Every hero or heroine needs positive traits to not only make them likable and worthy, but also to see them through the tough times ahead in the story. No journey should ever be smooth, and the bumpier the road, the more the protagonist has to earn that happy (or at least satisfying) ending.
Yet like all things, positive traits have a dark side. Anything, taken to the extreme, will find its opposite, and this is something we encourage writers to explore using our Positive and Negative Trait Thesaurus books. There’s nothing better than the moral crossroads and conflict these extremes can bring into the story.
To see how our good friend & YA author Julie Musil has explored these positive and negative sides of character traits in her new novel, please read on!
Good character traits, right? Determined writers ultimately reach their goals. And we all appreciate a loyal friend.
But admirable character traits, when paired with the right story, can turn negative. In a good way.
In my latest YA release, The Summer of Crossing Lines, the main character, Melody, is determined to find her missing brother. She relentlessly follows breadcrumbs of clues. Here’s the rub: those clues, and her determination to follow them, lead her to do unsavory things. She crosses moral lines because her view has become skewed. She goes too far.
The love interest in the story, Drew, is a thief who’s trapped on the wrong side of the law. He’s loyal to his dad and concerned about his safety, which causes Drew to stubbornly carry out crimes he’s not proud of.
With both of these characters, their positive traits lead them down dangerous roads. How can writers move positive character traits into negative territory, while also creating a believable, entertaining story?
The Set Up
The first step is to set up the positive traits early. Melody stutters, and she’s determined to improve her speech. She’s determined to branch out and join the summer drama program. She’s a determined student.
Drew is a loyal mentor who plays basketball with younger kids. He’s loyal to his dad, who’s fallen on rough times. He’s loyal to the leader of a crime ring, who at one time came to Drew’s rescue.
Once the positive traits are established, we can then manipulate events to turn them negative.
Know Your Ending
Even if you’re not a plotter, you can re-write your beginning to make this work. I knew where Melody and Drew would end up–splayed out on a California freeway after a high speed chase. Once I knew the end game, I was able to establish a series of events that gradually moved them further and further over the line.
The trick here is to muddy the character’s viewpoint, which makes this unhealthy path seem necessary to them. When Melody infiltrates a theft ring, it’s reasonable to her. It’s simply a way to gather information and follow clues. With each crime she commits, she inches closer to her brother. She’s determined to find him, no matter the cost. When Drew commits crimes, he’s doing it out of loyalty. He’d rather break laws than break his word.
When Positive Traits Collide
These positive-turned-negative traits can bind your characters together. Brainstorm traits using the Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus. Which traits can your characters have that will bind them together through a crisis? Which traits can you assign your characters that will increase conflict? How can those positive traits turn negative throughout the character arc?
For instance, a generous person might allow others to take advantage of her–she gives too much away and finds herself desperately in need. Or a kind, trusting person may believe what other people tell her–she won’t see the lies and betrayal coming. These positive traits turned negative.
In my story, Melody’s goal is to find her brother. Drew’s goal is to repay an unholy debt. Their goals run parallel to each other, binding them together. Her blind determination and his blind loyalty trap them in a high-risk lifestyle without an escape.
It’s fun to play with character traits, working them against each other. And it’s fun to turn a positive trait into a flaw–especially when it leads the character down a twisted path.
Have your characters’ positive traits ever turned negative? Did you plan it that way, or did it happen by surprise? Any tips you’d like to add? Please share!
Julie Musil writes from her rural home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She’s an obsessive reader who loves stories that grab the heart and won’t let go. Her YA novels The Summer of Crossing Lines and The Boy Who Loved Fire are available now.
The Summer of Crossing Lines:
When her protective older brother disappears, sixteen-year-old Melody infiltrates a theft ring, gathers clues about his secret life, and falls for a handsome pickpocket. At what point does truth justify the crime?
(Click HERE to add this book to your GOODREADS list!)
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.