What is “character”?

Character is a slippery topic. Do a Google search on character and you will find dozens of different definitions and concepts of character. Many of these focus on moral qualities, such as trustworthiness, honesty, loyalty, courage, etc. But these qualities, while they may contribute to character, do not really capture the essence of what having character actually means. After all, each of these qualities are highly subjective; for instance, what it means to have courage to one person or culture may be entirely different to another. And loyalty is problematic as well, as sometimes we are caught between conflicting loyalties.

So how can we define character?

If character cannot be defined in terms of distinct moral traits, then how can it be defined? I propose that character is best defined by behaviors, and the outcomes of those behaviors. More specifically, I think the best definition of character I have come across is doing what is necessary to achieve a goal.

This definition is devoid of moral judgment, which as mentioned above is not absolute. When we really think about character we think about accomplishing goals in the face of adversity. In sports, a team is said to “have character” when they overcome overwhelming odds to achieve victory. In combat we say a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine displays character when they stand in the face of superior firepower and risk their own lives to save others or to accomplish a mission. In school, a student is said to have character if she studies hard in a difficult topic to pass an exam.

I propose that this same definition – doing what it takes to achieve a goal – applies in life in general.

Morality revisited

For some, this definition may be offensive to some degree because it has no overt moral base. Some may say that in each example above their are moral traits being exhibited; e.g. loyalty, courage, dedication. I do not argue this is not the case. As I mentioned in the beginning, moral traits may contribute to character. But in my view they do not define character.

What defines character is seeing the goal, and striving at all costs to achieve it. In the process of striving to achieve the goal, a person may suffer greatly, sacrifice greatly, and have to make tough choices. The ability to endure in the face of these adversities, and make the right choices, is what real character is about… not abstract or subjective notions of morality.

What do you think? Please comment!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • subpixel December 28, 2011, 11:11 am

    Your definition of character seems aligned with determination, stubbornness or bloody-mindedness, perhaps even ruthlessness; even more specifically than that, as a trait which might only apply to someone who, through determination, etc, has actually achieved success. The same striving, dedication, determination, etc, might be called folly in someone who has not found success or is not perceived as likely to find success, and would not reasonably be considered ‘character’ if it was success achieved by exploiting or harming others (except, perhaps, by other ruthless people, psychopaths, etc).

    • Chris December 28, 2011, 11:16 am

      Hi subpixel,

      Thanks for posting. I think that a concept like character probably has many aspects, and is inherently difficult to operationalize or measure. I don’t think that striving is aligned only with those who have achieved success. The willingness to strive and struggle on the road to success are part of my definition of character. I don’t think I implied that stepping over others is an aspect of character at all. There is an element of doing the right thing involved. Id be interested in hearing your definition of character as well.


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