Apr 09 2008

6 Problematic Character Traits (and how to use them like you want to)

Published by at 3:54 am under Character Development,Writing Articles

These six character traits will probably make your readers groan… but they don’t have to! Find out how to turn self-guilt, rebelliousness, moral perfection, dishonesty and intelligence into winning character traits.

1) Overwrought Self-Guilt

Some characters have horrible guilt-trips about things that are completely beyond their control. If you’d like to make a character feel guilty, it will feel far more powerful if he has actually done something that a reasonable person might feel guilty about. Giving him a genuinely hard judgment call to struggle with may add some emotional complexity, particularly if we can relate to his struggle. In contrast, people that fret over nothing usually come off as whiny and unconfident.  

2) Unpunished Rebelliousness

Sometimes, characters will tell their cruel, unfeeling bosses where they can shove it. (Judging from police dramas, heroic detectives do battle with hardass lieutenants in every metropolitan police department). Very rarely are these characters fired, though. If they are punished at all, they are usually portrayed by the story as victims of their cruel boss. To say the least, this is highly unrealistic.

Realistic conflicts usually feel more satisfying. Your character’s actions have to have consequences. If he is gratuitously untactful, he should be fired or otherwise punished. If his supposedly mean boss just sits there and takes it from the underling, we will wonder what rules are guiding your world and whether this boss was ever actually mean to begin with. We won’t be impressed if your protagonist “wins” an unsatisfying and unrealistic confrontation with his boss. On the other hand, we will love him if you show how he subtly sabotages his boss and tries to expose him to the police chief as an incompetent vainglory. That will make him look like a real stud.

3) Perfection

Are we supposed to sympathize with every single thing your character says and does? Hopefully not! Characters that are perfect usually don’t feel real.

One way to determine whether you think of your characters as perfect is looking at which characters disagree or conflict with your character. When the boss objects to your hero’s plan, is it because the plan has serious flaws or because the boss is a nasty, self-serving bitch? Generally, if you want readers to regard everyone that disagrees with your hero as some sort of obstacle or antagonist, that’s a clue that you’re portraying the hero as perfect. Perfect heroes usually lack moral depth and realistic traits that readers can relate to. Ironically, it is very hard to like perfect heroes.

4) Dishonesty and/or Unreliability

If a character gives us information that is dishonest or otherwise incorrect, it will really confuse us. If you absolutely have to have a character give incorrect information to the readers, it will help if you provide us some sort of cue beforehand. For example, if John boasts that he once dated a Victoria’s Secret model, someone might challenge him by asking “was she before or after Heidi Klum?”

Dishonesty generally confuses readers less when they are prepared for it. As a rule of thumb, readers will only expect dishonesty if 1) they have been specifically cued to it or 2) a character has been accused of a serious crime or misdeed. If a character is in a murder trial, of course he’s going to say he didn’t do it.

5) Natural-Born Killers, Casual Psychopaths and Other Unintended Consequences

Many (most?) superhero stories want to portray their hero as the next Wolverine: a tough guy who’s super-cool and ready to roll. They do that by having him kill someone, usually a biker in a bar fight. The unintended consequence is that the “hero” comes off like a psychopath, someone who kills pretty casually (“bub!”).

More generally, you should always think about how readers might interpret your character portrayals. When you have Wolverine stab a police officer (like in X-Men 2), will he seem like a well-meaning rebel or a vicious killer?

6) Intelligence

Intelligence is problematic for two unrelated reasons. First, it is very hard to write a character that’s smarter than you are. If you (the author) can’t devise ingenious solutions or witty quips, it will be very hard to write a character that can. Second, readers generally have higher expectations for an intelligent character than, say, someone who’s strong or diplomatic. For example, in Soon I Will Be Impossible, few readers complained that Dr. Impossible beats up the strongest man alive. But many readers complained that Dr. Impossible, who is supposedly a supergenius, is actually a total idiot. For example, he decides to attend a superhero’s funeral that is swamped by superheroes and then is surprised that one of them picks him out of the crowd. Also, Impossible talks like he’s Napoleon Dynamite.

I really sympathize with the author’s attribution of some stupid choices to Dr. Impossible, though. If Dr. Impossible had actually been 100% intelligent, he wouldn’t have gone to the funeral, wouldn’t have been identified by the heroes and wouldn’t have fought them there. Frequently, stupidity is interesting and it’s easier to develop a plot when you’re not constantly asking yourself “what would a perfectly intelligent person do here?” Consequently, we might say that intelligence is something that’s likely to constrain your plot and character development.

One final note on intelligence: readers will complain when a character acts dumber than he should but they rarely notice when a character is uncharacteristically smart. I’m not sure why this is, but this is another reason to avoid portraying characters as extremely intelligent: portraying a character as smart has costs but few benefits. A smart character cannot act dumb, but a character of average intelligence can act either smart or dumb.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “6 Problematic Character Traits (and how to use them like you want to)”

  1. Luna Jamniaon 10 Jul 2009 at 5:26 pm

    This is waaaay late, but …

    “make a character feel guilty, it will feel far more powerful if he has actually done *someone”



  2. FarawaySoulon 10 Jul 2009 at 5:38 pm

    I’m wondering whether a lack of motivation would be a bad trait to pick. Such as being a superhero because it gives him/her something to do, not because he/she cares about the people he/she protects or feels a duty to do so.

    I personally think it would be unique and interesting, but I’m not sure what other people might think about it. Would it make people dislike that character?

  3. FarawaySoulon 10 Jul 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I didn’t get what you meant by making it urgent. What is ‘it’?
    Sorry :/

  4. B. Macon 10 Jul 2009 at 8:56 pm

    I think a lack of motivation would be problematic. If the character lacks motivation, what’s going to stop him from walking away from the plot as soon as the going gets rough?

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