Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Subtle (and Annoying,) Static Trait

Secret Weapon of the Clever Writer
The Static Trait is the small personal HABIT an individual character displays which reveals their personal Neurosis, their driving NEED, especially in stressful situations. This habitual or even ritual behavior acts as both their greatest source of trouble and the linchpin to their success. It's the individual character's “Accident Waiting to Happen”.

The most obvious place to find visible Static Traits is in both Comedies and Tragedies. These stories (and movies) RELY on their characters' Static Traits to linchpin the plot.

What made Laurel and Hardy so funny, were the little neurotic habits -- the static traits -- that would appear under stressful situations. Abbot and Costello built whole routines on Bud Abbot’s little twitchy responses. The climactic scene in every one of their movies involved Abbot in a panic attack. You spent half the movie going “Oh no! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!...AH! He did.”

I don’t watch tragedies as a rule, but just about every Greek play I’ve read involves the Protagonist acting on their Neurosis, the emotional need they can't -- or won't -- control which brings them crashing down.
  • Pandora acting on her uncontrollable Curiosity – opened that box of ills.
  • Paris acting on his uncontrollable need for Love – picked Venus as the loveliest goddess in a contest with Hera and Athena, to gain the most beautiful woman in the world who was already married to a powerful warlord.
  • Oedipus acting on his uncontrollable need for Recognition – killed the king and married the queen, who turned out to be his biological parents.
  • Ariadne acting on her uncontrollable Pride - bragged that her ability to weave was greater than a goddess's and was turned into a spider.
  • Prometheus acting on uncontrollable his need for Revenge - gave fire to mankind and was thus chained to a rock to be eaten alive by buzzards for the rest of eternity.
In stories that are Not tragedies, this neurosis-based habit DOES cause their downfall, but also comes to their rescue at the Climax then CHANGES by the end of the story, quite literally Showing that the character has conquered their neurosis. 
The movie The Mummy was loaded with static traits.
Just about every single character in the movie had a static trait based on their personal neurosis – and either lived or died, because of it.

Evelyn’s (Evie) personal neurosis was her obsession with being an Egyptologist.
-- If it was a book, she had to touch it. Evie’s opening scene defined her character – she was filing books and knocked over an entire set of bookcases (rather like dominoes) because she simply HAD to put that book where it needed to be. The entire catastrophic release of the Mummy happened because she simply HAD to have (as well as open and read) the Book of the Dead.
-- Her Trait came to her rescue because her Habit allowed her to be able to Read ancient Egyptian, allowing her to be able to not only find the correct book to dispel the Mummy, but know which spell was the right one to use. She conquered her neurosis when she allowed the book to be destroyed.

Jonathan, her brother’s personal neurosis was greed. His static trait was kleptomania.
-- If it was small and shiny, he had to have it. His opening scene involved showing off to his sister his latest theft. Because of his habit for picking up shiny things, he never quite lost the object he stole – the key to the Book of the Dead.
-- His trait came to his rescue when he pick-pocketed the needed 'key' from the bad guys. However, he didn't conquer his neurosis. He walked out of that temple with a huge stash of gold.

Rick' O'Connell’s personal neurosis was that he was an outsider. He never quite fit in with whatever group he was with – even his fellow Americans.
-- His solution to everything, his static trait was “fight it”. He was constantly leaping into one fight after another. Evie met him while he was in jail for being in a brawl. In every scene involving an attack of some sort, he was the first one to dive into the fight.
-- His trait came to his rescue when he needed to go on a one-on-one battle with a supernatural creature without immediately dying. He conquered his neurosis when he allowed Evie to destroy the monster with a spell rather than trying to do it himself.

Beni’s personal neurosis was cowardice. His static trait was freezing in place and shivering.
-- He ended up working for Imhotep, because he simply did not have the guts to run away.
-- His trait NEVER came to his rescue, and in fact destroyed him.

Imhotep’s (the Mummy) personal neurosis on the other hand, was Obsessive Love.
-- He got into trouble and became the Mummy because he was in love with the pharaoh’s concubine. Everything he did was to get his one true love back from the dead. His static trait was his single-minded focus on regaining his lost love – at any cost.
-- Because Evie resembled his beloved, his neurosis made him grab for Evie -- which was his biggest mistake. If he had grabbed any other female, he would have gotten away with the resurrection of his beloved.

How to use this in Fiction…
Start with your character’s personal neurosis and pick a small habit that shows their personal neurosis in action. This Habit should get them Into as much trouble as it gets them Out of trouble, and it should be the lynchpin that either sets off or defuses the climactic scene

Having a hard time finding your character’s Personal Neurosis
 --  Try looking at your character’s core Motivation. What obsessive habit would define this?

In Walt Disney’s Beauty & the Beast
 -- Gaston’s motivation was his Selfishness. “I deserve the best!” This was reflected in his static trait of always looking in the mirror. Even when hunting the Beast, he stopped to look at his own reflection.
 -- Beast, in complete reverse of Gaston, utterly Refused to look into mirrors because his Original personal neurosis was exactly THE SAME as Gaston’s.

They were BOTH obsessed with their APPEARANCE. But then, the movie’s Premise was all about “Looking Beneath the Surface”.

In Erotic Fiction...
-- The Static Trait should be Sexual in nature.
  • A woman who wears skimpy clothes.
  • A guy who wears tight jeans and/or leaves his shirt open to the navel.
  • Long Hair on either gender. This IS a sexual trait!
  • Fur, Leather, or shiny Plastic clothing on either gender.
  • An oral habit such as licking the lips, biting the bottom lip, chewing on pens, sucking on lollipops, or even smoking.
  • Physically Touching anyone they speak to.
  • Posing provocatively instead of merely sitting or standing.
For another example...
-- One of my Static Traits is redefining difficult concepts into simple terms. This comes from my obsession to write as clearly and concisely as I can, and is motivated by my personal neurosis of Avoiding Reality – by creating fantasy worlds real enough to hide in. (grin)

Morgan Hawke


  1. Thanks so much for this! It's very helpful. And using The Mummy was a great example. At least it is for me as I very much enjoy that movie.

  2. I agree, using THE MUUMY makes it all very clear. Thanks for another great post, Morgan!

  3. For another example - One of my Static Traits is redefining difficult concepts into simple terms. This comes from my obsession to write as clearly and concisely as I can, and is motivated by my personal neurosis of Avoiding Reality – by creating fantasy worlds real enough to hide in. (grin)

    I was just googling in "static trait" and came upon your blog. I'm so glad I did.

    Lately, it's been kind of a static trait with me--to get just as confused as I possibly can. LOL

    I think you cleared some things up for me.

  4. Hey Pat,
    - I'm glad I could be of help. I LIVE to clarify.