A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Talking about “Character” in the Older Sense of the Word


While I love to read and (try to) write fiction, I also love philosophy and psychology. So when I see the word “character” pop up on my WordPress reader, Twitter feed, or other media sources, my eyes stop: and unfailingly, the word is referring to a character in a fictional book or movie, or to the process of developing strong fictional characters. I usually read the article or post anyway, because as I said, I like fiction, especially character-driven fiction.

However, I’m always slightly disappointed that I never hear the word “character” used in the older sense of the term—a person’s inner qualities, specifically in moral areas. Perhaps in churches and some educational settings the word is still used that way, but in most other public contexts, “character” refers to fictional characters we make up, not to the makeup of our inner selves. (And it’s also occasionally used as an idiom in phrases like, “He’s a character!”)

I understand why we don’t talk about “character” in this sense anymore, I think: political correctness, moral relativism, and individualism have tied our tongues. We don’t know how we can say anything about “character” without being hushed or ridiculed as judgmental, leftist, old-fashioned, or insensitive.

But I think it doesn’t have to be this way. I think we can still discuss individual ethics in terms of “character” and stay in sync with modern values. Why let dying philosophical regimes monopolize our language? We just need to create new, modern contexts for such discussion:

Old context: a crotchety old lady shakes her Bible at a young man and yells, “You need to develop some character, boy!”

New context: a group of friends discuss their different tendencies in the area of, say, compassion. One woman says, “I want to be a person of such character that people know that when they come to me, no matter who they are, I will treat them kindly and listen to them.”

Another friend replies, “Me too, but to be honest, I struggle a lot with having judgmental attitudes toward people. I hate that I do that.”

Another friend says, “I know, me too! I’ve actually been doing better with that though lately, and here’s what helped me…”

They swap ideas, praise each other’s strengths, and sympathize with each other’s weaknesses and limitations; they share a common goal of desiring clarity, fulfillment, and balance in their lives.

Unlike older times, modern “character” is not about measuring up to a perfect standard; it’s about being the best version of our own unique selves that we can be, given our limitations and circumstances. It’s about trying to be good neighbors, parents/family members, friends, workers, citizens, and people—and being “good” might entail different specific things for each of us as individuals, depending on our tendencies, circumstances, and a variety of other factors.

However, I will venture to guess that in the very basic things, most of us hold the same values, which have been hard-wired into us by evolution:

  • integrity/basic honesty with self and others
  • responsibility, follow-through, self-discipline, taking care of one’s own needs
  • kindness and awareness of others’ needs
  • interest in improvement and personal growth

When we couple these basic moral values with our added modern value of respecting individual differences without judgment, we can talk about “character” unafraid. We can praise and encourage the good qualities we see in each others’ characters. We can be honest about our character weaknesses and create an atmosphere of mutual support. We can discuss ways to nurture positive character qualities in children (assuming we have first discussed and taken care of their needs such as safety, food, love, etc.). We can use the term as we figure out new ways to get along together as social creatures. We can help ourselves grow into happier, healthier, and more all-around successful people by cultivating character habits that make our lives better.

I’m just idealizing here, though. I’m still thinking and studying about all this. And I’m hoping some of you might have some feedback!

One final thought: maybe making up fictional characters isn’t such a different thing from making up who we ourselves are going to be, after all.


4 comments on “Talking about “Character” in the Older Sense of the Word

  1. emilievardaman
    June 23, 2014

    I loved this, Sarrah.
    Character is something I think about now and again – often the fictional kind, but also the personal kind. I am one who attempts to have good character, and I try to associate with others who attempt the same.
    When I was younger and quite insecure, I simply wanted friends, friends at almost any cost to myself. When I looked at them, and at me, I realized one or both of us was actually using the other.
    These days I choose friends based on mutual enjoyment and that word, character. It is so much more satisfying to have true friends of good character!
    And I agree with you, there is probably something quite similar in fictional characters and the character I am trying to find in myself.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      June 23, 2014

      Great thoughts, Emilie! I think you’ve hit on a major truth—that the best and truest friendships happen when both friends aspire to have good character.

      Glad you liked my post. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. 🙂


  2. lucindasagemidgorden
    June 24, 2014

    I loved this post. I use the word character in the old fashioned sense of the word. As an actor, character has a double meaning, both the character you’re playing and how to express their “character”, or moral bent. Our individual characters determine how we’ll react or respond to things that happen to us. Such great food for thought.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      June 24, 2014

      Thank you, Lucinda! I hadn’t thought about the use of the term in the context of acting. That is a neat double meaning. I’m glad you are another who likes to use the word in the older sense. Thanks for reading and commenting!


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