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Defining Character

Updated on October 2, 2012

Defining character isn’t easy since it’s an intangible, abstract thing one can’t physically see with the naked eye. One dictionary defines it as “the complex of mental and ethical traits marking a person.” Another says “…the stable and distinctive qualities built into an individual’s life which determine his or her response regardless of circumstances.”

Everyone has character. People sometimes say “He has character,” generally meaning he is ethical, morally upright and can be trusted.

When someone is a character, it means he could be funny, awkward, interesting, ridiculous or unique. But he has a distinctive personality that sets him apart from others and has good character.

And if there is good character it stands to reason there is also bad. Since most probably know what constitutes bad character, we won’t delve into that arena.

Many famous and not so famous individuals throughout history have also given a shot at breaking it down. Abraham Lincoln said, “Reputation is the shadow. Character is the tree.” Most would agree that’s a good analogy. But there have been many others equally astute.

If one was to make a list of good “character traits,” It would invariably include honesty, integrity, dependability, loyalty, enthusiasm, etc. Of course, each of these can be broken down into even smaller elements, For example, defining honesty would no doubt include words such as truthfulness, dependability and diligence. And many others could be added to the list such as:

  • Compassion
  • Determination
  • Discernment
  • Discretion
  • Enthusiasm
  • Loyalty
  • Meekness
  • Morality
  • Patience
  • Gentleness
  • Responsibility
  • Self control
  • Sincerity
  • Tolerance
  • Generosity
  • Humility

This is just a short listing of good character, but one can get an idea from it. Here are a few quotes on the nature of character by famous Americans:

  • George Washington: "Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder."
  • John Adams: “The people have a divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge. I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers."
  • Dwight Eisenhower: “The qualities of a great man are "vision, integrity, courage, understanding, the power of articulation and profundity of character."
  • James Madison: "Respect for character is always diminished in proportion to the number among whom the blame or praise is to be divided."
  • Richard Nixon: "With all the power a President has, the most important thing to bear in mind is you must not give power to a man unless, above everything else, he has character.”
  • James Cannon: The ancient Greeks believed character was formed in part by fate and in part by parental training and character was exemplified not only by acts of bravery in battle, but in the habits of daily conduct.”
  • Mark Twain: “To arrive at a just estimate of a renowned man’s character one must judge it by the standards of his time, not ours.”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops, but the kind of man the country turns out."
  • Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany, late 19th century: "Politics ruins the character."
  • Helen Keller: "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved."
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character, that’s the goal of a true education."
  • Horace Greely: "Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wing and only character endures."

What exactly is character? Most would agree it’s an attribute, certain set of habits, qualities or attitudes that form the basis upon which others judge you. It can have positive or negative associations.

For someone to describe a person’s character, they would have to include all aspects of their personality, including physical appearance, social habits, strengths and psychological reactions.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Avian, but what if I have no habits? ;-)

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, habits truly are what character is.