10 August 2012

Working on Positive and Negative Character Traits

In job interviews the question I hate most is - tell us about your weaknesses.

Do you really want to know them? Can't I just tell you about my strengths?

The trick - according to me at least - is to describe a weakness that you're working on and can show progress, or (and this is my favourite) a weakness that could be considered a strength from a different perspective, and how you use it to best advantage.

I mentioned in an earlier post about putting off readers with super-hero characters who don't have any flaws. Most people can't relate to perfect characters, and therefore don't like or care about them. If we don't care about a character then we're not going to continue reading the book.

Very few people are all good or totally bad, and any characteristic taken to an extreme can turn into a negative. It depends on how we want to play it. 

For example, we might have an assertive character who is very vocal about everything, and who thinks the quiet character who doesn't like conflict is weak.  But we can turn this around if the non-conflict character quietly negotiates the terms they want. Quiet doesn't necessarily equate to weak.

A character trait isn't black or white, but can be any shade of grey (though that's a different book!). The trick is getting to know your characters, and understand what makes them act as they do.

In the book I'm working on at present, Tom, the main character, doesn't like making quick decisions.  This is a trait that annoys several of the other characters, and because he is also quiet rather than pushy, they come to the conclusion he is stupid.  Silly conclusion for them. 

Tom is the oldest son in the family, and though he is an adult he still feels this responsibility. This has shaped his character, and therefore his beliefs and actions. 

However, these traits and beliefs are also things that work against him, and form some of the change that occurs in his character.

A believable character makes decisions in keeping with what we know of them, or if they make an uncharacteristic decision we will see the reasons why they've acted in that way.  They move the plot forward because of their actions.

We need to know our characters better than we know ourselves - we often have blind spots about our own character traits!

Ask yourself questions such as:

* What events shaped your protagonist?

What do they want?

* What drives them?

* How do they feel about themselves?

* How does this impact your story?

* What would surprise your protagonist? Not just the large events, but the smaller things that round them out as a person and add depth.

Ask yourself the same questions for your antagonist.

Next post I'll talk about some of the tools I've found useful in developing both the positive and negative sides of character traits.

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