What is Character?

Character is the most basic component of life, it shapes our personality and allows us to interact with others. Across all cultures in every society character has always been a key value for people.

“What is character of a person?” is a question that has been asked many times. Character refers to the moral quality of a person. A character can be noble, or ignoble. Read more in detail here: what is character of a person.


We’ve chosen to reprint a vintage essay each Friday to assist our younger readers discover some of the greatest, evergreen jewels from the past, with our archives currently totaling over 3,500 items. The original version of this story was published in June of 2013.

Character. It’s a term we take for granted, and presumably have an affection for, but one that we struggle to explain and describe, much like honor. It’s a term that most men want to be associated with, but the criteria for achieving it are still a little hazy in today’s world.

It’s not a term that’s used as often as it formerly was. Warren Susman, a cultural historian, studied the growth and decline of the notion of character, documenting its appearance in literature and self-improvement manuals and guides of various periods. What he discovered is that the word “character” was first used in the 17th century and peaked in the 19th – a century that, according to Susman, reflected “a culture of character.” “Character” was a prominent term in Englishmen and Americans’ language throughout the 1800s, and men were described as having strong or weak character, excellent or terrible character, a lot of character, or no character at all. Young people were encouraged to develop actual character, lofty character, and noble character, and were persuaded that character was the most valuable asset they could possess. Susman saw, however, that the ideal of character started to be superseded by the ideal of personality at the turn of the twentieth century.

Character and personality, on the other hand, are two very distinct things.

As society transitioned from producing to consuming, people’s perceptions of what it meant to be human started to evolve. People had new means of developing their identities and presenting them to the public thanks to the emergence of psychology, the advent of mass-produced consumer goods, and the increase of free time. People started to express themselves via hobbies, clothing, and other goods instead of cultivating virtue. “The vision of self-sacrifice started to surrender to that of self-realization,” Susman noticed as the substance of self-improvement guides shifted from moral imperatives and labor to personal fulfillment: “The vision of self-sacrifice began to succumb to that of self-realization.”

While 19th-century (and some early-20th-century) advice books focused on what a man was and did, the new advice manuals focused on what others believed he was and did. Good behaviour was supposed to flow from a noble heart and mind in a culture of character; with this transformation, perception surpassed inner purpose. Readers were taught how to be charming, keep their voices in check, and create a good first impression. Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People is a superb illustration of this. It was more concerned with how to make others like you and how to make others think good of you than than how to develop your own internal moral compass.

The change from a culture of character to a culture of personality, according to Susman, was ultimately about a shift from “achieving to performance.” While the words most associated with character in the nineteenth century were “citizenship, duty, democracy, work, building, golden deeds, outdoor life, conquest, honor, reputation, morals, manners, integrity, and above all, manhood,” the words most associated with personality in the twentieth century were “fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant, and forceful,” according to Susman.


There’s nothing wrong with developing one’s personality, and we’ve provided lots of tips on how to do so on our site. It may assist you in navigating the world, forming connections, and achieving your goals. Personality, on the other hand, is no replacement for character, which should be at the heart of every man’s existence.

As a result, we’ll be delving into the actual essence of this widely forgotten concept today. We’ll do so by looking at late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century texts, when personality was still king.

What Exactly Is Character?

Character’s etymology is pretty revealing. The term derives from the Greek kharakter, which means “engraved mark,” “sign or impression on the soul,” and “tool for marking.” It also has roots in the words “to engrave,” “pointed stake,” and “to scrape and scratch.”

As Henry Clay Trumbull describes in 1894’s Character-Shaping and Character-Showing, a character was formerly a stamp or marking impressed into wax or clay, and it acted as:

alternative term for the potter’s signature, monogram, personal superscription, or trade-mark, as indicative of the maker’s personality or the specific originality of the product marked, by the potter, painter, sculptor, writer, or any other artist or craftsman, or inventor. It is the visual mark that distinguishes an item from all other things with which it may otherwise be confused.

The term evolved to be connected with “the aggregate of attributes that distinguishes a person” in the 17th century. The intellect, thoughts, ideas, motivations, intents, temperament, judgment, conduct, imagination, perception, emotions, loves, and dislikes of a man were among these traits. “All of these elements lead to the forming and coloring of a man’s character,” William Straton Bruce wrote in 1908’s The Formation of Christian Character. They all contribute to the development of that last kind of self, that ultimate habit of will, into which the man’s whole actions eventually form.”

The balance of these elements inside each man’s spirit, and the way one or another predominates over others, is what distinguishes one person from another.

Character, on the other hand, should not be confused with personal interests, temperaments, and preferences. Character has very little to do with how you dress, your favorite music, or whether you are introverted or extroverted. Character is defined by how your habits, intentions, ideas, and other characteristics connect to morality, especially when it comes to integrity. Character was referred to as a “moral structure,” something you formed via virtuous action, and was characterized as “your moral self,” the “crown of a moral existence,” and the “crown of a moral life.” Bruce explains:

Character is a combination of nature and nurture. It is nature that has been cultivated and disciplined in order to bring natural inclinations under the control of the moral purpose. A man’s intrinsic personality distinguishes him from his peers via distinct and distinct distinctions. However, this individualism may be immoral. It must be disciplined and ordered into the framework of a truly moral person in order to generate character…


Above all, [character] is a decision, a fixed habit, or a bent of will that can be observed in one’s behavior. Character uses nature and temperament as raw material and weaves them into the robust, well-knit texture of fully moralized masculinity.

True Character’s Three Qualities

We now turn to James Davison Hunter, who outlined the three traits of authentic character in his recent book, The Death of Character:

Moral Consciousness

We cannot disagree about the importance of self-control, prompt and unquestioning obedience to duty, joyful contempt for hardship, and zest in difficult and arduous undertakings in our national character, qualities which, rightly or wrongly, we consider soldierly, which we attribute in such large measure to our forefathers, and which the moral exigencies of our national task today as peremptorily demand. Let us name these essential and elemental demands discipline and austerity to express them as clearly as possible. More of both is needed in the American character. – The Stuff of Manhood, Some Needed Notes on American Character, 1917, Robert Elliott Speer

Self-mastery — an individual’s dominance over his instincts and wants, such that he was in charge of them rather than the other way around — was the attribute most linked with character in the nineteenth century. Instead of being a slave to his base desires, a man of self-mastery embodies the kingship of self-control and can command his will and make his own choices.

Moral discipline is a trait that permits a man to not only suffer adversity stoically, but also to deliberately seek out a harsher, more austere existence, one that avoids the type of luxury that deprives character of vital training and leads to softness.

Moral Commitment

The growth of self is not the exclusive goal of character development. Susman defines character as “a set of features seen to have social importance and moral quality,” and he discovered that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description of it as “moral order via the means of individual nature” was the most famous statement connected to it throughout the nineteenth century. This means that the decisions made by each individual have an impact on the world around them, and that the survival of a virtuous society is dependent on the goodness of its individual members. Moral attachment entails a commitment to a set of higher goals and the willingness to act and, if necessary, sacrifice for the greater welfare of one’s society. Speer eloquently summarizes what this vital attribute of character entails:

Individual moral characteristics are inextricably linked to societal factors… When a man has ‘trained himself,’ to use Lord Morley’s words in dealing with Voltaire’s religion, ‘to look upon every wrong in thought, every duty omitted from act, each infringement of the inner spiritual law which humanity is constantly perfecting for its own guidance and advantage… as an ungrateful infection, weakening and corrupting the future of his brothers… as an ungrateful infection, weakening and corrupting the future of his brothers… as an ungrate And the fight for social justice and the perfection of human existence is basically a fight for the victory of values over selfish desires. Only in man can God take hold of mankind. He showed Himself and brought about salvation via a human incarnation rather than through a societal process. And the only way we know to improve the country’s life and equip it for its purpose and ministry is to change our own and other men’s characters, as well as ourselves, to be the kind of man among men we want the nation to be among countries.


Moral Independence

Character cannot emerge in an atmosphere where individuals are pushed to make ethical judgments. Character is the result of a man’s free will, judgment, discretion, and decision. A compelled choice cannot be a moral decision, and hence cannot be a character decision.

“Character, in a traditional sense, presents itself as the autonomy to make ethical judgments always in the interest of the general good and the discipline to adhere to that concept,” Davison says.

What Factors Influence Character Development?


Character develops via expression and deteriorates through restraint. Love develops as a result of its manifestation. Sympathy develops as a result of its manifestation. Knowledge develops as a result of its application. The creative sense develops as a result of its manifestation. The display of religious feeling develops the sentiment. Through expressiveness, the potential for education, administration, and command rises. The more a man accomplishes in any field of intelligent effort, the more he can do and the more of a man he becomes in that path. And abstaining from freely expressing love, compassion, knowledge, the aesthetic sense, religious feeling, or the capacity of education, administration, or command both restricts and diminishes that which is so suppressed.

Everyone has a responsibility to have and display a commendable personal character. It is necessary to demonstrate such a quality via expression in order to possess it. –Henry Clay Trumbull, Character-Shaping and Character-Showing, 1894. He who does not endeavor to express those traits and qualities which are the exhibit of an admirable personal character cannot hope to retain such a character, even if it were his by nature; and he who does endeavor to express them can hope to gain the character which they represent, even if he lacked it previously.

There are numerous things that etch our personalities into the clay of our lives, shaping them into a distinct collection of scratches and grooves for better or worse. From the moment we are born, our character is moulded by the environment we grow up in, how we are raised, the examples our parents set, religious and academic education, and so on. A life-changing disaster, such as the onset of a sickness, a serious accident, or the loss of a parent, child, or spouse, may significantly change our character. Such occurrences may either make a man bitter or cynical, or they might enable him to find previously unseen inner energy and sentiments of hope and compassion. A summons to assume the mantle of leadership amid a crisis or emergency — an event that challenges and exercises his physical and mental capacities — may also have a significant impact on a man’s character.

As Speer says, individuals with whom we associate have a significant impact on our personalities:

The exceptional impressions made upon us by casual acquaintances in our earlier life, and the quieter influences exerted over us by those with whom we are closely associated in later years — when our characters are commonly supposed to be fully and finally established — are the important elements of character-making — or character-shaping — that we are most likely to overlook or undervalue. If we could trace some of the characteristics that now distinguish us back to their earliest manifestations, we might discover that we owe their development not to the steady training in their direction that we received at home or in school, but to the sudden disclosure of their attractiveness in the life of someone with whom we were only briefly associated; or, alternatively, we might discover that the temptations that test us the most severely, and the evil thoughts and imaginitions that plague us, are due to the sudden disclosure of their attractiveness in the life of


Our personalities are not simply developed and influenced by our peers in childhood. The finest characters are continuously looking for ways to better and are always on the verge of failing. After a few years of marriage, many a husband seems to have been transformed by his wife, and many a women appears to be an entirely different person as a result of her husband’s influence. Perhaps it is a mature friend whose purity and nobleness, gentleness and grace, spirit of fairness and charity, or well-defined views on every point of ethics where he has a conviction, impress us with the correctness and beauty of his ideal, gradually influence us to his ways of thinking, and inspire us to strive toward his judgment and feeling standards.

Alternatively, personal contact, in social life or in business, with one of grosser nature, or of twisted and debased inclinations, lowers our moral tone and taints our preferences. Characteristics that had been suppressed in our nature for a long time emerge, while those that had previously differentiated us fade away. Our personalities are in the formative stage for as long as we live; and whether we are strong or weak, people whom we freshly come to know and appreciate, or with whom we are newly brought into close connection, are constantly re-shaping and re-directing our characteristics. A new ideal held before us, a purer, nobler, lovelier character plainly entering into our range of observation and study, is something to praise God for; for it may serve as an inspiration to us, and an assist toward the better and higher development of our characters than we have before understood.

As we can see, numerous things influence our character, some of which are beyond our control. But the single most powerful effect on our character is something we have complete control over: how we react to situations. The essential workout and test of a man’s character, according to nineteenth-century writers, was whether he would stick to his moral ideals no matter how tempted he was or how painful the consequences were. Henry Scott Holland says in Creed and Character, published in 1888:

Character must demonstrate itself to be free and above its surroundings at all costs. We label a guy without character if he is a product of circumstance; he has no self-identity since he changes with the changing hours, and character is what we use to identify a man. Character is alive and well only as long as it persists on carving out space for action among the flurry of events, and it perishes as soon as it loses its ability to remain detached from the surroundings. Character is the result of one’s attitude to a set of circumstances. It is the inner activity that meets and overcomes the shock of change and external events. As a result, it must arise from a self-directing existence.

Many men believe that character can only be developed via dramatic trials and crises. However, “that swarm of minute judgements that make the character is formed in the regular, habitual, hurried, routine actions of daily life.” We’d do well to keep in mind that we’re “being created every minute, and we can’t help it — you and me, as we walk and chat, eat and drink, marry and get married, work and play, go out and come in.”


As we assess and determine how to respond in a variety of situations each day, our actions create habits, and our habits build our character, as Speer explains:

Man moves from an intellectual condition to action and deed via his volition. And these mental processes aren’t just one-off events; they become links in a chain of events that take on a life of their own. The agent immerses himself in these actions, and in the process of knowing and willing, he is defined by his actions. The more he does the act, the easier and more delightful it becomes. And it is this combining of pleasure and volition that gives rise to the habitual inclination or bias to do something. As a result, we’ve discussed character as a willful habit.

What are the benefits of developing character?

Character men serve as the conscience of the community in which they live. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralp

Making the decision to become a man of character entails a more disciplined and less selfish lifestyle. So, why are you on such a difficult path?

Both classical and biblical civilizations thought that the health of the community as a whole was linked to the character of each person. The founding fathers thought that the citizenry’s dedication to live a life of character was crucial to the republic’s success or failure. “The stable character of our people is a rock to which we may securely anchor,” Thomas Jefferson stated. A republic’s energy is maintained by a people’s manners and spirit. A degeneracy in these is a canker that quickly eats away at the laws and constitution of the country.”

“Is there virtue among us?” wrote James Madison in a similar vein. We are in a terrible position if there isn’t one. No amount of imaginary checks — no amount of government — can make us safe. It is a chimerical concept to believe that any type of government would provide liberty or happiness without some sort of virtue in the people.”

Without individuals of character, there can be no trust or justice, and hence no genuine community or stability, as the founders correctly recognized. There is no genuine pursuit of happiness.

What is good for the collective is good for the individual. “Only hardness can build a magnificent soul,” as Speer puts it, and cultivating character provides us with the inner workout that allows our souls to grow:

Because the end of life is its relationships, and the wealth of life depends on the breadth of true knowledge and the riches of true relationship, it is only where we have gone that we know the way; it is only the life experience that we have passed through that gives us our true knowledge of life, because the end of life is its relationships, and the wealth of life depends on the breadth of true knowledge and the riches of true relationship. Life’s smoothness is just depressing since it hinders us from experiencing what life is really like…

The luxurious life is useless because it fails to link men and women to their true sources of strength and power. No strong man has ever been created in the absence of opposition. By putting in no physical effort, we generate no physical power. We develop all of our life power by striving against the odds. We gain power as a result of our efforts and extensive experience.


“A life of luxury and comfort makes men and women weak, with no power either to suffer or to accomplish for others,” Speer says.

We will regret that we do not have the power of self-mastery when we need it if we do not seek the power and strength that comes from establishing one’s character:

And in our own life, the simple schooling does not always go well. There comes a point when we learn that we can’t break the habit of constantly indulging ourselves; when we discover that we can’t break the habit of never taking our lives in our hands and dedicating them to the great missions of humanity. We discover that we follow our whims; that we follow any impulse; that we cannot stay to any work; that we do not recognize a principle when we see it; that we have no iron or steel in our character; that we are the riffraff of the world that the respectable men and women must carry along with them.

Character provides a type of freedom that may seem strange in today’s world, but which, at least for me, still resonates deeply:

Outside of one’s character, there is no such thing as freedom. As Montesquieu points out, liberty does not imply the ability to do everything we choose. The capacity to do what we should is defined as liberty. And the freedom we need is not the freedom of caprice and whim, nor the freedom to follow our instincts. It is freedom that allows us to see clearly what is right and then empowers us to act on it.

Speer also reminds us that, just as our chosen friends may shape our character, we can shape others:

We are the creators and directors of the personalities and traits of those we encounter or come into contact with. This concept should fill us with a feeling of increased responsibility and concern. What we are might answer the question of what a large number of people will be and do. Our lives and characters are infiltrating and assimilating into the lives and characters of people we’ve never met before, and their lives and characters are infiltrating and assimilating into ours. The development of their and our personalities is still ongoing.

Is our character having a positive impact on others and assisting them in developing their own power and strength? Are we doing our share to be a man of character and instill life into our culture and country? Every day, what grooves and lines are you carving into your personality? Our legacy is defined by our character; what will be yours?



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The “what is character traits” are the qualities that make a person who they are. Traits like honesty, kindness, and compassion are some of the most important characteristics to have in life.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you define character?

A: A character is the protagonist of a story, who through their choices and actions, helps to drive the plot.

What is character definition and example?

A: Character definition is a textual description of the values, behaviors, and appearance that make up an individual person. Example could be a woman in her late 20s with brown hair and green eyes who is wearing casual clothing.

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