Nov 03 2009
Your readers have probably read about heroes with any given positive trait, particularly if the trait is commonly associated with a protagonist in your type of book. (For example, a detective is almost always more cunning than a barbarian). However, this is not inherently problematic. If you’re writing a detective story, your protagonist is probably (at least somewhat) cunning because it wouldn’t be much of a detective story if he just bumbled through it Magoo-style. It’s not a problem that he’s cunning as long as you do something else to make sure that he feels fresh.
1. One way to make a character with a conventional trait (like a cunning detective) and take the trait so far it almost becomes a flaw. For example, Captain Kirk is so brave he’s reckless, Charlie becomes so smart he’s alienated, many lawyers are so slick they’re oily, etc.
2. Another way to make a character feel fresh is to give a trait or background that’s an unexpected match for the other. For example, we’ve probably already seen a few cunning detectives, but what about a cunning philanthropist? Daring soldiers are pretty common, but what about a daring archaeologist? A pensive boxer?
3. Make sure he has at least one flaw, a trait that brings him to a low point in the story and makes us genuinely wonder whether he will actually succeed. One possibility is a flaw that comes from a conflict between the character’s defining trait(s) and his background. For example, Captain Kirk’s low points often come when he leaps head-first into a situation that’s initially too much to handle.
4. I would recommend giving the character a voice that flows from his traits and his background. A pensive boxer shouldn’t sound like a cunning philanthropist, or even a pensive professor. If you want your protagonist to sound like a cunning philanthropist, you probably shouldn’t be writing the boxer. If the voice doesn’t come from either the traits or background, at least try to explain it in-story. (However, tacking on an unexpected voice may feel artificial– unless the character is supposed to feel unusual and/or alien, I’d recommend caution).