’d love to help out however and wherever I can!


These ideas are great. I love character driven books and this would certainly help to beef them up. As I was following the articles included in the post I felt like a psychotherapist and profiler. That’s fun too.

I just finished my NaNo and omg, the editing it’s going to need as far as the MC. I just couldn’t make her interesting…which is pretty hard to do considering she’s a ghost! So yeah, these books might be just the ticket for fixing problem.

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Hi, Wulfie. Congrats on finishing you NaNo! What a great accomplishment. If you could get that done, I’m sure you’ll be able to tackle the edits with no problem. Have fun!

marilyn forsyth
marilyn forsyth

Well done, ladies. These books look brilliant! Can’t wait to check them out and recommend them to my writing group.

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Thanks for popping in, Marilyn 🙂


Hi Jami, Hi Becca!
I managed to successfully fast draft for NaNo and, while I had a good idea of the personalities of my main characters, I was writing mainly by instinct (leaving my logical mindset out of the creative process altogether). I’ll be revising the ms in December and the one thing I want to make sure of is that my characters are consistent and believable in how they act and in what motivates their actions.
So, I’m adding the Emotions Thesaurus, the Positive Traits Thesaurus and the Negative Traits Thesaurus to my arsenal of craft books wishlist – and I’m going to make this ms the best it can be! 🙂

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

So awesome, Lisa! I’m always amazed at you NaNo winners. You must be so proud (and relieved, lol)! Good luck with the edits!

Luanna Nau

I just hit the 48K mark on my NaNo story, and in celebration I pulled my copy of the Emotion Thesaurus from the shelf. Now that I know who my characters are, and have discovered an actual plot (hehe) I can have fun giving them fresh emotional experiences. I do have trouble finding the fatal flaw, so the new thesauri would come in handy.

Great post, as always!!

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Congrats, Luanna! You’re really charging! As we mention in The Negative Trait Thesaurus, we’ve found that most often the fatal flaw is a result of a past traumatic event—something traumatizing that the character never wants to experience again. And so a flaw develops. If you can figure out the wounding event, you can often logically figure out what flaw might develop. Best of luck!

Laura Pauling

Wow! Those are all fantastic! I love The Emotion Thesaurus and I have a feeling these are fantastic too!

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Congrats, Crystal, on winning a PDF copy of The Positive Trait Thesaurus! And thank you, everyone, for reading and commenting. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving :).

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

Crystal, if you can email me at, I can email you your copy :).

Crystal Thieringer

oh my goodness! I will enjoy!

Thanks so much, both for this informative post, all of the comments, and now this gift. I was kind of having a ‘boo, hiss’ kind of day, and this small blessing has completely turned it around.



[…] and sequels. Since good characters are at the core of most long-lived series, Becca Puglisi gives 7 tips for using the Trait Thesauri in the early stages of writing and crafting your […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hmm, is it true that ALL personality traits have a reason (genetic or environmental)? Just put that question up there as a psychology major who likes to ask questions about things like nature vs nurture, lol. Could there be things in your personality that are neither inherited from your parents nor shaped by your environment? I don’t have an answer to that question yet, unfortunately, haha. But it’s interesting to think about as a psychological question, lol.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

I’ll think about my own personality traits for now, and I’ll tell you if I find something that seems to have no explainable origin. It’s likely that it must be either genes or environment or a combination of the two, but I don’t know. You never know. 🙂 I’m one of those people who believe that anything is possible, so I will keep my eyes open for anything that seems to contradict what we currently know in psychology. Not a helpful comment, I know. But I’m feeling very curious and speculative today. ^^ (Blame it on the psych student in me for pondering these strange questions, lol.)


[…] couple of weeks ago, Becca Puglisi, one of the co-authors of the fantastic Thesaurus books, shared her tips for using the new The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus books. Her advice […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hi, just wanted to pop in again and say that I just bought the positive and negative trait thesauri! Wow, I must say I LOVE these as a psychology student! These entries (esp. the “possible causes” part of each trait) are really fascinating to a person who is as obsessed with personality psychology as I am. ^^ So thank you so much, Angela and Becca, for writing something so helpful and insightful for both us writers and psychology enthusiasts! ^^

About the gender identity topic again, I recently read an article talking about this, saying that femininity and masculinity are not opposite sides of a pole. If you are more feminine, you are not automatically less masculine; and if you are more masculine, you are not automatically less feminine. You can be high in both or low in both; they are independent. Masculinity and femininity are separate arenas. I quite like this point! This explains why one can be happily androgynous too, lol.

RoseAnn DeFranco

Excellent blog post. I found the Emotion Thesaurus an invaluable tool mainly used in the past during the editing stage. I’m in the process of crafting a new series and feel like I’ve found a treasure with two more supporting books.

Thank you!


[…] Use the Positive and Negative Trait Thesauri to gain insight into our characters’ flaws, traits, behaviors, etc. (Here’s a list of traits to use during brainstorming.) […]


[…] These books, cousins to the Emotion Thesaurus above, are great tools for creating three-dimensional characters. Check out the guest post by Becca (one of the co-authors) for more about how these books can be used in our writing. […]

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